Collab Lab 43: Prototyping with K-12 students – Recap & Notes

How should we introduce modern prototyping with K-12 students?

We’ve heard from engineering instructors in both K-12 and higher-ed that students too often focus on “getting the right solution”.  This leaves the students reluctant to experiment with alternative concepts that may not pan out.  This ‘solution focus’ also leads to disengagement from the problem– students seek what they perceive to be the safest path to the “correct” solution, and fail to devote the time and energy to build a deep understanding of the problem at hand. 

Our November 2021 Collab Lab provided an opportunity to explore how we might leverage prototyping and testing to shift students’ focus from perfecting a solution to perfecting their understanding of the problem (and how it might be solved).

Photo of Collab Lab attendees
Teachers and product designers discuss iterative design and prototyping with K-12 students during Learn Deep’s monthly Collab Lab workshop


The Student experience

After exploring the participants’ own experience with when something that didn’t go as expected and the assumptions behind that, we asked “How/where can we give students the opportunity to recognize and test the assumptions behind their design decisions?

Here’s what we heard

What they need

  • Problem solving skills
  • Opportunities for voice/sharing
  • How to work effectively within a team
    • Learning styles
    • Shared responsibilities
  • Space needed
    • Get out of the building
  • Natural connections
    • Real world application
  • To know the “why” behind the challenge
  • A purpose/project that can grow with them
    • they can carry on their work on the issue as they advance in school
  • Multiple Paths
  • Varied timelines
  • Varied instructions
  • Safe environment for hands-on experimentation 
  • Models and examples for inspiration
  • Education on both content and process
  • Comfort with design thinking process
    • Empathy
    • Design
    • Ideate
    • Prototype/Test
    • Iterate
  • The opportunity to test understanding/assumptions throughout that process– in particular at the earliest stage– their understanding of the problem.

When should this happen

Teachers following the school or district’s curriculum to ensure that essential concepts and topics are introduced during the school year. This leaves them little time to deviate from the main path. Knowing this, the teachers identified 4 opportunities to introduce these concepts to students. 

  • Continuous, at every step of learning
  • Integrated into lessons during the school year
  • After school programs
  • During student exchanges

Adjustments we can make

How and where are the opportunities to experiment so you as a teacher can gain experience. Here are the variety of options our attendees developed to could consider trying:

  • Integrate STEAM into all lessons
  • Participation in competitions
    • State science fair, etc.
  • Pride in school/team
  • Invite former students back as mentors
  • Revised grading system
    • Evaluate students on process, re-work, soft skills
  • Student self-assessment
  • Peer reviews
  • Frequent check-ins
  • Evaluation of the process
  • Explain relevance
  • Wonder (genius time)
  • Develop an iterative mindset

For more information…

New Milwaukee initiative

We were delighted to have Katie Schober from STEAM Milwaukee share some of the materials available through the organization’s Lend A Lab Program host a pop-up pre-session.  For more information on that program, reach out to Katie at info@steammilwaukee.com.

Engineering life

Will Gorecki has documented his adventures building a jet suit and has captured a few life lessons on his blog.

Design Thinking

Design thinking came up at several points in the conversation.  The Stanford D School has a handy primer on the subject here. As the session wrapped up Dr. Shalamova stressed that while the design thinking process typically places prototyping and testing after ideation, the most critical assumption to test is that one actually understands what the problem is. This means looking for ways to validate that understanding before students start looking at potential ways a problem might be solved.

Michael Hohl has a great piece on the value of prototyping early and often here.

Help Milwaukee students with their Water Stories project

Our Learn Deep Fellows are currently working on ‘Our Water, Our Stories’ projects with their students.  Theresa Johnson mentioned that as part of the water projects at Wedgewood Middle School (MPS) students in Advanced Science are collecting data about water availability and cleanliness. They hope to understand the issues that impact Milwaukee in regards to water and to develop a sustainable way to improve the issues. The students have produced a survey to understand community member perspective on clean water availability. They invite you and your friends and neighbors to participate by filling out their survey here.


Continue the conversation on inspirEd.

Thanks again to MSOE’s STEM Center for hosting Collab Labs this season and to our featured participants for the experience and insight they brought to the discussion:

Ian Corrao, Michael Klug, Brandon Bakken — Northwestern Mutual

Will Gorecki— Milwaukee Tool

Dr. Nadya Shalamova— MSOE

2023-24 Collab Labs

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