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Design Challenges Engage Students by Tapping Their Creativity

By Jerry Fingal
September 28, 2020
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Years ago, Tim Needles quit giving homework to his art students at Smithtown East High School on Long Island, New York. Instead, he gave them optional “creative challenges.”

Such a challenge could involve using cardboard to create a chair sturdy enough to support an amount of weight. Or making a self-portrait without using any drawing materials — pens and paper were out, food and toys were in.

The challenges struck a chord with students.

“I found that there was just more engagement,” he said. “Students were choosing to do them. And there was really a higher level of learning that was happening.”

No need for fancy tools!

Since then, what he now calls design challenges are a regular part of his classes. He figures has 30 to 40 of them in an ever-expanding repertoire.
“It’s a wide range of activities but they all promote creativity and STEAM,” he said.

Needles is the author the STEAM Power: Infusing Art into Your Stem Curriculum. He’s an artist, an award-winning teacher and frequent presenter to other educators. At the upcoming ISTE20 Live, he will lead a session on design challenges. It will be a hands-on session where participants will learn about design challenges by doing one.

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In his classes, Needles keeps the challenges simple by using readily available materials or free apps or digital tools. For example, students are asked to use 10 or so Post-it Notes to create a flipbook animation that introduces an idea. Or to create a 3D object out of 3-by-5 index cards. Another asks them to use an online drawing program to create a portrait only using words.

What they also have in common is that they promote digital skills.

“In all of the challenges, creativity is there and critical thinking is usually prominent,” he said. “They’re being asked to solve a problem. And the students frequently work together, so there’s collaboration going on.”
The challenges aren’t just for high school art classes. Educators of all subject area and grade levels can implement them.

“The challenges vary. Some will cater toward the arts, others are more catered toward STEAM and interdisciplinary work. I've done that with every different subject. You could cater it to whatever you're teaching.”

Tailor challenges for any subject area

Some of his favorite challenges involve storytelling. “Storytelling is something that you could use in any discipline,” he said. For example, a “microstory” challenge asks students to tell a story with just four images with optional voiceover or text. “That’s one you can do in math or history or any subject,” he said.

One interdisciplinary project Needles was involved in was having students create a public awareness campaign about the dangers posed by urban runoff water to local sea life. But students could only use the materials allowed by local government: the three colors of paint allowed on public streets.

Needles has found that limits on materials and time constraints actually serve as fuel for creativity.

“As a teacher for over 20 years, I’ve found that one of the best ways to promote creativity is by adding limitations,” he said. “It sounds backwards, but when you give students a small box, it actually makes it easier for them to be creative. If you just ask people to be creative, they often kind of flounder and get lost. But if I asked them to create a drawing without using their hands, the specifics of the limitation actually help.”
Aside from creativity and other digital skills, the challenges also build connections.

“The real strength of the design challenge is that it’s a short, one- to two-minute concept that you share,” he said. “One of the advantages is that as you are presenting these design challenges, you have a community that grows. Students end up offering their own design challenges, and it’s way more collaborative in the classroom. I came up with the first 20 or 30, and then students started volunteering their own ideas.”

Don't miss Tim's sessions at ISTE20 Live: 5 Creative Projects From STEAM Power: Infusing Art Into Your STEM Curriculum, Project-Based STEAM on a Budget, and his Social Emotional Learning Lightning Talk.

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Jerry Fingal is a freelance writer who explores the impact of technology on student learning.