Nueva’s Design Thinking Program teaches students to solve problems through empathic design — that is, solving problems with a user in mind — and prototyping and iterating to discover viable solutions. Design Thinking is one of the pillars of the Nueva experience, and the I-Lab is the place where students come to build their creative confidence, practice the Design Thinking process, and learn to manifest their ideas into meaningful world change.

Students learn design engineering and computer science through core classes and robotics programs, but there is also a less obvious way that the I-Lab accomplishes its mission. The I-Lab creates the conditions in which students are most likely to practice and demonstrate the skills and mindsets Nueva aims to instill. In this article, Scott Swaaley, the I-Lab Assistant Director, will briefly describe the I-Lab as a whole, then dive into a few aspects of the I-Lab experience:


An overview of the Design Thinking program at Nueva. From kindergarden through third grade, students practice informal collaboration. From fourth through ninth grade, Design Engineering is part of the core curriculum. Additionally, from third through ninth grade, computer science is part of the core curriculum. From seventh grade onwards, electives also offer additional opportunities. Students in second grade onwards also have unstructured access, through lunch access, design thinking changemakers, extended hours, and clubs. The eighth grade recital project and the upper school quest project programs also implement design thinking. Finally, Nueva's robotics programs further reinforce design thinking principles — FLL Robotics in fifth through seventh, FTC in seventh and eighth grade, and FRC Robotics in the ninth through twelfth grades.

The I-Lab team nurtures Nueva’s comprehensive K–12 Design Thinking program, which embraces engineering and computer science to prepare students for an open-ended and rapidly changing future. We start working with students as early as age five and continue through to their high school graduation. In a given week, more than 72% of the entire Nueva student body spends time in the I-Lab. This allows us to facilitate long-term growth and development in students through their entire childhood and adolescence.

Unstructured Access
An important measure of an education is a student’s ability and willingness to learn, grow, and create outside of traditional school structures. In order to truly support and assess this eventual goal, we must take a step back and give students a choice of where and how to spend their time.

Lunch recess at the Lower and Middle School is a great example of this kind of work, as students can choose to work in the I-Lab from a number of great options. Once in the I-Lab, they bring their own ideas, design their own challenges, build their own partnerships, and work to solve problems independently. I-Lab faculty are available at all times to support and facilitate these activities, but it’s a time where students get to experiment with who they want to be, test their developing social and emotional skills, and build resilience and confidence through authentic experiences, while also building their technical skills.

This open lunchtime option has been enormously successful. Because of the significant demand for these opportunities, the I-Lab team is now in their second year offering afterschool enrichment, a full hour of this independent work time, twice a week.

A large part of this unstructured access is the encouragement and support of play. Whether students are working on developing a transparent toaster or just curious about what will happen if they glue two things together, we’re there to support them. It turns out that many great ideas start with innocent play or experimentation, only to later resolve into a deep understanding or epiphany.

There is an ongoing discussion in academia about the prevalence of computer games as a form of play, especially when looked at through the lens of building computer science competence. Although there is a broad range of activities that students gravitate towards during lunch recess or afterschool in the I-Lab, some gravitate towards computers and choose to work on computer science challenges or tutorials. A minority of those students choose to spend their time playing games. While we encourage the modification or development of games over passive consumption, and limit students to applications where game development is possible and developmentally appropriate, we do allow gaming in the I-Lab. It is a kind of play, like any other, and is a common path for computer scientists to develop a passion and curiosity for the field.

Lower School Connections
The I-Lab’s connection with the Lower School is stronger than ever. This year the I-Lab team has worked with Megan Terra, Lower School Head, and Emily Mitchell, veteran first-grade teacher, both of whom are trained Design Thinking leaders. This collaboration has led to enriched curricular integration and innovations that made lower school students and faculty feel even more welcome in the I-Lab. Accomplishments this year include:


An Expanded Lunch Recess
I-Lab attendance during lower school lunch recess has grown significantly, with as many as five full-time faculty working with students at any one time.

Afterschool Offerings
We now host a computer science–focused program (CS Club) after school on Mondays and a building-focused program (DT Changemakers) after school on Wednesdays. It’s free and there is no need to sign up.

Hour of Code
In December, we piloted the Hour of Code at the Lower School and made it available to the entire first and third grades. With help from lower school parents and middle school students, we joined students around the world in celebrating computer science. The event was so well received that next year we hope to include the entire Lower School.

Teacher Training
The I-Lab is training every lower school teacher in computer science so they can incorporate it into their existing curriculum.

Revised Computer Science Curriculum
The I-Lab has recently revised our computer science curriculum to better meet the needs of Nueva students and will be inviting Lower School parents to provide feedback and to help expand computer science offerings in the lower grades.

A Call for Parent Volunteers
You don’t need to be an engineer to work with students in the I-Lab. Whether this kind of work resonates with you or you just want to play in the I-Lab, we are always looking for regular parent volunteers. The I-Lab team will show you what you need to know, and would love to have you on their team. Please contact Scott Swaaley, I-Lab assistant director, if you’re interested in joining the fun! 


January 24, 2018

  • Design Thinking

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