Reworking the Woodpile

An exciting development in education is the integration of design thinking into teaching and learning. Design thinking, long employed by designers and engineers, is an approach to problem-solving that involves defining an issue, collecting research, generating ideas, and prototyping before implementing a solution. In our knowledge-based economy, design thinking is an invaluable skill because it can be applied to resolve a myriad of problems. In recent years, educators are deploying innovative programs to engage students in the development and implementation of their own design challenges, in subjects that range from engineering to filmmaking. At the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), we employ design thinking at our annual Big Ideas Fest convening, where we work with educators to devise solutions to pressing problems in the education field.

I found design thinking a helpful approach to a problem my family and I encounter annually. Our home on Lake Chicog in northern Wisconsin is heated by a wood-burning stove, and every summer we round up the fallen trees on the land, slice them into firewood-sized pieces with a machine wood splitter, and stack a large pile of wood on the property for winter. For reasons of fire safety, the wood must be stacked away from the house. In past years, this has resulted in unsightly, lopsided stacks that are prone to toppling over. This past July, my sister and I decided to use our design-thinking skills to develop a creative solution to the problem of stacking the wood. Based on a prototype photograph we found on the internet (What, you’ve never googled “creative woodpile designs”!?), we created something that is both sculpture and structure, serving both a practical and an aesthetic purpose. 

The first day we split wood. The second day, we began stacking and developing our idea, setting up the basic structure of the woodpile. As the idea became tangible, it was refined by near-constant feedback between my sister and me. Chance played a key role; some of the wood in the pile was from a fallen telephone pole, bleached white from the sun. This wood, along with pieces of birch tree we found around the property, offered the contrasting color we needed to make the design pop. On the third day, we refined the concept by gathering input from relatives on some of the details of the design, and by improving the structural supports. As is often the case on any design-thinking team, we found that each of us brought complementary skills; my appreciation for physical labor let me to happily carry out the bulk of the wood splitting task, and my sister’s methodical attention to detail proved well-suited to finalizing the aesthetic look. In the end, our use of design thinking resulted in a woodpile both more structurally sound and visually pleasing than anything we’ve ever created, We were also pretty pleased that our hard work resulted in some attention in the local paper

At ISKME, we’ve seen that when educators, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners come together to learn design thinking, they walk away with a problem-solving tool they can use everywhere to generate innovative ideas, and implement solutions they would not have otherwise pursued. That was our experience this summer at Lake Chicog, too. And that is precisely the kind of skill 21st century learners need to develop innovative solutions. So let’s equip students with skills they can really use – at school, at work, at the woodpile, and in the world at large.