Solving Library Problems with Design Thinking

This summer at the Learn to Learn IV: Computer Science institute, Computer Science Specialist Kim Wilkens and I were both struck by the same bolt of idea lightning. (Don’t you love it when that happens?) After watching Jennifer Chiu, an associate professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, present about the Design Thinking process and many of the ways that she has used it in her career, we couldn’t stop planning. The process, which empowers students to solve problems using empathy and creativity, seemed like such a powerful way to get students thinking, testing, and collaborating. We dabbled in design with our fourth graders last year – you may remember that fun unit – but this year, we were ready to do even more.



We based our lessons around the Design Thinking process (the above graphic, explaining the steps of Design Thinking, is from, which includes five different steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Each step was its own lesson, and many took more than one meeting. Find more information about about our process, and the amazing work that students created together, split into steps below.


My favorite step of the Design Thinking process, empathizing asks students to step outside of themselves and consider the world from a different perspective. We wanted our students to see the library from a different point of view, so we brought in some mini Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 11.26.12 AMexperts – kindergarteners. Ms. Wilkens and I asked groups of kindergarten students a series of three questions: Can you find me a book about dinosaurs? Can you find me a cookbook? Do we have any books about Thomas Jefferson?, and then set them loose in the library without any further instructions. Fourth graders followed the kindergarteners around taking notes on what they were saying, thinking, doing, and feeling while they tried to find their books.

After our kindergarteners headed back to class, we settled into discussion. On a big piece of chart paper, we took notes on what it feels like and looks like to be a young, beginning reader trying to find a book on a specific subject. Many fourth graders noticed that kindergarteners looked overwhelmed or confused. Some heard them saying things like, “But how am I supposed to find that?” Or, “I don’t know where to look.” They also noticed a few almost-tears as the youngsters pulled book after book off of the shelf randomly, hoping to find a dinosaur.

Fourth graders were especially surprised to find that the signs in our library, which give information about nonfiction sections using both pictures and words, didn’t seem to help the kindergarteners at all. It made them wonder… are they placed too high? Are they too hard to read? Do our signs need more pictures? Do we need create new signs specifically created, and placed, for younger readers? What is the problem, and how do we fix it?


After stepping into the shoes of some of our library’s youngest readers, the next step was IMG_8718to define the problem. Our large piece of chart paper, featuring the actions and feelings of our kindergarten examples, made this part easy. Although each fourth grade class worded it in their own way, we all defined the same problem: Our kindergarten readers are having trouble finding the books that they love in our library without help. This is the library problem that we decided to work together to solve.


Next up? Brainstorming. Our young readers can’t find the books that they love – so how can we fix the problem? Big ideas, small ideas, seemingly impossible ideas – we collected them all. I love this step because in it, there’s no such thing as a ridiculous idea. Every single one is helpful! We looked back over our empathy notes for inspiration and filled a wall with post-it note ideas, from magic flying sneakers that would transport you to the right bookshelf, to a completely separate section of the library just for kindergarteners, filled with just-right books and cozy seats. Check out the embedded Instagram post to see more of our ideas.

With all of our ideas out there, it was time to sort. Going through them all together, we found that our ideas fit into four main categories: signs with pictures and symbols, signs with words and maps, a separate section for young readers, and cool tech stuff to make searching easier.


So we’ve done our research, and we’ve named our problem. At this point, Ms. Wilkens and I gave our big pitch – we are looking to hire consultants to solve our library problem. We will be hearing ideas from fourth grade teams, and going through prototypes of Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 11.29.38 AMproducts. We are looking to hire anywhere from 1-5 teams with creative solutions for helping  young readers find the books that they love. Any and all ideas welcome, but there are constraints – limited supplies, limited time, and limited budget.

Students made their own groups and, from the ideas that we brainstormed during our ideation step, chose the project that they felt the most passionately about. From there, their time was completely theirs. After each step of planning, they stopped to share and receive feedback from another team. After every couple of meetings, they stepped into the “office” to have a meeting with “the big bosses”, where we had to sign off on their work to clear them to continue. Each week was a part of their job interview. We wanted to see their best work on their brightest ideas. Last week, the workers met their deadline – by the end of class, all prototypes needed to be labeled and left on a specific table to be considered. Check out a few of the fourth grade prototypes in the slideshow below, including custom QR codes that lead to auto-play explanations, graphic design mockups (created with free online tool BeFunky), 3D models of possible tech and furniture, and more. To see the rest of the prototypes, scroll down to the video at the end of the post.

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This is where you come in! We need help testing our prototypes. All of the fourth grade prototypes, from all four classes, are currently on display in the library. Stop by to test the prototypes and share your favorites. Which do you think will help our younger readers the most? Which fit our library’s needs the best? Which will look and work best in our library space? Your feedback can help us to decide which teams get hired!




Stay tuned for the unveiling of our winning prototypes, and to meet the teams hired to complete the project. Great work, fourth graders!

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