Design Thinking: Connecting Students with their Community

After learning about Design Thinking, I was immediately intrigued by the concept. I found that this new approach fostered problem-solving and critical thinking by empathizing with a problem, defining the problem, ideating through the problem, creating a prototype, and testing that prototype in the community ( I first heard about Design Thinking at a conference where a speaker elaborated on how teachers can use Design Thinking to address problems at our school sites & districts. As a classroom teacher, I began to use Design Thinking in my classroom. After learning more about Design Thinking, I made the decision to build a Design Thinking project with my 12th grade Econ students. The result led to opening new doors for me and my students.

The Local Econ Project

I established the project title “The Local Econ Project.” Maybe not the most creative title, but I wanted clarity on what I am asking my students: identify a local economic problem that impacts the community, take steps towards a solution, and then propose or test the solution in the community. I wanted students to work through the steps of Design Thinking to solve their problem, though once we got into the process I realized that this process does two things: (1) student motivation shifts in a way that I have not seen before due to the fact that they are solving something that they truly care about, and (2) the nature of Design Thinking created cross-curricular experiences for my students.

By allowing students to identify an economic problem of their choice, I saw students collaborating and bonding over the hardships they had in common. They soon realized that these economic concepts have consequences and relevance beyond living in a textbook. Once students settled on a problem they wanted to solve, we then began the journey of Design Thinking.

Empathize and Define

I had students empathize with their problem by working with stakeholders in their community. This involved the students interviewing a stakeholder that is in the “trenches” of the problem. I also give the option to survey stakeholders. The goal is to get a clearer picture of what is going on with their problem, find truths that lacked clarity before, and get a better understanding of the moving parts surrounding their problem. This started to become cross-curricular because students are working on developing their own surveys and interview questions, communicating with other professionals in various fields, collecting data, analyzing data, and determining what the data means for their problem. This pushed me to make short videos and podcasts with teachers outside of my department to help students understand the math and science elements of this step of Design Thinking. I was able to unleash the power of cross-curricular instruction through the usage of technology.

Students then take the data from the empathize step of Design Thinking to define their problem. For my students, this normally entails the attempt to think differently about their problem. The status quo has not worked, so students are encouraged to explore other ways they can think or state the problem to better understand the core of the problem.

Ideation and Prototype

This drives students to ideate through their problem by considering how they defined or redefined their problem by using the data that was collected through the empathize step. I make it a point to give students a lot of space to think and brainstorm to throw everything that they have on the wall to see what sticks. The Flipped Classroom model plays a role, which is where students experience initial or new learning out of class. Since I “flip” my classroom, I leverage my in-class time to conference with students and support them by meeting with every group of students on a regular basis. I also realized that I should not be the only one conferencing and supporting my students. I have more recently set up mentors to support students through the process to give them feedback and reflection. I can do this through tools like Microsoft Teams and Flipgrid. For me, mentors can be other teachers at my school, stakeholders, and professionals in the community, or even other classes.

Students are then at a place to develop a prototype that will serve as a solution or a better alternative. They will learn from the process of collecting data, defining their problem, and the ideating towards a prototype; however, this is another opportunity for students to be given space, or a makerspace, to explore various solutions. Their prototype can involve working with a robotics program on campus, computer science teacher/professional, or utilizing skills that they already possess. It is amazing to see what students already thrive in!


Normally, Design Thinking requires the prototype to be tested in some way. While students have the option to test their prototype, especially if they are solving a specific problem at my school site, they are to propose their prototype/solution to a panel of experts in their community. Some members of the panel can also serve as mentors. I have seen success at getting local journalists, college professors, City Council members, School Board members, and the Superintendent for my school district. I have found that the best feedback that takes place in my classroom is not from me. Rather, it is from their fellow peers and from the community. I do not place an emphasis on “hey, you have to get a good grade on this project,” but instead you want to use your own passions to solve something that keeps you up at night and then receive high-quality feedback on your work. Students feel empowered by feeling the support of their community as they are attempting to solve something much larger than themselves.

The Shift

This is a semester-long project, and I have seen great moments and experiences in my classroom from this authentic experience. My students view this project as their final and appreciate that their success is not measured by some big test at the end of their senior year. While students are moving through the Local Econ Project, I am still teaching Economics. There is still direct instruction, assessments, and guided practice. The big shift was moving the purpose and the why to real-world problems and real-world solutions by the project being the vehicle of how we get to mastery. Students start to grasp that they are learning and applying economic concepts without even always realizing it.

I do not consider myself to be the ultimate expert on Design Thinking, though I merely want to be part of this conversation as someone who is currently doing this work in the classroom. I have managed to make this project cross-curricular with my colleagues who teach English, Math, Science (Forensic Bio), and Social Studies. The template that is linked below has the goal of helping teachers that want to get started with Design Thinking or take pieces of it for replication.

About the Author: Steve Martinez is a passionate Social Science teacher with a fervor for Edtech that allows him to leverage technology in transformative ways through blended learning, mastery learning, PBL, Design Thinking, and student inquiry. He also implements Flipped Classroom with his students that allow for students to experience content for the first time outside of the classroom and engage in the classroom by utilizing application, innovation, and other 21-century skills. He has used Design Thinking to allow his students to solve the most complex problems they face in their local community. He can be found on Twitter at @Martinez_EdTech, or his LinkedIn Profile. He currently is a Level 1 Google Certified Educator, Edpuzzle Coach, certified Flipgrid Expert (Level 2), Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, and a Kami Hero (2021). He also holds his Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Educational Technology.



Interaction Design Foundation. (n.d.). Design Thinking. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from