Design Thinking Lesson 1 of 7: Empathize

Length of Project:
Project theme:
Suitable for grades:
Tools & Materials
Material List
  • Design challenge of your choice or own creation
  • Design Challenge Handout (1 per student)
  • Folder or duotang to collect notes and sketches throughout lesson series
Tool list
  • Pencil
  • Optional

  • computer or tablet with word processor and sketching app

    Before you begin: choose a design challenge

  1. Before you teach this series of lessons, you will need to decide on a design challenge for your class. Choose one from the Taking Making into Classrooms resource page 66, or develop your own using their format. One idea is to use one of the projects on the Skills Ready website and apply a design aspect to customize it (for example, you could customize a textile project: have students design and build a wooden loom with specific dimensions to create a specific size of fabric to sew together to make a glasses case, phone case, small pillow, mug sleeve, etc).
  2. Plan on how you will introduce new tools and safety guidelines to your students. Follow the links in the project description to our Tool Tutorials and the Heads Up For Safety documents to help you. Insert tool instruction as needed throughout the design thinking unit before “Lesson 5: Make”, depending on which tools and materials you and your students decide you will be using.
  3. Print a Design Challenge Handout for each student (or design your own), both to help them organize their notes, and as a formative assessment tool for you. Have them check in with you (or one of their peers) to initial each box before they move on to the next section, giving you checkpoints throughout the activity to provide any assistance or suggestions needed.
  4. Opening activity for Design Thinking

  5. Initiate a class share or discussion on a time they or a friend or family member designed an object or solution to a problem. Eg, an aunt who made a stool for your nephew to reach the bathroom tap, or a friend who built an automatic watering system for her houseplants. Extend the discussion by asking: what was the problem that needed solving? What tools and materials did the person use? How did you know that the new invention was a success? Etc.
  6. Ask your students to imagine that they are the “board of designers” for a new company. They might be hired to design the competition outfits for the Canadian Olympic team. They might be hired by a vehicle modification company to come up with mechanisms to help someone with paraplegia drive their new car. They might be contracted to design a jewelry stand for a local artist. They could be making custom-sized birdhouses for a conservation society.
  7. What is the design thinking process?

  8. Introduce the idea of following a design thinking process, or set of steps, to help you imagine how you would create these projects. Write the following six steps on the board: Step 1 Empathize, Step 2 Define, Step 3 Ideate, Step 4 Prototype, Step 5 Test, Step 6 Make, Step 7 Share and Reflect. Tell them they will learn each step over the next few lessons, starting with Empathizing in this lesson.
  9. Looking ahead

  10. To create buy-in and motivation, you may want to get student input on what they might want the “Sharing” stage of the design thinking process to look like. Come up with ideas specific to the design challenge, and think about WHY they might want to share their work (eg, Educating others? Bringing joy to people? Making money to donate to the school?). For example, if they are designing birdhouses, do they want to make a “birdhouse placing” video that documents where each birdhouse was placed as well as the reasoning that went into the location? What about donating their projects to a local care home and asking a local newspaper to highlight the story? How about selling the birdhouses and donating the money to a local bird conservation society?
  11. Help students decide on their “sharing” plan. Get them to list a few things that they might want to do throughout the process to prepare for this. For example, will they want to photograph or video the steps? Do they need to take any “before” pics so they can make a before-and-after picture journal? Make a solid plan before you move ahead with the designing so students know what to look forward to.
  12. Step 1: Empathize

  13. Define empathy (cognitive empathy): understanding other people’s points of view and recognizing their feelings. Introduce students to the chosen design challenge and ask them how they think empathy could help them to make their project the best as possible for the end user.
  14. As a class, discuss and record all the variables or qualities they can think of about the product they will be making. For example, if they’re designing the Olympic outfits, they could note down: fabric type, elasticity, colour, closure mechanisms, etc.
  15. If you have time, bring in a guest speaker, or find some videos or websites that help students understand or empathize with their end users. For example, you could watch sport competition videos to gain some understanding of what an athlete’s outfit needs to be.
  16. Next, have students devise (you could have them journal or think-pair-share) a list of questions that they would want to ask the end user in order to customize the product for them. Tell them to refer to step 8’s list to help give them ideas of what to ask.
  17. Sample questions to help prompt students' own:

  18. If you want to design an athlete’s competition outfit, you could ask them: What do you like most about your current athletic outfit? What would you change about the outfit you usually wear? Do you need to stay warm in your outfit? What range of motion do you need to be able to make?
  19. Closing activity

  20. You could have the students share their questions in small groups and help each other edit and revise their list. They may also suggest more questions they might want to ask. You could get students to ask the end user the questions now, or further edit the questions after lesson 2.
Extension Challenges
  1. Give students (or have them decorate) official “design journals” (or folders, duotangs, binders) where they can keep track of their design process.
  2. Invite a local artist, tradesperson, or maker into your classroom to speak about the design process. Ask them to help students normalize the parts of design that might feel like “mistakes”, the times the prototypes fell apart, or they had trouble finding solutions to work within set parameters, etc. Sometimes designers may spend years and years in the design phase before they find a solution; it may not be the final product that is the most valuable part of the process.
Suggest an Edit