Welcome to the new school year! We’re excited to continue to support teachers as they encourage their students to become creative thinkers ready for the future!

The 2016-2017 school year was an amazing one for The Extraordinaires Design Studio. When we first embarked on our Play with Design research study back in early 2016, we were curious about the ways in which teachers would implement The Extraordinaires into their classrooms, libraries, and workshops. Since then, we heard from countless educators who shared with us their design thinking successes, demonstrating time and again that The Extraordinaires Design Studio may be an incredibly versatile educational tool, but great teachers are the best source of innovation in education!

In South Berwyn School District’s Freedom Middle School just outside of Chicago, social studies teacher Mike Saracini needed a way for his 8th graders to better understand the challenges that all Americans faced during the Great Depression and what it took to solve the crisis. “The textbook alone was just not good enough,” Mike realized, so he implemented a design thinking project that would be “the launching point for the entire unit.” Using The Extraordinaires Design Studio with elements of the Great Depression and the New Deal serving as a framework, Mike created a unique challenge for his students: to become the stand-ins for the stakeholders who were affected by the economic crisis. “Kids need to know every aspect of a historical event,” Mike said, “but they have to have huge amounts of empathy” to reach “an ultimate understanding of the event at a deeper level.”

Starting with an empathy-rich, student-guided reflection on Dorothea Lange’s famous Depression Era photograph, Mike allowed his students’ own curiosity to set the scene for promoting engagement, and then he presented the project. As students began to use the design process to solve a problem for an Extraordinaire, their awareness of the importance of

empathizing enhanced their determination to help others. Students more actively began investigating the ways they could have assisted those who suffered during the Great Depression. “It changed them,” Mike observed. “I saw them talking a lot more about the unit.” So impactful was the project on the students that one of them even made it a topic of discussion on a panel presentation at this year’s iEngage Conference. This has led Mike and his colleagues to prepare future district-wide professional development opportunities to demonstrate to teachers from kindergarten to 12th grade how the design thinking process can be implemented across the curriculum.

As a member of the Unified Arts Team at John Jay Middle School in Katonah, NY, Melissa Brady teaches the Home and Careers curriculum for the entire student body. This year, as she prepared a makerspace pilot program that would include several weeks of inventing, exploring, and discovering, Melissa aimed “to give students experiences and skills that are transferable to their lives forever” in a way that had never been done before in her school. Though some may not have immediately seen the connection between Home and Careers coursework and design thinking, Melissa’s vision was clear: “Our mission is to show students how to take care of themselves and to take care of others in their lives, and I wanted to do more problem solving with empathy. Design thinking is about communicating, making decisions, and collaborating. It’s what helps generate real solutions.”


Using The Extraordinaires Design Studio and very basic construction materials as the start of her exploration of design thinking, Melissa hoped that playing with design would ease her Home and Careers students into a better understanding of this unique kind of inquiry. She knew her 7th graders “had to be OK with communicating their ideas” and get past feeling self-conscious about their own contributions. “To be able to play with the materials,” which included felt, scraps, needle and thread, and random pieces of cardboard, “turned out to be so much more exciting than they expected.” Students quickly flourished as amateur designers, and, after presenting and reflecting upon the work that they had done, they were able to adapt the design process to many other academic and real life challenges. The results so impressed Katonah-Lewisboro school leaders that they proudly featured the students’ creations on the school district’s website.


A year ago, technology integration specialist Diane Horvath directed the creation of an impressive makerspace at Blake Middle School in Medfield, Massachusetts, and then developed an 8th grade “Innovation Lab” to go with it. Although her students really enjoyed the space, she found that their skills would plateau at a certain point. After taking a summer course in project-based learning, Diane adapted that model “into a curriculum that mashed up design thinking with it, using design thinking as the guiding principle and blending it with the power of making.”

This year, Diane saw tremendous results. “Design thinking, when it’s brought into our project-based learning, really gives it a structure.” Students were more responsive, self-guided, and eager to meet challenges. Design thinking afforded an “open, exploratory, personalized way of learning - a journey for them.” Moreover, other teachers became curious. Diane used The Extraordinaires to introduce design thinking to the faculty, and the game “sparked and inspired teachers to try it [design thinking] in their classrooms. Teachers found it such a powerful process for their students.” One of those teachers was Jason Heim from the Science Department who applied design thinking to three projects. Jason saw as the greatest benefit of the process that when teachers can “get empathy from students, the students will drive their own learning.” Similarly, by “looking at assessing skills, not just standards,” teachers also benefit from this methodology. “It’s about the process, not the end product.”

Finally, we were fortunate this year to have two talented educators test out the pilot programs for our Extraordinaires Design Club, an afterschool opportunity for students to play with design and find ways to apply the elements of design to their lives. At Abigail Adams Elementary in Queens, New York, guidance counselor Frank Zarb moderated 4th and 5th grade members of the PS 131Q Student Council as they first collaborated on the game’s design challenges, and then transferred the process to their roles as student body leaders. With an improved understanding of the steps that need to be taken to identify and solve problems around them, the students became much more proactive in their approach to making the everyday lives of their fellow students better.

In Perkiomen Valley Middle School East in Pennsylvania, Garreth Heidt led a dynamic group of middle school students on a veritable design thinking journey. As Garreth noted on his blog , the students in the Extraordinaires Design Club “learned more about visualizing ideas, practiced the ancient Greek technique of ‘ekphrasis’ with a high-school student and a Hollywood writer / producer / director, built 20-minute prototypes from Dollar Store parts; we even skyped with Rory O’Connor, one of the designers responsible for the Extraordinaires and generally had a lot of fun imagining how the world might be a better place, not only for the extraordinary characters who are the Extraordinaires, but also for us.”

The design thinking process allows for authentic problem-solving to become a tangible part of the lives of all young people, and it’s exciting to see how educators are enriching the academic experiences of their students with its implementation. We thank ALL of the teachers who have included The Extraordinaires Design Studio as part of that experience, and we look forward to supporting your efforts in the new school year!