Science 2.0: Help Students Become Innovative Designers

Our past three columns described how teachers can implement the first three Empowered Learner Standards established by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). This month, we focus on classroom strategies to support the fourth standard: Innovative Designer.

The performance indicators in the Innovative Designer standard align with the practices of scientific inquiry, which help students conduct scientific investigations. Students become innovative designers once they meet these performance indicators:

  • know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems;
  • select and use digital tools to plan and manage a design process that considers design constraints and calculated risks;
  • develop, test, and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process; and
  • exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance, and the capacity to work with open-ended problems (ISTE 2016). (italics added)

It’s worth noting that only the second performance indicator, where students plan and manage the design process, actually requires using technology. For this indicator, digital mapping tools (e.g., Lucidchart, MindMap) work well.

Defining innovation
Innovation implies that students must come up with something new or original and is often associated with great improvements to the way of life. This is a paradigm that science teachers must shift.

Accomplishments by companies such as Tesla or Apple are the exception, not the norm, and may only serve as a form of inspiration. Teachers should encourage students to be motivated by their successes and learn from their practices, but we must establish a classroom culture and norms that allow students to experience innovation in their own right.

Simplifying innovation
Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators, makes the compelling argument that innovation is really just the act of creative problem solving. To foster this type of behavior, he says, a classroom must promote passion, play, and purpose. Creating a classroom culture that grows innovative designers should therefore be examined through the lens of these “three Ps.”

However, not all activities need to promote this definition of innovation. Traditional types of activities are often the necessary foundation for students to learn scientific investigation. Students should still follow prescribed steps that allow them to learn measurement, instrumentation, and observation. However, once students become proficient in these skills, they should begin to choose their own learning path to foster the three Ps.

Science classroom innovation
When students explore their passions and are given the opportunity to find authentic problems with purpose, students will find that their work feels more like play. The timeless quote by Ray Bradbury, “Love what you do, do what you love…” could never be more applicable as when students find passion and purpose in their work.

Teachers can begin activities with simple questions, “Tell us what waves do?” “Show us how a chemical reaction works.” and “Is our local stream healthy?” Although such questions are derived from traditional activities, students can take ownership of each question when they choose their path and add purpose to their work. Finally, students also need to develop a tenacious approach to these problems so they demonstrate grit. When that happens, we begin to see innovation.

Ben Smith ( is an educational technology program specialist, and Jared Mader ( is the director of educational technology, for the Lincoln Intermediate Unit in New Oxford, Pennsylvania. They conduct teacher workshops on technology in the classroom nationwide.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). 2016. The 2016 ISTE standards for students. Arlington, VA: ISTE.

Editor’s Note

This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of The Science Teacher journal from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).

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  1. Kristy Streckewald
    Posted June 19, 2017 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    The design process is critical for students to become innovative and problem solving thinkers. The NGSS identifies students as young as kindergarten as participants in this engineering process. As a kindergarten teacher, it can be daunting to read articles, such as this, and see how it can be implemented in the classroom. As you stated, Tony Wagner indicates that innovation is an act of problem solving that incorporates passion, play and purpose. Here is what that looks like in kindergarten.
    As a class we read and compared multiple versions of the Gingerbread Man who was always eaten by the fox as they crossed a river together. The text lead us to the problem: What if there was a way for the Gingerbread Man to cross the river without the fox? This was the question my students needed to start the design process. Students brainstormed and came up with an idea of a bridge. They had their purpose. They examined different examples of bridges from picture books in our class library. I presented them with the length of the river, the depth, and shared materials available to them. Basic classroom and household objects were what they had at their disposal. To the untrained eye, they then played with these materials and experimented with them. In actuality, we had just finished a unit on the attributes of solids and liquids and they were testing the materials. Next students drew their initial design and shared with their classmates. They looked at strengths and weaknesses. Students compared their drawings to actual bridges. Then students revised their drawings. The plans may have been created in crayon, but they were valid designs. The prototype phase occurred next. Students built and modified their bridges. Then they would test them over our make-shift river. They collaborated and improved their design. Passion in kindergarten is when students work through science for 3 days straight on a bridge, then beg to stay in from recess so they can have extra time to work. The innovation, such as safety railing, reflective coloring of their bridge to prevent boat collisions, even ramps instead of steps to get safely on and off the bridge.
    In the end, my kindergarten engineers proudly shared their drawings and final prototype with families, other teachers, and students. They may have only been 5, but they could show how their final product differed from their original design. They defended the materials they choose and what changes they made. They successfully tested their bridges with actual water and a gingerbread man cookie. Through the process of collaboration, students could identify what ideas the borrowed from their peers, or who helped them solve a problem they may have faced. Kindergarten may lack the technological experience of older student designers, but they can follow the process and create unique and innovative ways to solve problems.

  2. Samantha Hanrahan
    Posted June 19, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    After reading this, I feel relieved. With how the Next Generation Standards are set up, they seem to have this ultimate pressure on creating students that can go through the design process and learn so much. I agree with the reasoning to integrate the design aspect, but I’ve been feeling the difficult as to how to make it more of a discovery rather than reading from the text book. After reading about Tony Wagner’s passion, play, and purpose, it shows an approach that it less intense on the teacher. Giving students a question that the purpose has them explore through play, I think will gain more interest to what the end product will be. I am very interested to see what else is in Tony’s book! As I am not yet a full time teacher, I do hope to use this method of teaching. Maybe an assignment we could do would be how to make a party popper to surprise a teacher on their birthday or a big reading goal that the class had met. The passion could be the excitement about the surprise. Play would be how they are constructing and designing their poppers. Lastly, purpose would be why they are making the poppers. It could be tied into the laws of motion. When the confetti was at rest and what pushed it into motion.

  3. Michael M
    Posted June 19, 2017 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Too many students have the misconception that science is complete. The teaching of the Innovative Designer standard put forth by the International Society for Technology in Education is crucial in breaking this misconception. Instruction through the use of the textbook only has led students to believe that science is complete and everything is known. Allowing students to experiment helps break this a little but can reinforce the misconception when they are only reproducing experiment where the outcome is known. When allowing the students t0 go through the design process we show them that science is a process that has no end. The text and lab experiments are linear in nature. They start with not knowing and hopefully end with understanding. But when students are allowed to solve their own problems and design their own solutions they find that often they are constantly moving forward and backward between the different stages of design. They discover that sometimes their first solution to the problem is too simplistic or perhaps they have missed an important need in defining the problem. When we allow our students to innovatively design we teach them that science doesn’t have a start point and an endpoint but is instead made of up of many different paths that split off or circle back on itself. While we teach this standard in our math and science classroom we a giving the student a life skill. Being able to understand a problem, explore possible solutions and implementing a plan are not only the tools of engineer. The ability to problem solve is a trait demand of all skilled professionals. We would be wise as educator to make teaching this standard a top priority in our classrooms.

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