How to run an effective design challenge

For the third year in a row, we’re organizing a statewide design challenge for all Ohio K-12 schools.  There is one central question in any design challenge, the question students answer. Students are asked to used design thinking to create solutions to a particular question or problem.

At the surface, it seems there is only one question in a design challenge, but we know teachers have many questions about what it takes to organize, plan and run a successful design challenge.  Where can teachers and schools find answers?

With the launch of the 2018 challenge, we talked with Eileen McGarvey and Kris Owens at Pickerington Ridgeview STEM Junior High to get some of their tips.

What do you mean by design challenge?

First off, a design challenge is long term project where students learn their content by creating a new solution to a real-world problem. Design challenges offer an approach to problem-based learning that can go deep into content areas while offering students a wide range of questions to consider.

The beauty of a design challenge is the breadth of possibilities! Students can focus on different people, places, aspects of the problem, and generate many unique solutions.

Even though each challenge is different, here are a few guidelines and helpful tools that can help you along the way.

Get organized

Design challenges are an exercise in project management. Schools that facilitate design challenges well use a project management framework and assign project management roles/responsibilities to work the challenges from start to finish.

Where to start? Pick a date for student exhibitions and work backwards from there. Determine how you are going to organize teachers, students, and time; don’t feel like you need to do this alone—form a project team to help you. It works really well if you can organize your teachers into teams. Who are your project managers, your logistics managers, your resource managers, and your people managers? Decide how students are going to be grouped and reach out to any experts (don’t forget virtual experts who could Skype into your classrooms).

Start with a hook activity

A hook activity “hooks” the attention and energy of your students.  When presenting the problem, you want to make it relevant to your local context. Think through why your students should care about this issue, how have they already interacted with the topic, and persuade them that they can make a difference.  For example, Pickerington Ridgeview ran a drug safety day to introduce the opioid epidemic. Another school celebrated Valentine’s Day with workshops focusing on heart health.

Anything that engages students can be a hook—plan a field trip, a guest speaker, a skit by teachers, a movie…the possibilities are endless. You know your kids well—what will make them intrigued and excited to solve this problem?

Where to start:

Use the design process

Once you have “hooked” the students, orient them to the engineering design process.  There are lots of versions of the design cycle. Battelle’s Aimee Kennedy says: “If your school doesn’t use (a standard design cycle model for all teachers), pick one and go with it. The critical thing isn’t the specific names of the steps your students are taking, the critical thing is that they are clear about the expectations, and that teachers are checking in to provide feedback along the way.”

Don’t skip getting feedback and revisions

These steps are where learning actually happens. Getting feedback and revising the work takes time, but these are the steps that distinguish design challenges from plain old projects. These are the steps where students get to build and refine their academics and their work habits.

A word about prototypes

This year, we’re asking students to create prototypes of their solutions.  As students are prototyping, remember that they’ll need some rudimentary materials for the task at hand. These materials will be different based on each student’s solution, but cheap cardboard and miscellaneous craft supplies are always a good starting point. You will be amazed by what students create with simple materials and encouragement.


A hallmark of an effective design challenge is exhibition of student learning, or, showcase.  This is where students get to present and defend their solution to an authentic audience.  Each school will decide how to run their student exhibition, but we encourage you to build in time for students to practice presentations to hone their communication skills, and get feedback to improve their design. There can be many levels of student presentations—first, students can present in front of their class, then to a larger group of students, and finally, to the public.

NOTE:  In the Spring, we will host a statewide exhibition of student learning, here in Columbus.  Be sure to have your school showcase completed by mid-April to be eligible to send students to the statewide showcase.

Other resources:

  • Read our interview last year with Eileen about how Pickerington organizes student showcases
  • Check out this news report from the culminating statewide student showcase, hosted at Battelle last May


Have other questions? Let us know in the comments below!



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