Case Study: Design Thinking STEAM School

By Erin Mulcahy

Meet Regan and John, who are working with over 140 students at Riverpoint Academy in Spokane, Washington to identify real world problems, prototype solutions to those problems and implement design solutions through expert and user-centered feedback. Read more about their design thinking STEAM programs and Pro Library experience in this week’s case study.



littleBits Case Study Submission

By: Regan Drew and John Marshall, Educators & Designers

Organization: Riverpoint Academy, Mead School District, Spokane, Washington

Age Levels: 11th & 12th grade students

littleBits Products: Pro Library

Date: March 2015


Tell us about your teaching experience.

John Marshall: I have been a teacher and coach for twenty years. I started out teaching middle school English, social studies and science in Spokane, Washington, and I have taught high school English and history in Spokane and Virginia. I have also worked with college students as a pre-service teacher instructor at Washington State University. I am a National Trainer for the Collegboard’s English program, Springboard. I have taught at Riverpoint Academy for the past two years, and this is my first year teaching in TrepStudio.

Regan Drew: I have been a teacher and coach for thirteen years. Prior to entering education, I spent four years in Marketing and Community Relations for the Seattle Supersonics and Storm. I have spent most of my teaching career in Spokane, WA teaching high school social studies and a variety of courses in Career and Technical Education – all of those focused around business, marketing and design. Over the past five years, I have focused on the integration of design thinking and entrepreneurship as a focus in our district and at Riverpoint Academy. I am certified by the Henry Ford Learning Institute as a trainer in design thinking. I have been teaching at Riverpoint Academy for the past 3 years, currently teaching in TrepStudio.


What grade levels do you teach with littleBits?

11th & 12th grade students


Which product did you use and what made you decide to choose this?

The Pro Library. Our course is grounded in design thinking to spur an entrepreneurial incubator with a strong emphasis on storytelling, community change and real impact. We serve over 140 students in our school, so we needed a setup large enough to support them and their work. In TrepStudio, students identify real world problems, prototype solutions to those problems, implement their user-centered design solutions through expert and user-centered feedback. The Pro Library was chosen because of our interest in giving students access to tools they can use to solve problems.



Explain how you incorporate littleBits into your program.

We teach in a Design Thinking STEAM school in Spokane, Washington. We see ourselves as a Design School, where STEM, the humanities & the arts, are fueled by entrepreneurship. We initially incorporated littleBits into our program to scale up our prototyping abilities. Previously, initial prototyping was done with raw materials, i.e. items we’d find at the dollar store. We believed that adding a littleBits library would naturally ramp up the prototyping process. littleBits would now allow students to truly “show don’t tell” their ideas. We also believed that student ideas would increase in sophistication.

Prior to the purchase of littleBits, we observed that students would ideate and intrinsically be influenced through their own biases of what they “could” or “could not” do based on what skill set they came equipped with. We hoped that by increasing student “skill capacity,” to try things that they didn’t previously believe they could do, that their entrepreneurial thought potential would increase in sophistication as well.


We do not have an outline for our process, solely because of the level of differentiation happening in TrepStudio. The outline would vary per group based on the real world problem they are trying to solve. However, each team lives the design thinking process and goes through these phases: mindset (building skill capacity to do innovative work and storytelling), the challenge (their entrepreneurial design journey of inspiration and ideation phases), and taking action (implementation phase). Students have also been spurred by IDEOs DesignKit, which has been a valuable TrepStudio resource.

littleBits has also had great success in TrepStudio as simply a “tinkering and thinking tool.” We started this “leaving interesting things around” thing, initially as an experiement to see if our students would be “observant” and “curious.” If they were, what might they do? Those two traits are ones that we believe are critically important to cultivate and nurture in our students. We began leaving things around to see what students would do with them: LEGO, MAKE magazines, a pumpkin squash, a rosemary herb christmas tree, etc. As students needed breaks in their work, or an outlet for thinking, we began to see some of them grab the interesting items, grab littleBits, and start “playing.” This “playful thinking” produced wonderful outcomes. With a select few students starting this, it transformed the culture of TrepStudio. Other students started trying to make interesting things, seeing what was possible in a playful way. Some of these moments became turning points for some students buying into the bigger picture of what we do at Riverpoint Academy, and on a smaller scale, TrepStudio.



Who were the key people in your organization that made this project possible?

Regan Drew & John Marshall. The Pro Library was paid for by Mead School District’s Career & Tech Ed Director through CTE funds.


What worked well?

Most everything! littleBits have now spread across the culture of our entire building. TrepStudio serves approximately 50+ students. This second semester, we have seen littleBits being used as a prototyping tool across all learning areas in our school, which serves 140 students.

ALL of our students were able to connect to littleBits in some way. We have one team of girls that came up with a wearable tech project. Initially, they thought there was no way they would be able to do it because they “didn’t know how.” After working with littleBits for over a day, they came up with four different prototypes on how their idea might be “work-able and do-able.” Next thing we know, they were learning how to code, sewing with conductive thread, etc. which resulted in a working user-centered designed product called LiteNite. Most recently, one of the girls from the team was found soldering for a different project. littleBits, we believe and observed, was the catalyst for such a progression in her thought process and project work.

We are really excited about how littleBits has become a true prototyping tool that kids are actively using to move from idea to production.



What was a challenge?

A challenge was not having enough duplicate parts to serve our group of students. Many of them would be seeking similar pieces. Also, we got one cloudBit to work, but the others wouldn’t. Since then, we’ve had troubles with any of the cloudBits working. We have many of our students interested in using the cloudBits–we see this as an incredibly powerful tool at Riverpoint Academy.


What has been the response of your students/community?

The Pro Library was first just being used by a group of 54 students in a course called TrepStudio. They were curious and excited about the LittleBits, with students immediately tinkering and trying things out.

After a semester of its use, it is now being accessed by all courses at Riverpoint Academy (the others are Inventioneering and BioMechanics), serving a student population of 140. We need to get another Pro Library (or two) because it’s not reaching far enough on a typical day.



How would you summarize what you learned in implementing your littleBits program?

The power of it as a “thinking and exploration” tool. The importance of incorporating playful “low-risk” challenges where students try things they wouldn’t otherwise, that cracks open the possibilities for them to think more sophisticated. The power of grabbing those students that have not previously experienced “success” in traditional school, all levels of students, that we’ve barely cracked the surface with their possibilities. Gender neutrality.



What standards did you incorporate into your lessons/programs?

21st Century Skills Framework
Common Core


What are your future plans for littleBits use?

This has all transpired this school year, rather quickly, so we will need to spend some time thinking about this. Initial thoughts are:

– Expansion into all aspects of our program/courses at Riverpoint Academy.

– Expansion into other classroom opportunities in our district, i.e. having our high school students mentoring workshops with younger children in their classroom settings.

– Incorporation into a workshop/summer camp model.



Supporting Documents

More pics and video of incubator work in TrepStudio within Riverpoint Academy.

A few videos of other student projects that depict life/work at our school.


Wow, thanks Regan and John for sharing your inspiring story! We can’t wait to see what your plans for next year entail!


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