A Team’s Journey into Design Thinking

Lab work is fun: Team members from Ted Harrison School at the Lab skills workshop in 2016

Lab work is fun: Team members from Ted Harrison School and their ULethbridge mentor at the Lab skills workshop in 2016

The team at Ted Harrison School in Calgary is now in their second year of learning design thinking methods and applying them to their water filtration project. We asked them to share their story. Here is what they had to say.

Our story begins with bees and estrogen. During our early searches through issues and ideas, half of our team became fascinated with the impact pesticides were having on bees and colony collapse, while the other half were concerned about pharmaceuticals that where building up in our water supply. We saw a disconnect between the two project ideas, and eventually found a middle ground and decided to tackle the growing concern of pesticides accumulating in our water ways.


After reaching this compromise, we felt that we already had a project and like most teams, we thought we just needed to look at the technology and build it. We found an enzyme called OpdA that degrades organophosphates, a main ingredient in pesticides. Our plan was to make bacteria that would produce this enzyme, and then filter run off by sticking the bacteria to plastic beads that we scatter around river beds. With that, we thought we were well on our way. We learned about the proteins, explored 3D printing, designed experiments and felt like we were going to change the world.


Then we traveled to Berkeley Biolabs where we attended a workshop and engaged with the design thinking process. At the workshop, we were challenged to create and present a pitch to everyone we met. We started to talk to people we met at the store, our families, and people sitting next to us at the airport. The main purpose of this was to collect information on how others perceived our idea. Most people whom we pitched to were skeptical and had many questions about our idea. Most of us felt that other people did not see how great our idea was, and we often had a hard time to justify our solution to them. Our initial experience with the feedback was very negative.

Design thinking offered us an alternative way to perceive these apparently negative stories. We shared our encounters with each other and wrote down key ideas on sticky notes. We posted them onto a wall and looked for commonalities and insights from all the stories we collected. We quickly realized that some groups were concerned about the problem we had decided to tackle, while others were unaware of it or did not see it as an issue.

Team meeting to revisit ideas and brainstorm

Team meeting to revisit ideas and brainstorm

We knew that our original idea had to be supported by farmers. However, the stories we collected made us realize that our solution would not be an ideal fit for the farming community. We needed to think of an alternative way to solve our problem! Again, design thinking provided us with a way to spark our creativity. We broke the problem into two parts. On the one hand, we thought of all the different places where there would be pesticides. On the other hand, we brainstormed all the different ways we could use our pesticide-degrading bacteria. We tried to keep an open mind. There was no such thing as a bad idea! Next, we paired up ideas from each of the two categories, randomly. This led us to some imaginative solutions to the problem of pesticides. In the end, we settled on three solutions:


  1. Our bacteria would live in paint, and we would paint houses and boats with it. This way we would filter rain water or water from lakes and rivers that comes in contact with the hulls of boats.
  2. Our bacteria would line the water pipes, so that as water travels to our homes, the pesticides are removed from the water we drink.
  3. Our bacteria would be part of a home filtration system to filter clean the water for cooking and drinking.


To determine which of these solutions would be most viable, we started to sketch them and looked for hidden issues. For example, as we did our sketches we noticed that our boat idea would not work well because most boats are in the ocean, and we wanted to target sources of drinking water like fresh water. In the end we decided to focus on a home filtration system.

Sifting through stories - a favorite design thinking activity

Sifting through stories – a favorite design thinking activity

In pursuing the home filtration idea, we went back to the stories we had collected and looked for new patterns and insights. This exercise led us think that the best audience for our technology would be young families and pregnant women who are especially sensitive to unnatural compounds in water and food.


As soon as we identified our main users, we realized that our solution had a potential pitfall: Our filtration system would involve genetically modified organisms and plastics, both of which raised strong concerns among the public. We had to modify our plans so that our solution would be considered natural, and avoid labels that would make our product look unsafe to our user group. After more research, we decided to change the binding substrate by coating our beads with sand instead of plastic. In addition to being a natural substance, sand had the advantage of functioning as a water filter by itself. We also thought of creating a fusion protein that would eliminate the need for using live bacteria, thereby avoiding association to GMOs.

Always in the front row, the team from Ted Harrison school attends the Imagine.Design.Create presentation by Dr. Cesar Rodriguez

Always in the front row, the team from Ted Harrison school attends the Imagine.Design.Create presentation by Dr. Cesar Rodriguez in May 2016

At our recent school workshop in January, we identified assumptions behind the technology, designed our experiments and DNA constructs, and sent the DNA sequences out for synthesis.

Testing new DNA constructs at the Lethbridge workshop in March 2017

Testing new DNA constructs at the Lethbridge workshop in March 2017

In the meantime we explored different filter systems using a straw, a water tap, or a jug. We settled on a jug-based filtration system and engaged in the design thinking process once more. To further understand the end user experience with different filtration systems, each of us used a jug and water bottle Brita filter in our own homes for 30 days. Then, we shared our stories and drew out important insights from the experience, some of which are listed below:


  1. There needs to be a visual reassurance for users to believe the product works.
  2. The filtration process is a bit cumbersome, and needs to be streamlined.
  3. Users may become attached to their filters, and there can be elements of pride associated with using the product.


We are looking at these ideas to decide what kinds of adjustments we need to make to our final product in order to increase the user experience. We are also planning to contact the Brita manufacturer in the hope that we will gain a better understanding of their design process. We would also explore the possibility of a collaboration with them, and see if our ideas could be incorporated into the Brita technology.

Back to the drawing board - Lethbridge workshop March 2017

Back to the drawing board – Team members at Lethbridge workshop in March 2017

During discussions with mentors at the recent workshop at ULethbridge, we became aware of some assumptions and limitations of our project in its current stage. To clarify these, we have identified several local experts and have begun contacting them. The information and feedback we have collected so far pushed us to reconsider earlier options for our product. At the workshop, our mentors have also introduced us to computer modeling and we are excited to see how this new tool can inform our project. And thus the learning continues…