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 “d.school” 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!


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 the opioid design challenge, 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?

Community engagement

One of the most important elements of a design challenge is using the challenge to connect with your local community. How does the problem impact students’ homes? Is the problem a concern of your community’s mayor?

photo from 2019 student showcase


One of the great benefits of a design challenge is the opportunity for students to create their own ideas and see them in real life.


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

Present at a showcase

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