What is a Design Challenge?

A design challenge starts with a problem. Teachers communicate the problem to students. From there, students research, build and test a solution to the problem. They also present that solution to an audience.

Design challenges mirror the way real world companies and organizations solve problems. The Stanford “” played a major role in popularizing the use of design challenges in schools. (Read their guidelines here)

The core of a design challenge is the design cycle. In every design challenge, students complete every phase of the design cycle.

The design cycle

There are many different version of “the” design cycle. There is no “official” Ohio STEM Learning Network design cycle. Your school is welcome to use it’s own version or whatever version works best for you. Here’s a downloadable version of the design cycle used by Metro Early College High School.

Design cycle

To better understand the design cycle, here’s one of our favorite videos detailing how to use the design cycle for… a taco party!

Teaching through the design cycle

The design cycle has stages. So does organizing a design challenge at your school. Below, we’ve outlined the basic steps most educators will complete through the delivery of a design challenge.

Steps of a design challenge

  • Hook activity – Introduce the topic to “hook” students’ interest. A hook can be a video, guest speaker, field trip. Help students understand why the topic matters, and begin to explore community needs related to the topic.
  • Identify the problem – Break the topic into smaller parts, so students can determine what aspect of the problem they’d like to solve. Educators can assist with this by refining the challenge question to a more manageable aspect of the topic.
  • Brainstorm and research – Guide students in brainstorming problems related to topic, learn about the needs of your community and research possible solutions. This is a great opportunity to connect with your local community to learn how the problem impacts end-users.
  • Develop a solution – Students should pick a solution, and work on the logistics and begin to map out prototype and pitch.
  • Create a prototype – Students build a physical model, or prototype, to demonstrate how the solution works. The prototype does not have to be sophisticated, or fully functional. Rather, it needs to demonstrate the solution so that the audience understands.
  • Test and evaluate – Test the prototype and solution to make sure it works as intended. Get feedback on the solution from peers or community members to ensure that the prototype solves the problem as expected
  • Share and iterate – Students present their solutions to an “authentic” audience. An authentic audience is made up of potential end users – whether that’s community members, business professionals, peers or parents, it’s a really important part of the process. Students need to get feedback on their designs to understand what works, and get feedback on potential improvements. This is a great way to hone presentation and “pitching” skills. Additionally, students reflect on what changes they would make to their designs. To go one step further, implement those changes, and work the cycle again!

Teaching Resources

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.  Examples of hook activities from previous challenges include: Pickerington Ridgeview ran a drug safety day to introduce the opioid epidemic. Another school celebrated Valentine’s Day with workshops focusing on heart health for the heart challenge.

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 explore the topic further?

Identify the Problem

This year’s challenge question is a big one – “Reimagine energy production/consumption to improve your community”. There are plenty of energy related sub-topics for students to explore, and still be eligible for the design challenge. Perhaps you want to strictly focus on improving energy relating to transportation, or “smart home” technology, or explore equity issues related to equity – any energy related question is fine. Use the topic web to see different ways to think about this year’s topic.

Once you refine the question, consider the community in which you live, and the people who you are solving the problem for. Sometimes, these people are called the “problem owners”. Keeping a particular person, or group of people in mind as you work to refine your solution is helpful.

Brainstorm and Research

Think about your local community to identify problem owners, and problems they experience and begin to consider how you can improve your community through this design challenge. Reach out to local businesses, community organizations, and stakeholders to learn about the problems they face when it comes to energy production and consumption. If possible, invite community members to speak to the class, so students can get a real-world perspective of the problems in the community.

Sample brainstorm: who cares about energy in my community?

Individuals Businesses/CorporationsCommunity OrganizationsInstitutions Government
HomeownersElectric Company Ohio Energy PartnershipUniversity, Parks, Local school districtOhio Environmental Council

Develop a solution

During this phase, students develop their solutions. For the design challenge, participating students must create a physical prototype and a deliver a 30 – 90 second video-recorded “pitch”. To further assess student learning teachers may require additional deliverables from each student, like a product brochure, slide presentation, trifold or poster, written paper or video script, or reflection on learning.


These rough model of your students’ idea can be made from cardboard, household supplies, or even items the recycling. We ask all student projects to include a prototype. Prototypes built in fab-labs or makerspaces are great, but not required.

These do not have to work, but students should be able to explain how it could work. Even a small model qualifies. If your prototype is fully functioning, even better!

Prototype from 2019 heart health design challenge

Test and Evaluate

Once the prototype is built, create opportunities for students to share their solution with a problem owner or peer. Have students record and reflect on the feedback they receive and document any modifications they make to their original solution design.

Share at a showcase and iterate

A school’s showcase allows students to present their solutions to an authentic audience and get real-world feedback. This sharing and feedback is the most important element of a showcase. Through it, students can reflect on what they’ve learned as they progressed through the design cycle.

Once you’ve scheduled your event, recruit members of the community to give feedback to the students. You may call them judges, panel members, or community experts. The key is creating an opportunity for students to an authentic audience and receive feedback.

One key practice: Encourage your judges to ask about the change’s students made to their solution throughout the process. 

student showcase at school

Finally, students can learn even more by sketching new improvements to their designs. Suggestions from experts and viewers of the showcase form one good source of ideas. Many students can also see for themselves improvements they’d like to make. To expand the learning even more, repeat the design cycle!