Minnehaha Academy Blog

Do Something: Design Thinking Connects AP English Skills to the Real World

Posted by Amy Barnard on May 30, 2019

2019-Spring-Clara Stein with post-its-1

Meeting with legislators at the State Capitol. Interviewing the Director of the Tennessee Immunization Program. Creating an interactive art event on the banks of the Mississippi.

Sound like your average AP English course? If not, that’s probably because Stephanie Sommer wasn’t your AP English instructor. AP English is all about literary non-fiction: understanding the crafts of writing and argumentation. But Ms. Sommer wanted the class to be about more than building abstract skills.

“To me it is about teaching the students that you build those skills so you can do something with them,” Ms. Sommer explains.

She also wants students to understand the realities faced by all parties in a conflict, instead of simply focusing on their side of the issue.

“Because this is a Christian school the other part [in research and argumentation] that is really important is empathy."

2019-Spring-Debating Clara 1

Students debate Clara's vaccine awareness project.

To achieve these goals while also making certain students are well prepared for the AP exam, Ms. Sommer built something completely new into the curriculum: a year-long, intensive design thinking project.

The project is based on Stanford's Design Thinking Process, a model used across a multitude of disciplines, from medical research to creating playground equipment.

Students choose a topic that interests them enough to spend a whole year working on it. Throughout the year, they walk through the steps of design thinking to ultimately create an actionable solution that they can implement for their final project.


Carolyn invites passersby to paint the trash they saw or might expect to see on the Mississippi, engaging them in considering the impact of small decisions.

Sommer explains that the first step of research involves digging deep to understand a problem and to build empathy around the people that are involved in the problem.

This step alone often brings new revelations for the students:

“I had never thought about the different perspectives of everyone whose lives were affected,” admits senior Evan Brown Ton.

Last year, Brown Ton examined mining issues in the Boundary Waters, a place he had come to love over a series of vacations.

But Brown Ton realized that his personal bias against mining impacted his ability to understand why many locals supported the initiative. Better understanding their perspective helped him consider solutions that might meet the economic needs of the local community as well as address environmental concerns.

For junior Patrick Cullinan it was Sommer's encouragement to take risks that brought an unexpected result:

"I discovered that it's really not too hard to get a meeting with [legislators], especially if you're sixteen years old," he says. Cullinan has already met with a state senator and representative as part of his research regarding gerrymandering (political redistricting) in Minnesota, and has plans to meet with as many as he can in the coming months.

2019-SPring-Evan Brown Ton for blog

Evan with his website.

Once students complete the initial research and brainstorming sessions, they engage in group debates on each others' subjects.

Here they get to explore the pros and cons in real time, after which classmates vote on which side offered the most effective arguments.

"[Last year] they did really well on the argument part of the AP exam," Ms. Sommer says. Students reported back that they felt the debates had been instrumental in preparing them for this section of the exam.

At this point, students design a prototype: What can they do to practically respond to the issue they feel concerned about?

Far from theory, students must execute their prototype and then report back on its results, discussing what they learned and what they would do differently in the future.

"It’s a lot of work," Ms. Sommer acknowledges.

"This is what work life is like. I give you deadlines and tell you what you need to get done but there aren’t a lot of constraints."


Jackson explains how he reached out to sporting goods stores in search of a partner to improve awareness of invasive species.

Students gain an incredible wealth of tools through this process: learning to research deeply, becoming smart risk takers, organizing a long-range project and carrying it through to completion, accepting and responding to criticism, and developing practical solutions to real-world problems.

And that, Ms. Sommer says, is the ultimate goal. "I’m a very big proponent of preparing kids with skills not just for college but for life."

Some other topics students researched and developed responses to include:

  • Critical Thinking and Experiential Learning
  • Latino Achievement Gap
  • Children of the Incarcerated
  • Opioid Addiction
  • Title IX in High School Athletics
  • Gender Inequality in Stage Directing
  • Gerrymandering
  • Implicit Racial Bias in Education
  • Food Waste
  • Child Trafficking in Minnesota
  • Immigration Stigma

Curious to see some actual project solutions designed by students? Check these out:

Andrew: Created a website that shares information on how people can help prevent drowning.

Trent: Created a t-shirt to raise awareness about childhood trauma. Sales of the shirt go to the non-profit Child Savers organization. 

Topics: Upper School, Academics, Exceptional Academics

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