Why a design thinking mindset is critical for STEM

by: Lauren McManus

As an student in STEM, I have done problem set after problem set based on ideal situations. It’s comforting to know that equations learned in class can be applied to these problems and lead to expected results, which are predetermined by the professor. For me, the most difficult homework problems to solve are not challenging due to the complicated equations. Instead, I have found that the most difficult are open-ended engineering design problems that have countless possible solutions. But these problems are also the most exciting to work through! They are technical problems that require a creative approach, and I have found that my first assumptions do not always hold true.

These are the problems that engineers in industry face every day. There is a problem identified out in the world, and there is a need for a solution. This is when design thinking comes into play. Instead of assuming what problem needs solving and what solution will do just that, there should be time and effort dedicated to understanding the real needs and how those can be met. This is integral to the design process, which can be outlined in four steps by the double diamond model of design (developed by the British Design Council). An understanding of the context of the problem begins with research during the first phase: discover. Diverging from the initially identified problem can help determine what the real problem is and who is affected. Phase two defines the scope of the problem to be solved, given the priorities of who to solve for as well as the constraints of time and budget. The diamond pattern is then repeated by developing a wide range of prototypes to test and improve. Finally, a solution to the problem is delivered!

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But it doesn’t stop there! Almost every problem in STEM is dynamic and there is always room for improvement. The first solution is not always the best solution, so try it again! My biggest takeaway from learning the design process is too fail fast and iterate. I know that some of my designs may look good on paper, but the only way to find out if it will really work is to build, test, and learn.

The design thinking mindset sets my focus on the big picture. There are a seemingly infinite number of technologies just waiting to be invented, but how many of those meet a real need? This question should be on the mind of every problem solver, no matter what age you are. Whether you are developing a new medical treatment or providing clean water to a growing population, try approaching the problem with a design thinking mindset. You may just end up with an innovative solution that you never would have thought of before.