Mrs. Cook's Corner

Design Thinking

This week I will be focusing on ISTE Educator Standard #6 Facilitator, indicator 6c.

  • How can educators facilitate learning with technology to support student achievement?
  • Create learning opportunities that challenge students to use a design process and computational thinking to innovate and solve problems.

The end of the year, (usually after testing), is a time that I am able to have a bit of freedom teaching my students. This is a great time to to take what we have learned throughout the year and apply it to a project using design thinking.

Retrieved from

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a mindset and approach to learning, collaboration, and creative problem solving. (Teaching and Learning Lab, It is a way to get students engaged in the learning process. Below is a video created by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani that explains how they took the concept of design thinking and put it into student friendly framework in what they call the Launch Cycle.

Using the LAUNCH CYCLE in my class

Although design thinking is not meant to be a culminating project (Spencer, Juliani p. 219), I find that it is a great way to integrate concepts that we have learned throughout the year.

A project that I use to get students excited about design thinking is The Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Challenge (LEAF STEM Challenge). It is an inquiry-based project that challenges students to design, build, and fly an electric tethered airplane that carries the most cargo. The project takes about a month to complete.

Phase 1: Look, Listen, and Learn

In the beginning, students are introduced to basic aviation principles such as parts of a plane, forces of flight, and Bernoulli’s Principle. Students visit the Museum of Flight to participate in the Aviation Learning Center. (here is a link to the curriculum and extension activities associated with this field trip.) At the Museum, students are introduced to different types of planes, attend ground school, participate in a specialized lab learning about the science of flight, and fly in a simulator.

The Museum showcases all types of planes. Students come here and get an idea of what different aircraft can look like.
Ground School: Students are planning their flight from Seattle to Everett.
Students flying in the Flight Simulator.

Phase 2: Ask Lots of Questions

It is during this phase that students will begin to ask questions about the problem that they are trying to solve. How do airplanes achieve lift? What is an airfoil? What is high and low pressure? What kind of wingspan will be best for my plane? These questions will help them focus on what they need to research.

Phase 3: Understand the Process or Problem

In the research phase students will study how the shape of airfoils, wingspans, and wing shapes will impact the success of their tethered flight. We will study how the angle of attack is related to the stalling of an airplane. This phase will help them gather valuable information that will inform how they design the wings. They will research real-life aircraft and consider how it’s design might translate to theirs.

Students learn about airfoils and angle attack.

Phase 4: Navigate Ideas

In this step, Students will brainstorm possible solutions, generate ideas, explore possibilities, and design their wing. The key parameters to be considered are:

  • Wing span (no longer than 36″), the distance from tip to tip
  • Planform shape (rectangle, ellipse, trapezoid, or some combination or other shape)
  • Chord, the distance from the leading edge to the trailing edge (nose to tail)
  • Airfoil shape
  • Materials and construction method
Using ratios to make a scale model of the wing and empennage.

Phase 5: Create

Students will have made a sketch of their design, where they have identified the span and the chord. Having calculated the area (S) and the aspect ratio (A), students are now ready to put their plan into action. They will build a model. The process for building the model is:

  • Construct the main wing (draw design, cut, and sand according to airfoil shape chosen)
  • Construct their fuselage, landing gear, and empennage
  • Solder 18″ leads to the motor
  • Attach the propeller to the motor
  • Mount the motor to the fuselage
Students are sanding their wings in order to achieve their airfoil and optimal wing shape.
Students are soldering their motors to the leads.

Phase 6: Highlight and Revise

In this phase, students will determine what works and doesn’t work (Spencer, Juliani p 58). They are assessing their work in flight trials. They will collect data on how their plane flies, and how much cargo it can carry. It may be now that they realize that the wing is to too thick in front and they might need to go back and sand some more off. Maybe the balance is off and they need to make adjustments to the wing or landing gear. Maybe they want to add flaps or redesign the wing. This is the time to revise their model. Students will collect all of the data and write a summary of the process they took in creating their plane. Once they are satisfied with the results, it will be competition ready.

Students are testing their planes.
Adding cargo to increase the weight

Phase 7: It’s Launch Time

This is the final phase. Students will not only prepare to fly their plane, but they will be preparing for their presentations to people in the aerospace or engineering field. They will need to explain the process they took as well as defend the choices they made along the way. All of their work culminates in a grade level competition we have deemed, Flight Night. Students will showcase their work, their learning, and their passion for this project.

Flight Night

This culminating project engages students in the Design Process. It not only gets them excited about making something, but they get to apply what we have learned all year in a real-world situation. (Attached are the Standards associated with this project) We revisit ratios and proportions when creating the wingspan and the empennage, geometry when calculating the wing area, engineering and design principles, and anchor standards in writing and speaking and listening when preparing for their presentations.


If you are interested in finding out more about the LEAF STEM Project, they offer an educator’s workshop for you to attend this summer in the Seattle area.

  • Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. (n.d.). LAUNCH: Using design thinking to boost creativity and bring out the maker in every student.
  • LEAF STEM Challenge. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Design Thinking Master Course. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Spencer, J. (2016, February 14). The LAUNCH Cycle: A Design Thinking Framework for Education. Retrieved from
  • The Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking in the Classroom. (2018, October 15). Retrieved from
  • Exploring Design Thinking in the Classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Lang, M. (2017, June 11). How Hip-Hop Led Me to Design Thinking…and Got My Students to Think Bigger – EdSurge News. Retrieved from

7 thoughts on “Design Thinking

  1. Wow, Melissa – what an incredible project! I am so inspired by you and your students! This connects really closely with what Liz wrote about in her blog post around e-learning with Bloom’s taxonomy. I have a love for a sequence of steps and LAUNCH hits on so many crucial parts of student empowerment around their learning. Thank you for these ideas and for giving such a thorough example of how it can be done successfully!

  2. Wow! I wish I would have done this when I was in school! Also, it would have been even better because my dad works for Boeing. He always tried to get me into learning about aviation and engineering but I was never interested. I think it’s amazing your students have this experience and wonder if my own career path could have been opened if I had more of these opportunities in school. I love how you use the design process throughout this project. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Melissa, this is an amazing project and opportunity, and you did a really nice job explaining it and tying it to Design Thinking. Have you seen equal interest in this project by both girls and boys in your class? Have you seen it make a difference with student engagement in math afterwards? I’m with Kelli – this would have been so good for me to do as a kid. Thank you for this post.

  4. Melissa- I love this project! I have never heard of the LAUNCH cycle before and love how you took the steps of design thinking and implemented it into a classroom project with your students! I would have loved doing this type of project growing up! Honestly, I would still love to do a project like this!! It is so important to take what we are learning and implementing these skills into our classroom. I am always excited to hear about what project your classroom is doing next! Keep me updated! Thank you again for sharing your research and inspiring teachers to find new and fun ways to keep students engaged in learning!

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