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Design Thinking

Here, our students learn to dream and design, to test and reinvent, in makerspaces equipped with everything from drill presses to digital cameras, from sewing machines to Arduinos.

A major component of our school-wide commitment to the STEAM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics), our signature design thinking program, modeled on an initiative at Stanford University, is woven into all levels of a Seven Hills education.
Design thinking focuses on creating innovators, rather than one particular innovation. It is a human-centered method for creative action that leans heavily on empathy, observation, interviewing, and brainstorming.

First, students interview someone who is facing a personal challenge, seeking to build an empathetic connection, to understand the needs of someone who may be very different from themselves. They examine the challenge from all angles, seeking to understand root causes. Then, during the design phase, they explore various possible solutions, first sketching, then building and testing various prototypes, assessing the benefits and liabilities of each new design in consultation with the “client” or other members of the design team.

Eventually, when all the adjustments have been made, they build their most elegant iteration and present it, either to their peers or to a panel of experts. In these formal exhibitions, they must defend their reasoning, analyzing the advantages and drawbacks of various design concepts.

Students in all four divisions have multiple opportunities to participate in design thinking projects; as students mature, the complexity of the problems and the technical sophistication of the designs increase in kind.

Coached by our expert faculty, many with entrepreneurial or design backgrounds, students develop empathy and creativity, as well as design and entrepreneurial skills. They learn to solve problems with both sensitivity and persistence and to work for and with other people to bring new ideas to life.

By learning each day, in these active and engaging ways, Seven Hills students become empowered and confident, eager to engage with the world around them and accustomed to working with others to apply what they have learned in meaningful and fulfilling ways.

Division Specifics

Pre-kindergarteners are introduced to STEM concepts through hands-on activities. During a six-week unit, students learn about simple machines and their uses. In a lesson about inclined planes, they create their own ramps using boxes, cardboard, and tape. Students experiment with the different types of inclines, learning what happens when the plane is moved by just a few, or even several, inches.

At our Early Childhood Center on the Hillsdale Campus, pre-kindergarteners work together as a class to build a city, complete with a road, the Ohio River, hand-painted buildings, and Cincinnati landmarks. Students talk about what they love about Cincinnati and what makes it unique before deciding on what structures to build.

The Doherty Campus’ Creation Studio is open to even our youngest students. The space is filled with hi- and low-tech materials that spark imagination. Pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners take part in design challenges that require creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. They may be prompted to craft a digging tool to aid in the search for buried treasure, or design a shoe and put their prototype to the test. These projects ask students to think critically and create an item with a real-world application.

Learn More About Early Childhood Signature Programs

Hats that zap static from your hair, indoor clotheslines, wheel enhancements for lawnmowers, remote-controlled bird feeders and shoes that also serve as stepstools – these are just some of the creations our fifth-graders have developed during their social studies Invention Unit. After learning how early technologies helped navigators solve the challenges they faced in the new world, students research and brainstorm problems to solve, conceptualize designs that would address the challenges, and create cardboard models that they would eventually turn into full-size prototypes.

Lotspeich students participate in Project Math, an innovative math enrichment program that spans first- through fifth-grade. This program includes many long-term projects and lessons that connect the quantitative concepts students learn in the classroom with real-world applications. This might include a Cincinnati Council member visiting the classroom, designing a four-block region above Fort Washington Way, transforming classrooms into an arcade by using recycled materials, or developing platforms for making Seven Hills a more environmentally sustainable campus.

Our Everyday Mathematics program, designed by the University of Chicago, is inspiring and fun, making math something that students are excited to apply. At Seven Hills, we want each student to understand mathematics at the most fundamental and conceptual level, so solving problems creatively and confidently is part of the experience from the beginning. The “spiral design” of the program means that material resurfaces repeatedly and that students are continually building on previous experiences. This gives students a strong base for high-level problem-solving in later grades, as well as a chance for recurring assessments to track progress.

The Doherty Campus features the Creation Studio, equipped with Apple computers, 3-D printers, hand tools, and well-organized shelves that provide all the materials an inspired mind can desire. A highlight of the program is the Passion Project, a student-led assignment that asks fourth- and fifth-graders to identify what they love and explore it in-depth. A future fashion designer may test an idea for a raincoat on a sewing machine. Along the way, students delight in the process of discovery as much as in the results.

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Our Middle School Innovation Lab asks students to approach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with the mindset of problem-solvers, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Because empathy and innovation are often linked at Seven Hills, the start of every project in our Middle School Innovation Lab begins with students asking themselves  and those around them, “How can I help?” “How can I make your life easier?” 

At the beginning of the semester-long Design Thinking course, seventh-graders interview people in the Seven Hills community and identify problems to solve. Working in groups, they examine a problem from all angles, and develop a prototype based on their ideas using the tools and materials they find in the Innovation Lab. Every step of the way, the students keep their “client” in mind, finding ways to put their empathy into practice. Students’ projects have ranged from a toy designed to engage animals in the Cincinnati Zoo, to a bracelet designed to remind elderly people to remain hydrated, and even a better toothpaste dispenser. The school year culminates for our Design Thinkers in a special presentation to a panel of evaluators with expertise in diverse STEM-related professions. The evaluators listen to student presentations, ask questions, and take a closer look at projects and presentations, providing students with invaluable feedback from real-world experts.

Sixth-graders apply design thinking principles during their study of Mayans, Incans, and Aztecs. Using TinkerCad, a 3-D design software, students create an artifact or temple from one of the three civilizations, designing their own or copying one they found through research. This cross-curricular lesson allows students to stretch their skills and create complex structures using computer software.

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Our Upper School offers two project-based engineering courses that introduce students to STEM-based disciplines such as biomedical, electrical, civil, and mechanical engineering through engaging assignments with real-world applications. Our engineering students collaborate to solve a problem, sometimes one found in the Seven Hills community. For example, students devised, prototyped, and built tools and a specially designed backpack to help a graduating senior with a medical condition as he prepared to head off to his freshman year in college.

Our four-course computer science sequence offers some of the best opportunities for students to learn problem-solving techniques and the freedom to design their own work. In Programming I, students are introduced to computer science and computational thinking through the Python programming language and real-world examples. Through a variety of supplemental tools, programming languages, activities, and contests, students gain a broad range of experiences intended to prepare them for additional areas of study in this field. Programming II is an introduction to object-oriented concepts and designs, where student build on the skills obtained in Programming 1, using the Java language to reinforce programming practices and explore object modeling and interactions. In AP Computer Science A, students explore more advanced topics in Java and object-oriented design, including inheritance, polymorphism, recursion, and searching and sorting algorithms. Computer Engineering students learn what makes a computer work as they explore hardware, digital electronics and the tools computer engineers use to design and test. This course is hands-on and students use computer engineering tools to create a real-world learning experience.

In our Entrepreneurship elective, students visit a local business and then work in small groups to solve an issue facing it, ultimately presenting their solutions to the owner. The students do this for several Cincinnati businesses, gaining experience in developing a strategic plan, pitching ideas, and reading relevant publications. Students apply their new entrepreneurial knowledge toward developing their own products. The course culminates in the Upper Schoolers presenting their ideas to a panel of business experts, who provide valuable advice and feedback.

Biotechnology, an elective class, introduces students to biotechnology career pathways and business applications. Young scientists learn about DNA, RNA, and protein technologies, as well as genetic diagnostics and forensic science. Discussions center around a host of topics, including bioethics, stem cells, and environmental management.

Learn More About Upper School Signature Programs