Fun activities that teach design thinking

One of the most important concepts in STEM right now is design thinking, the process of coming up with and testing new ideas. Design thinking is essential for scientists and engineers, and even disciplines outside of STEM, such as marketing and management, can benefit from it.

If you want to get your child or students started with design thinking early, has a variety of building projects that cast your learners as budding inventors. During these activities, you can keep this STEM design brainstorming and reflection sheet handy so your learners can write down their process for planning, building, and refining their inventions!

Create a cup tower

This activity is a great introduction to design thinking for young children, and it only requires a pack of paper cups and a measuring tool such as a ruler. Learners are tasked with thinking up designs for paper cup towers, testing those designs to see which one winds up the tallest, and reflecting on what worked about their designs and what didn’t. 

The simplicity of this activity lets budding designers brainstorm ideas and then build them immediately, making it quick and exciting!

Make a parachute

For some reason it’s satisfying to drop something from high up and watch it fall, and this activity takes advantage of that. Learners will choose toys and then make parachutes for them out of materials like plastic, paper, and cloth so they can remain in the air for as long as possible. 

Once they finish the parachute, go to a balcony or stand on a chair and test them, recording the amount of time the toys stay airborne with a stopwatch to see which parachute is the most effective.

Make a catapult

This activity is more open than the previous ones listed, challenging learners to build a catapult out of a paper cup, a rubber band, and a plastic spoon. It’s up to them to design the catapult’s form and use the materials creatively. This activity is a significant step up in difficulty, and teaches skills like persistence and resilience in the face of a tough task.

Inflate a balloon

Rather than building a specific object, this chemistry-oriented project asks learners to solve a problem: how to blow up a balloon as fast as possible. They’ll need to find not only a mixture of substances that can release gas, but also a method to get that gas in the balloon efficiently. 

This activity may take two days to complete (one to brainstorm and design, and another to gather materials and test them) and benefits from some basic chemistry knowledge, so it’s better suited to older learners.

Make a Rube Goldberg machine

At its best, design thinking is about solving complex problems with simple solutions. This activity turns that idea on its head, asking learners to solve a simple problem with a complex solution. Rube Goldberg machines use elaborate chain reactions to do something easy, like flip a switch or push a button. Designing one is a great opportunity to let a learner’s imagination run wild!

If you’re looking for more project ideas, check out this deck of STEM challenge cards and look through the Learning Library!