Design thinking and project-based learning

Design thinking and project-based learning play an integral role in STEM education.

STEM offers the opportunity to create high quality integrated learning opportunities that engage and excite our learners in a K-6 classroom. Project-based learning and design thinking provide complementary structures to develop integrated STEM learning sequences for your students when starting to plan for STEM studies.

Design thinking

Design thinking involves the use of strategies for understanding design needs and opportunities, visualising and generating creative and innovative ideas, planning and analysing and evaluating those ideas that best meet the criteria for success (Australian Curriculum).

Design thinking:

  • can also be applied when trying to understand and unpack the STEM problem identified within the project-based learning. Students can generate ideas and refine a design based on evaluation and testing.
  • is one of four thinking skills identified in the Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus (2017). Design thinking links to both the skills of design and production, and to project-based learning in STEM.

To see an example of design thinking in the K-6 Science classroom, watch the design thinking video (6:27).

How students in Stage 2 could use design thinking to solve a problem.



The new Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus was released by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) in 2017. This resource is designed to support teachers' knowledge and understanding of the Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus, in particular, the inclusion of four thinking skills.

These thinking skills are computational thinking, design thinking, scientific thinking and systems thinking. These four thinking skills encompass the productive, purposeful and intentional thinking that underpins effective learning in science and technology. This video will explore the thinking skill design thinking and how it is embedded in the new Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus.

[Table with cells coloured to indicate where opportunities to embed design thinking are found in the Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus across particular stages and content strands. Design thinking can be embedded in:

  • living world and material world from Early Stage 1 to Stage 3
  • physical world in Stage 1 and Stage 3
  • Earth and space from Stage 1 to Stage 3
  • digital technologies in Early Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3.]

As the table shows, design thinking skills are embedded within various content strands of the new Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus. Opportunities to embed design thinking skills are identified by the DesT abbreviation after individual syllabus dot points. So what is design thinking?

Design thinking is a process where a need or opportunity is identified and a design solution is developed. The consideration of economic, environmental and social impacts that result from design solutions are core to design thinking. Design thinking methods can be used when trying to understand a problem, generate ideas and refine a design based on evaluation and testing. Design thinking is intrinsically linked to the skills of design and production.

Consider the following professions: an architect, an app developer and a furniture designer. On the surface, it would seem these professions have little in common. However, the one unifying factor is that each of them utilise design thinking in their roles.

Whilst this design thinking might differ slightly between each of these professions, they will essentially follow the same basic steps. These steps are: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. Let’s look at a classroom example of design thinking from Stage 2.

Freya and Olivia love playing dice games in mathematics.

[Empathise – ST2-2DP-T: critique needs or opportunities for designing solutions through evaluating products and processes]

The only issue is that the dice make too much noise when rolled on the desk. Some students in the class are sensitive to this loud noise and to accommodate them, the class play dice games on the carpet. With the whole class on the floor, however, things can become a little crowded. Freya and Olivia feel that everyone would be more comfortable if they could spread out and play dice games at their desks.

To understand their audience better, Freya and Olivia survey their teacher and other students in their class.

[Define – ST2-2DP-T: define a need or opportunity according to functional and aesthetic criteria]

They discover that most people feel a similar way about the dice problem. Students would like to play dice games at their desks but understand the need to play on the floor.

Freya and Olivia are beginning to define their problem. The noisy dice have created congestion on the floor during some mathematics lessons.

[Define – ST2-2DP-T: investigate and research materials, components, tools and techniques to produce design solutions]

They conduct some internet research looking at the history of dice, how dice are made and the materials used to make dice in order to better understand the problem. They also use a decibel meter app to measure the loudness of the dice when rolled on the desk.

Now that Freya and Olivia feel that they have a good understanding of their problem, they move to the ideate phase.

[Ideate – ST2-2DP-T: develop, record and communicate design ideas and decisions using appropriate technical terms.]

They spend some time brainstorming solutions, writing down as many ideas as they can come up with to solve the problem. At this stage, they don’t judge their ideas.

Even if an idea seems silly or impossible, they still write it down. They choose one idea to explore further.

Freya and Olivia develop a design for a soundproof box that they can use to roll the dice.

[Ideate ST2-2DP-T: produce labelled and annotated drawings including digital graphic representations]

They draw sketches and eventually use digital software to develop blueprints which will guide the building of their product.

[Prototype – ST2-2DP-T: plan a sequence of production steps when producing designed solutions individually and collaboratively]

Freya and Olivia then spend the next few lessons building a prototype, a basic version of their product. They make sure to follow their blueprints as closely as possible.

During the next mathematics lesson, Freya and Olivia test the prototype.

[Test – ST2-2DP-T: critique needs or opportunities for designing solutions through evaluating products and processes]

They use the same decibel meter app to measure the loudness of rolling dice in their soundproof box and compare it to their original measurement. Whilst their soundproof box reduces the overall loudness of the dice, Freya and Olivia decide to try a variety of different materials inside the box to further soften the sound.

[Test – ST2-2DP-T: investigate and research materials, components, tools and techniques to produce design solutions]

Unfortunately, none of the materials they try reduce the sound to a level they are happy with. In addition, they are also having problems seeing into the box which makes reading the dice quite difficult. The students return to the ideate phase to consider alternative design options.

Eventually, Freya and Olivia settle on a design to create dice out of a shapeable, lightweight foam material which doesn’t require a box. They have much better success with this second design.

As the previous example demonstrates, design thinking is rarely linear or simple. Steps sometimes need to be revisited in order to move forward with a design. Using design thinking, Freya and Olivia were able to successfully create a solution to a real-world problem. In fact, here’s a photo of their finished product which they called ‘Silent dice’.

Design thinking is an important thinking skill that is utilised by people in a variety of professional industries. Equipping students with this thinking skill will give them a flexible framework for solving real-world problems.

The science and technology page on the NSW Department of Education website contains additional syllabus implementation support materials for teachers, including professional development opportunities. If you would like further information about syllabus implementation, please contact the science and technology K-6 curriculum team on the details below.

[Science and technology K-6 curriculum support.]

[This video features the song “Little Idea” by Bensound. copyright © 2019 licensed under a Creative Commons License Attribution-NoDerivs (3.0) license.]

[Science and Technology K-6 Syllabus (2017) © NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2017]


End of transcript

Project-based learning

In a project-based learning environment, students gain knowledge and skills by investigating and responding to a question, problem, or challenge. The learning and teaching address cross-curricular content through rigorous, authentic, hands-on, interactive learning experiences.

Project-based learning engages students in opportunities to solve rich, authentic problems. It encourages innovation, critical and creative thinking strategies, and collaborative teamwork. Students are prompted by challenging, open-ended driving questions that relate to contemporary and relevant projects such as drought, bushfires, sustainable farming, renewable energy. They apply their learning across the curriculum to design solutions, reflect on feedback and refine products. Student voice and student agency come to the fore as they present their projects to an authentic partner.

Next up ➜

Learn about the 4 design thinking phases.


  • Teaching and learning


  • Learning resource

Business Unit:

  • Educational Standards
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