10 Essentials to Using Design Thinking in the Elementary Classroom


This summer I was given an opportunity to collaboratively design an internship that allowed elementary students to use design thinking. With goals to have our Junior CEOs think critically, collaborate, communicate, and produce creative ideas for Edcite, I knew we had to practice innovation through project-based learning (PBL).  Along with PBL, I’ve had to adopt the design thinking mindset, experimenting with new procedures and remaining open to the ideas of these young minds.  The Junior CEO internship has been a great teaching experience and a valuable learning experience for our students and myself.  You too can bring innovation and empowerment to your classroom with these 10 elements of design thinking.

1. Expectations:photo (12)

Design thinking is human centered, optimistic, experimental, and collaborative.

When presenting design thinking to elementary aged students I found it very important to define our expectations as design thinkers.   We all agreed that an ideal intern would be: (1) collaborative (2) optimistic and positive (we use “I likes” and “I wonders” to provide feedback) (3) experimental and celebrate both successes and failures (4) imaginative and (5) practice empathy.

2. Passion:

Spark passion with an exciting entry event.  Gain interest from your students by having an expert speak about an element of your project.

We began our internship with the founders and members of Edcite speaking at a school wide assembly.  They announced that they were seeking 15 student interns with strengths in the 21st century skills. The idea of having a job and working for an actual company sparked the interest of over 50 applicants in grades 3rd-5th.


3. Driving Question:photo (13)

A driving question sets a project’s purpose, fuels inquiry and lays down the first steps to help complete the final product. Student curiosity will then lead to a set of questions that students dive into before designing.

The driving question presented to our interns on the first day was, “Using design thinking, how can we help Edcite become a better website for students and teachers?”

The Need to Knows that emerged in the beginning stages of Junior CEOs included: (1) what is Edcite and what do they do? (2) what is “Design Thinking? (2) what do kids want from Edcite? (4) What do teachers want from Edcite? (5) How can we improve Edcite?

 4. In-depth Inquiry:

Guide students to continue developing questions, make connections, use resources and develop answers.

Our investigation began with a summer assignment, where students listed their favorite ipad apps or games and the reasons they enjoyed them.  The interns researched Edcite’s motto: empowering teachers, engaging students. The process of investigation lead to a mind map with various ways to make Edcite more engaging for students.

       IMG_0784    IMG_0762

5. Engage With Experts:

Develop partnerships with local businesses, or outside professionals who can showcase their career and provide some insight or help with your project.

IMG_0865Partnering up with Edcite provided many opportunities to learn about the many roles in running a software company.  Co-founder Amar Rajasekhar came into to speak to the kids about the start-up of Edcite and his role as a CEO in their U.S. office.  Software engineer, Tony Thomas paid the interns a visit, providing feedback to the students on their prototypes and presented about having a career in engineering.

One of the most memorable and personal experiences was the student’s connection with the Edcite staff in India. Mr. Rajasekhar showcased pictures of the facilities in Banglagore and the staff hard at work.  Junior CEO, Valentina wrote  “I feel really proud that people in India actually read our blogs and use our ideas. I think it is incredible and awesome. I really love that you guys use some of our ideas from our blogs to put into Edcite. I also enjoy that you are making Edcite better for people all over the world.”

IMG_06616. Build Empathy:

Provide opportunities for students to identify the challenge and discover the details of the problem. Provide them with strategies to reflect on the needs  and wants of others.

In order to build prototypes to teach the alphabet, the interns spent  time with 5 year olds on the playground, interviewing and discovering their behaviors. Before designing their ABC prototypes, Junior CEO’s produced a design statement using the frame: ________________(noun) needs ____________________________________ in a way that _______________________________. This statement helped the interns practice empathy and to think about needs of others throughout the design phase.IMG_0847

7. Critique, Reflection and Revision:

Provide many opportunities to give and receive feedback that is specific, helpful and kind.  Next, allow students to reflect on feedback in order to carry out their revision.

Critical friends is a protocol of project based learning that is familiar to the Junior CEOs.  We received feedback from students in different grades as well as teachers in efforts to build prototypes that were engaging to all students.

The Junior CEOs blogged about their internship experience everyday.  As part of this reflection, the interns looked to their feedback and made a list of revisions they would use on their prototype.IMG_0866

8. Encourage Creativity, Voice and Choice:

Students are given some freedom to the design and creation of their prototype.

The interns chose which element of engagement that they would like to create a prototype for.  Many design tools were introduced to the interns including applications, for drawing, presenting, developing games, and moving making.  Junior CEOs were given voice and choice on how to design and present their prototypesIMG_0636.


9. Collaboration: 

With respect, compromise, and the sharing of individual strengths, students can do more when they work together.

The interns were a great mix of students in both grade and skill levels. The individual talents and strengths continually complimented one another throughout the design thinking process. Through challenges and achievements, I encouraged the interns to respect and appreciate each other’s differences.  When we gathered every morning and huddled together before dismissal, the Junior CEOs understood that they were unified in making Edcite better for students.

10. Public Audience:

Allow students to rise to the occasion,  presenting their work beyond their classmates and teacher.

Junior CEOs collaborative presentation included a prototype pitch to Edcite.  Edcite staff listened to each presentation, giving feedback and presenting questions.  Parents and members of the community listened as the interns practiced their communication skills.




Ms. Melo (center) and the Junior CEOs celebrating birthdays and the end of a successful first week of the internship.

Sheryl Melo has been teaching for 11 years — 10 of which have been at Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose, CA. Mrs. Melo currently teaches 5th grade. She is on the Katherine Smith School Tech Team, a team that helps integrate more education technology. As Mrs. Melo says, “I get really pumped about technology that help me bridge the differences and challenges among my students.  I love tools and applications that  allows my students to  embrace their strengths and creativity.  I appreciate how technology gives us a platform to teach, connect, contribute, and make this world a better place.”




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