Design Thinking and Gift Giving

Early STEAM Inspirations with Ariel Shostak

Discover how a friendly elementary school competition and a 5th grade math club inspired Ariel Shostak to pursue engineering and product design.

Design Thinking with Ariel Shostak

What is design thinking, and how does design thinking influence toy development?

Gift Giving and Design Thinking 5E


Ask: Can you think of something that was designed for a specific person or group of people?

List student responses on the board.

Explain: Engineers are responsible for designing and building much of the world around us.

Highlight things around the room that engineers designed, such as TV screens, projectors, telephones, tables, chairs, even the building the classroom is in.

The smaller the audience, the more focused engineers can be. For example, engineers designed the tables and chairs in the classroom specifically to fit the age of students who would use them.

Explain: Today, students will design a gift for a partner and receive a gift from that same partner. The design process will be influenced by the wants and needs of the partner.

Optional: Play one of several introductory videos on the role of an engineer.


Conduct student interviews. Each interview should consist of two students who take turns sharing details to the following three questions:

  • What do you like to do for fun?

  • Who are your favorite people to be around?

  • If there was one place you could go, where would it be?

As Ariel Shostak mentioned in her second video Design Thinking, students should ask open-ended questions (avoid questions with yes/no answers) and the questions should illicit a strong emotional response.

The student listening should take notes or draw pictures that illustrate their interviewee's answers.

Distribute one face-down Object Card to each student.

Independently, students flip their Object Card and brainstorm things to create for their classmate based on the answers from the student interview. Students write down their brainstorm ideas on the same paper as their interview notes.

Once students explain their idea to the teacher and the teacher checks to see if the idea is on task and class appropriate, provide materials to the student to begin their build.

Educator Note: Avoid providing materials up-front. Students who see building materials first put less thinking into their planning and design steps.

Students continue their build until the allotted time runs out.


This step consists of two components: Observation and Explanation.

Students exchange designs with the classmate they interviewed. Students should observe their classmate interacting with the design first.

Students then explain their design to their classmate. Students discuss the following:

  • What do you like about the design?

  • What can be improved?

Both the student observations and discussion points during the explanation will be used in the next step to make revisions.


Individually, students take the feedback they received from their student pair discussion and return to their design. Students are provided an additional amount of time (approximately 20 minutes) to make modifications based on the feedback received.

During this time, students write an identification sheet. Students should write in large print:

  • The person they interviewed.

  • The object type (from the object cards).

  • The name of the design (student-created).

  • A description that explains how the information from the interview inspired the design, consisting of 2-3 sentences.


Once the revision time is up, students display the designs on tables around the room next to the identification sheet.

Students conduct a Gallery Walk and observe the designs of all students.

Following the gallery walk, engage students in a discussion around how the student interviews lead to better designs.

  • How did you see each student's favorite person, place or thing incorporated into their design?

  • How did information from the student interview improve the design you created?

Wrap up by explaining that engineers make better products by learning about the individual or group who will use the product. Engineers rarely build the perfect product on the first try and that revisions and rebuilds, like students did in this activity, is essential to ensure the best final product. Once a final product is developed, engineers share their product, similar to how students shared their design during the gallery walk.

Meet Ariel Shostak

What is your favorite toy? Maybe it’s a stuffed animal or doll, or a remote control car or robot. Are you thinking of a ball, or a wind-up toy, or a talking action figure or a race car? Perhaps it’s something that helped you learn something new, or depicted your favorite character. No matter what toy you chose, they all have something in common - they were all designed by a team of people considering a wide variety of factors to maximize the fun! As a toy engineer, Ariel Shostak understands what goes into this process.

Working with designers who focus on the overall look of the toy, Ariel defines the functionality, selects materials and determines how it will be made and assembled, while ensuring all these choices meet safety standards and cost targets to make it affordable for consumers.

Ariel is a mechanical engineer with over fifteen years of experience developing a wide range of products, from government and public safety communication products to consumer electronics, baby gear, and toys. She specialized in Design Thinking during her graduate studies and takes extra effort to consider the people who will use--and potentially misuse-- the products she designs. For products that children use, like toys, it is especially important to also ensure that they are safe.

Design Thinking, or Human Centered Design, is the process of considering and empathizing with the people who will use products or services and is an important part of designing something that people will use. When designing toys, Ariel considers the age, interest, and ability of the end user. She must also be aware of potential hazards, such as small parts that can be harmful for small children, or possible misuses of the toy that could cause harm or a bad user experience.

A major part of Design Thinking is interviewing or observing people who will use the product. In the ASK stage for the Engineering Design Process, the goal is to develop or confirm the problem statement and find out the users’ most important needs. The EXPERIMENT stage is your chance to get feedback on your ideas and mock-ups to see if your concept is easy to use and works the way you envisioned. You can incorporate feedback you receive in the IMPROVE stage as you repeat the process. Each step gets you closer to a product that people will love!

Engineering and Design Thinking

What happens when engineers design without considering the end user experience? Glass ketchup bottles were notoriously difficult to use. Sewer grates with horizontal grates are hazardous to bicycles with skinny tires. The lack of design thinking can result in momentary confusion, too, such as when door handles that typically indicate a pull outward are installed on doors that push inward.

These examples highlight how important it is for educators to simultaneously teach students engineering and empathy.

Below are photographs that show how builders failed to consider the walker's wants and needs when designing sidewalks.

These images, which come from the article Least Resistance: How Desire Paths Lead to Better Design, demonstrate how engineers can make more informed decisions by observing the behavior of walkers. Using observed behaviors to improve a design is a critical component of design thinking.

Gift Giving Activity

In this activity, adapted from OMSI's The Perfect Present and Stanford University's The Gift Giving Project, students will interview a classmate and use information from that interview to design and build a gift for the classmate.


  • Colored pencils, crayons or markers.

  • Object Cards, printed, double-sided (from OMSI's The Perfect Present)

  • An assortment of building materials, such as:

    • Pipe cleaners

    • Cotton balls

    • Rubber bands

    • Foam sheets

    • Paper clips

    • Straws

    • Binder clips

    • Cups and plates

    • Cardboard

    • Paper towel rolls

    • Recycled plastic containers

The Engineering Design Process

Educators can use several versions of the Engineering Design Process (EDP). The version below, from NASA's education page, uses six succinct words to describe the six steps in the EDP.

  • Students begin at the ASK step when they consider "what is the problem I want to solve?"

  • The PLAN step is crucial. Students can plan with a drawing or a bullet list of steps. Students should have their plan approved by the educator before being given access to the building material.

  • In the IMPROVE step, students receive feedback from their peers, their teacher and through data gathered during the experiment.

  • Emphasize that the EDP is non-linear and that students are not "finished" once they complete their first design. There is always room for improvement!

Credit: NASA STEM Engagement