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Our Hungry Planet: Design Thinking Challenge


The following lesson, Our Hungry Planet, is brought to you by the California Academy of Sciences.


Constructing Explanations, Earth & Space Science, Engineering & Technology, Flipside Science



Brief Description

Students will be asked to tackle a food system issue at home, at school, or in the community. This lesson will help you facilitate a structured design challenge in your classroom.


The goal of this lesson is for students to

  • practice design thinking.
  • structure a design process.

Related Files

About This Lesson

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 60 minutes

This is the fifth and final activity in the Flipside Science: Our Hungry Planet unit designed for a middle school audience. In this lesson, students explore environmental issues related to the food we grow and eat with an emphasis on engineering and design thinking. Before implementing this design challenge in your classroom, it is recommended you start with the preceding activities in the unit:

  1. Food for Thought: Defining a Problem to Find a Solution
  2. Exploring the Impacts of Feeding the World
  3. Rapid Brainstorming: How Can We Improve Our Global Food System?
  4. Sustainable Food Solutions: Weighing the Pros and Cons

If you are using this design challenge independently of the unit, your students can become more familiar with issues surrounding our global food system and some proposed solutions by watching the Our Hungry Planet videos.

Using This Design Thinking Guide

‘Design thinking’ is a structured method that can be used to create a product, or to develop and implement solutions to a problem. Through the design thinking process, students can “learn to sharpen the focus of problems by precisely specifying criteria and constraints of successful solutions, taking into account not only what needs the problem is intended to meet, but also the larger context within which the problem is defined, including limits to possible solutions” (Engineering Design in the NGSS for Middle School).

The Design Challenge Levels outlined below are adapted from Design for Change’s design thinking toolkit. Each level can be printed off and given to students as a handout as they work through the challenge. Encourage students to keep track of their ideas and progress in a design notebook or on a blog.

How to Choose a Food Topic for Your Design Challenge

Encourage your students to brainstorm together food system issues that they would feel empowered to tackle either at home, at school, or in their broader community. You can make this a whole class discussion, small group brainstorm, or individual homework. Check out examples of design challenge food topics on the Food Topic Design Challenge Spectrum that vary from one-day challenges to week-long challenges.

Students should work through the challenge in groups. Choosing a challenge that incorporates the whole class can not only help your students build teamwork skills, but can bring comradery to your classroom as your students empower not only each other, but youth outside of their own communities through the sharing of their designs.

Guide for Teachers

Print out the following design thinking levels worksheet for your students.

Design Challenge Level 1: What do your students want to change?

Think about the different groups that your students are a part of: their family, their school, their city, their extracurricular clubs or sports teams, etc. Think about the food system issues that might be present in one of these groups. How healthy are the snack options in the school vending machine? Is there a lot of uneaten food that gets thrown away after dinner at home? How many vegetarian options are there for lunch in the school cafeteria?

Have students discuss the following issues with their group, and keep track of their progress in their design notebooks or on their design challenge blog.

  • Have them choose an issue to focus on. Consider how much time they have to complete this design challenge.
  • Students will observe what’s going on and who is involved.
  • Have them reflect on what they notice and what concerns them.
  • Have them take note of what they already know about the issue. What do they need to find out more?
  • Have your students interview those affected by the issue. Students should ask them questions to better understand what inspires and motivates them, what they value, and what their constraints are.

Design Challenge Level 2: How can your students make a change?

In order to imagine change, your students need to brainstorm the possibilities. The possibilities multiply when they can brainstorm without constraints. Thinking outside of the box and sharing their ideas with each other can lead to highly successful and perhaps unforeseen solutions.

How do the students decide on a design? Have them discuss the following issues with their group, and keep track of their progress in their design notebooks or on their design challenge blog.

  • Set a time limit and have your students brainstorm as many ideas as they can. Have them set a goal -- 10, 20, 100 ideas? Let them really go for it! Students will make a list or draw pictures of anything that comes to mind, no matter how silly or impossible it might seem.
  • Have them share their ideas with others. Can any of their ideas be combined with someone else’s? Are there common themes or categories that their ideas can be organized into?
  • Each group will vote on a subset of solutions. Next, they will draw out the pros and cons of each solution.
  • Finally, they will vote on the best solution.

Design Challenge Level 3: Make the change!

Now it’s time for students to put their hard hats on! It’s time for them to get to work. Remind them why they have accepted this challenge! What is motivating to the students to design a solution? Who is going to benefit or be impacted by their solution? What do they need to take action? Discuss the following points with each group, and have them keep track of their progress in their design notebooks or on their design challenge blog.

  • Have students make a list of what resources they will need (supplies AND people) and where/how they will get them.
  • Have students draw up a plan for the steps that they will take to achieve their goal and divide up the work.
  • Next, they will draw up a timeline for their plan and set goals for completion.
  • Now it is time for them to make it happen and implement their plan.
  • Finally, have them reflect on what happened. What worked? What didn’t work? What could they change? What did they learn?

Design Challenge Level 4: Share their experience

Congratulations to your students on completing their design! They should be proud of their accomplishment and want to share it with others. They should think about a time when someone else’s inspiring story has motivated them to take action. They will inspire others to make changes and design solutions by sharing their own experience!

How will they empower others? Have the students discuss the following points with their group, and keep track of their progress in their design notebooks or on their design challenge blog.

  • They could share their story at a school assembly.
  • They could publish a blog that other youth can read.
  • They could create a Facebook page to showcase their project.
  • They might want to share their experience on Twitter. They could encourage others to use the same hashtag to share their stories.
  • Think about posting a short video onto YouTube about their solution.
  • Students could present their solution to the principal or at a local community meeting.
  • Students could send their findings to your local newspaper, or invite a journalist into the classroom.


NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas (Grades 6-8)

  • MS-ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth System

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (Grades 6-8)

  • Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems
  • Developing Possible Solutions
  • Optimizing the Design Solution

For more standard alignments, resources, and references, visit Our Hungry Planet on the California Academy of Sciences educator website.

More Inspiration for Teachers

Watch stories of successful design thinking challenges in the classroom (from the Teaching Channel):

Or, read these stories: