Project-Based Learning & Design Thinking

Central to the Gibson Ek experience is the idea that students act as agents in their own learning. Starting with their interests, needs, challenges, goals and opportunities, students determine what they need to learn and how they will learn it. Learning is personalized, so project-based learning, rather than teacher-directed units and assignments, is the primary way students engage in challenging work. 

Personalized Learning & Projects

The Vision and Goals of a student’s Learning Plan drive the student’s projects for the learning cycle. Working closely with their advisors, students define an inquiry and develop knowledge and skills to move that inquiry to action. Advisors help students plan and manage projects as well as identify resources that will aid them in deepening their understandings. Projects might be individually executed, or done in collaboration with other students or community members. Students pursue projects at school, at home and at internships. As students complete work, they share it with their advisor for feedback and assessment. 

Design Thinking

Project-based learning is what we do, and Design Thinking is how we do it. Design thinking is a framework for moving through knowledge, challenges and inquiries in a way that asks students to deeply understand something through multiple perspectives, identify a specific need, and work to create a solution to meet that need. Design thinking is active learning. 

As students question, investigate and collaborate, they move through phases of the design thinking process. Gibson Ek’s work is adapted from the work done at Stanford University’s, and uses the following conceptual framework. 

  1. Empathize: understand a challenge and the people affected by it through interviews, observations, experiences and research
  2. Define: use the understanding gained in building empathy to define the problem that needs solving
  3. Ideate: brainstorm, sketch, draft, model
  4. Prototype: experiment with multiple iterations
  5. Test: use the prototype with an audience, get feedback, and make revisions
  6. Evaluate and Reflect: consider the effectiveness of the design and what was learned through the process

Senior Institute

301 and 401 students complete a senior project that identifies a real-world need and then designs and implements a response to that need. Students identify and deeply research this need during their 301 year. By the end of that year they have deeply researched the need, clearly defined the challenge they will tackle, identified a professional partner in the field, and designed a project. During the 401 year students prototype, test, revise and implement their designs. Their work is supported by ongoing workshops during Senior Institute Grade Level teams.


Exploration is student-directed time to work independently, meet with a team for project work, participate in a club (such as ASB), learn from a visiting community member, pursue health and wellness (basketball, running, yoga, etc.), meet individually with an advisor, receive tutoring, or take advantage of other opportunities as they arise. Every week there are learning opportunities for students. Some of these opportunities are ongoing commitments (e.g., Student Media, ASB) and some are short-term opportunities to learn a new skill (Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop), develop a current skill (Writing Workshop, Science Labs) or hear from guest speakers. 


Gibson Ek learning is personalized, but students have a variety of more structured opportunities as they work to become increasingly independent and collaborative learners. In addition to self-directed learning and the learning done at internships, through advisory and during content time, students have offerings (or labs/workshops) each day. 

Design Labs (D-Labs)

D-Labs are collaborative inquiries that take place over the course of six weeks. Students work in small teams to build a deep understanding of a complex, interdisciplinary, real-world challenge, and then use design thinking to address that challenge. The process requires primary and secondary research, community engagement, professional communication and other skills. The ultimate goal of a Design Lab is applying deep learning in real-world situations.

Examples of Design Labs include designing water filtration systems for Issaquah Creek; adapting toys for children with physical limitations; writing graphic novels for marginalized audiences; creating adapted environments for life on Mars.

Crash Labs (C-Labs)

C-Labs are short courses that focus on hands-on learning to develop a skill or deepen knowledge of a topic. They are meant to kick-start or support larger, more applied learning. Crash Labs typically last one day to four weeks. They happen during the afternoon lab block, during Exploration or during Grade Level teams. The goal of a Crash Lab is exposure to something new or deep understanding of a topic or skill.

Examples of Crash Labs include a seminar on First Amendment rights; how to use Adobe Lightroom; producing a podcast; physics of flight; field trip to a local museum. 

[From our Student Handbook]