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A few years ago, our yard was canvased by a thick sheet of snow — well, thick for a southwestern guy who has just moved to the northwest. I’m pretty sure my friends in Michigan would have called it a “dusting.” However, my kids spent a week throwing snowballs and making snowmen and snowwomen (because of gender equality) and snow zombies (because . . . zombies) and sledding down the yard.

At one point, my oldest son asked to do an experiment. “Dad, I want to know what chemicals will melt the snow the fastest.”

“What are you thinking of testing?” I’m thinking salt, rubbing alcohol, vinegar, sand . . . what else could I use?”

“I’m thinking salt, rubbing alcohol, sand . . . what else could I use?”

We added a few more random items, like shampoo and vinegar. Then, we gathered our supplies and headed out the door. This led to a series of experiments, where we tested various liquids on snowballs and sheets of ice. The winning chemical? Rubbing alcohol.

As we walked back into the house, my son had an idea, “So, dad, what if we tried to melt the snow on the driveway with rubbing alcohol instead of shoveling it?”

Although his idea isn’t entirely practical, it was a reminder that often curiosity leads to creativity. You start with a sense of wonder and then, after playing around with ideas and systems, you decide to create something entirely new. This wasn’t a new idea. But it was new to him. It’s actually a common practice is design, where people are inspired by the natural world to create something new through the process of biomimicry.

When you think of the future of space travel, chances are you’re not thinking about geckos. But actually, it turns out that innovations in adhesives lead to faster, stronger, and lighter weight spacecraft. While it may sound unsettling most of our world is “glued” together. Our cars. Our jets. Our computers. These complex machines often require advanced adhesives to keep the parts in place.

Enter geckos. See, it turns out that gecko feet have fascinating properties. I don’t pretend to understand it. I’m not a biologist or a chemical engineer. However, the folks at NASA are studying gecko feet in order to develop more innovative adhesives.

And it’s not just NASA. Southwest Airlines studied ant colony behavior as they developed the choose-your-own-seat system. When Japanese bullet trains were creating ear-splitting “tunnel booms,” engineer and birdwatcher Eiji Nakatsu collaborated with a team of designers who created a mash-up design from three different bird species. Engineers have studied shark skin, spider webs, and armadillos in developing new surfaces.

Where do we begin?

I mention this because I often hear bold statements about how design thinking must begin with empathy. And, it’s true that empathy is a powerful starting point for design thinking. It’s no wonder the Stanford began their original model with “empathize” as the first stage:


Source: Stanford

However, as A.J. Juliani and I worked on the LAUNCH Cycle (a K-12, student-centered design thinking model), we both shared a similar observation from our own classroom experiences: the creative spark doesn’t always start with empathy. Instead, it begins with awareness (which we’ve labeled as Look, Listen, and Learn). Sometimes the awareness involves empathy, but sometimes it’s a problem or a process that sparks the design process. Sometimes it’s a great idea and only later does one think about the audience. But the beginning part always starts with this sense of awareness. This might involve tapping into prior knowledge but it might also involve providing a new question, scenario, story, or phenomenon that pushes students to question their prior knowledge.

Note that empathy is still at the center of design. However, it’s an integrated part of the entire process rather than a distinct phase you go through. We’ll be getting into that toward the end of this article. But for now, let’s dive into this first phase of awareness.

Look, Listen, and Learn

In the LAUNCH Cycle, we begin with awareness. We define this as “Look, listen, and learn.” The process of establishing awareness will vary from project to project. It will look different depending upon the subject you are teaching, the mix of students that comprise the class, their age, and the final product you want them to create. It’s important to realize that you can’t make someone aware. It’s something you have to inspire but it’s ultimately very internal. 

Awareness isn’t something you create in another person. It’s an experience you have to tap into as a teacher. However, you can construct scenarios to expand your students’ awareness and increase their curiosity.

The Six Starting Places for Awareness

Here are six strategies you might want to use as starting places for awareness within design thinking. 


#1: Start with the observation of a phenomenon.

Observation is a natural tool for math and science. Students see a specific phenomenon and they start growing in awareness. It might involve looking at magnets or plants. Whether they realize it or not, they will compare what they are observing with past observations.

They might even tap into former observations they had in those really cool labs they did previously in your class. Sometimes, what they see will confirm what they know. Other times, new insights will challenge their preconceived notions of how the world works. Either way, they will grow more aware about the subject.

For my son, this awareness began by observing snow through hours and hours of play. It never felt academic. In fact, it never really felt creative until eventually, it did.


#2: Start with awareness about a specific issue.

Design thinking is often associated with STEM or with the business world (because it is so similar to the product-market cycle). Remember, however, that awareness can lead to services rather than tangible goods. When students see something that breaks their hearts, their social awareness often leads to empathy, exploration, and potentially, the development of a solution.

Students don’t have to have a solution in mind at the beginning. They don’t even have to have a deep sense of empathy with those who are affected by the issue. In many cases, they will develop both the conceptual understanding and the empathy toward those they serve as they explore the issue in the research phase. All they need at first is an awareness that a particular issue exists and that they can be a part of the solution.


#3:  Start with empathy toward a specific group.

This difference between this approach and the one previous is that it begins with empathy toward a specific group. It tends to work best when students identify with the group on a personal level. For example, rather than simply caring about poverty, students are able to empathize with the poor because they have either experienced for themselves (or personally know who someone has) what it feels like to go hungry or to not have a place to call home.

Personal experience connects them on a heart level to the issues that that those living in poverty face. Over time, their experiences and empathy enable them to develop solutions that can empower the poor.

Some of the best social solutions begin with a deep, humble respect for what specific populations are experiencing. I noticed this when working for an urban, low-income school. My students knew about poverty because they had seen the way it impacted people they cared about. Though many of my students wouldn’t have called themselves poor (in their minds, poverty meant literal homelessness) they knew it. They felt it. They saw how economic needs impacted the community. We were a Title One school with over 98%  free and reduced lunch. So, when we created a service project, they were able to design a specific set of solutions that honored the dignity of those around them.


#4: Start with a specific problem that needs to be solved.

The previous two approaches allow students to address social needs. It this approach, the focus more product oriented. For example, when we do our Shark Tank-style projects, students begin with a specific consumer problem.

The guiding question is: “What is an annoying problem people face today?” Unlike the previous approach, we start with the problem rather than the group. Students aren’t conducting interviews with future consumers. They’re not trying to figure out who will use what they create. Instead, they look at the specific problem and make sure they have a clear picture of why it matters.

product idea

#5: Start with a product idea

Sometimes awareness begins with a product idea. You might set out a specific challenge for your class that they will write a novel, create a blog, or film a documentary. This is the idea behind the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Students have a clear picture of the finished product in mind, and then engage in research, work on the ideation, and build prototypes.

However, in this very first stage, they aren’t thinking about a problem, an audience, or a process. Instead, they are simply psyched out about making a product. A word of caution here: If you start out with a general product in mind, keep it general.

When students zero in on a specific idea without going through the research or ideation phases, they short-circuit the process and miss out on the chance to create something different. Starting off general can be difficult for students to figure out.


#6: Start with a geeky interest

Design doesn’t have to begin with a bold idea, empathy with an audience, or a clear understanding of a problem. It can simply start with a geeky interest. With initiatives like 20% Time and Genius Hour, students have the freedom to tap into their passions and interests and eventually apply their knowledge to a larger product.

The benefit of this approach is that it supports intrinsic motivation through student choice. Moreover, it allows students to feel understood and affirmed while they tap into their prior knowledge. So you have a student who is into crocheting or unicorns or ninjas? Let them begin with what they love. Creative projects are inherently challenging (especially in the research phase). However, when students can begin with their own geeky interests, they can persevere.

The Critical Role of Empathy

Although we begin the first phase of Look, Listen, and Learn with awareness, this phase should include a specific focus on empathy. However, the type of empathy students experience will depend on the type of product they are designing. If they are exploring a problem or a social issue, they will focus their empathy on how those issues impact community members. However, if they begin with a geeky interest (as they create blogs and podcasts, for example) their empathy will be more about understanding the audience who shares similar interests. If it’s a product idea, the empathy might look a little more like market research and the initial questions UX Designers ask.

Ultimately, though, students will take a deeper dive into empathy throughout the process. Empathy isn’t fast. It takes time to develop. Here’s what it looks like in other phases of the LAUNCH Process:

  • Inviting multiple perspectives in the Ask Tons of Questions phase
  • Interviews, community needs assessments, and “a day in the life” activities in the Understanding the Process or Problem phase
  • Engaging with the community in the Navigate Ideas phase,  so that there’s a co-design element rather than a “design for” mindset. It also helps to clarify the audience in the PARTS structure students use as they plan a prototype
  • In some cases, students will invite their audience to participate with them in the Create a Prototype phase (depending on the project) and they will help test and improve in the Highlight and Fix phase
  • Empathy should be built into the eventual launch of the product and the sharing out process. However, it can also be integrated into the process of sharing one’s design journey.

Empathy isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen quickly. However, when we include empathy in every aspect of our design process, our students grow into empathetic people. And that has the power to change lives.

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Note: This is an expanded version of an article that ran on December 20, 2016

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Nick Davis says:

    Hi John,

    I love your Creative Classroom podcast!! I try to listen to it when I am running instead of music (I am a nerd like that). I am going to start a 6 week genius hour class and I am going to use the design thinking process through out. My question to you is about #6, Start with a Geeky Interest. In previous experiences kids come up with football, or video games. How do you turn this passion into something that has purpose? Thanks John

    • John Spencer says:

      The geeky interests option works well for student videos, podcasts, and blogs. This allows them to create content but also curate content. It’s a different way of doing langauge arts.

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