Exploring Computational Thinking via the Backpack Redesign Challenge

When tasked with exploring computational thinking skills, I must admit that my first reaction was to question the practical application for those of us not teaching computer science. What role can computational thinking play when teaching history or English? It turns out that computational thinking can support problem-solving in a variety of subjects. We use elements of computational thinking on a daily basis without even thinking about it.

What are computational thinking skills?


  • How can we take complex problems and break them down into simpler tasks?
  • Everyday Example: Making cookies is a complex task that can be broken down into smaller, simpler tasks such as mixing up the dough, forming into shapes via cookie cutters, and baking.
  • Academic Example: Writing an essay is a complex task that can be broken down into smaller tasks such as developing a thesis, gathering evidence, and creating a bibliography page.

Pattern Recognition

  • What similarities, differences, or patterns exist within the problem?
  • Everyday Example: Obeying the basic green – yellow – red pattern for traffic signals ensures that traffic moves safely through an intersection.
  • Academic Example: Pattern recognition is required when categorizing rocks as either igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary.


  • What general principles exist within the problem? What unimportant details can be ignored?
  • Everyday Example: Any map with a compass rose can be interpreted if you are familiar with North, South, East, and West directions.
  • Academic Example: To be classified as a fruit, a food must be seed-bearing. This is the key principle. Factors like taste can be used to describe the food as a fruit, but they shouldn’t be considered due to the variable nature of human taste buds (ie- one person thinks bananas are delicious and another hates them).

Algorithm Design

  • What steps are needed to solve the problem and how can the steps best be organized?
  • Everyday Example: Getting ready in the morning is a multi-step process. Certain steps must be performed in a specific order. For example, you must put on your socks before you put on your shoes.
  • Academic Example: In math, the mnemonic device PEMDAS (“please excuse my dear aunt Sally”) helps students remember the order of mathematical operations.

What is the “Backpack Redesign Challenge”?

The Backpack Redesign Challenge was created by the Institute of Design at Stanford. It is one of many projects available on the school’s Wiki page. Though no longer being updated, there are many exciting projects still hosted on the Wiki. The challenge is completed by students in pairs. The goal is to create a better backpack for your assigned partner. The following step-by-step instructions are adapted from the PDF guide posted on the Wiki.

Step 1: Interview (5 minutes per partner)

  • Conduct an interview to find out your partner’s likes and dislikes about their backpack. What needs do they have that aren’t being met? What do they look for when choosing a backpack? Jot down notes or sketches as your partner shares.
  • Note: Students should generate their own questions, however, it is helpful to give them examples of open vs close-ended questions (“Do you like your backpack?” vs “What is your favorite part of your backpack and why?”)

Step 2: Insights (1 minute)

  • What is your takeaway from the interview? What stood out to you?

Step 3: Empathy (3 minutes)

  • Identify your partner’s needs based on the interview.
  • Create a needs statement: {Partner} needs {fill in the blank} because {fill in the blank}.

Step 4: Brainstorm (5 minutes)

  • Jot down your ideas for a redesigned backpack taking your partner’s needs into account.

Step 5: Prototyping (8 minutes)

  • Create a prototype for your partner using provided supplies.
  • Note: For time purposes, students aren’t making an actual backpack. They should use poster paper, markers, crayons, and other art supplies to bring their vision to life for their partner. Encourage labels (ie- solar panel for cell phone charging).

Step 6: Feedback (5 minutes per partner)

  • What worked about the design? What could be improved on?
  • Note: A possible extension activity is having the student pitch their prototype to their partner or even to a panel of judges (other students or teachers/staff members).

Step 7: Reflect (3 minutes)

  • Which parts of the process were most challenging?
  • Describe the moment where you had your best idea?
  • How well did you capture your partner’s needs?

How does the Backpack Redesign Challenge support computational thinking?

Typically, redesign challenges are thought of as tools to teach design thinking (ISTE student standard 4). However, the process required to successfully take an existing design and improve on it lends itself particularly well to introducing computational thinking skills to students in a non-intimidating way. Substandard C of the computational thinking standard asks “Students [to] break problems into component parts, extract key information, and develop descriptive models to understand complex systems or facilitate problem-solving” (Iste.org, 2017). In the case of the Backpack Redesign Challenge, the problem is identifying the needs of the user and developing a better backpack based on those needs.

Each component of computational thinking is covered with the Backpack Redesign Challenge:

  • Decomposition: Based on the information gathered during the interview portion, students must identify the elements of existing backpacks that work for their partner as well as elements that aren’t meeting their partner’s needs.
  • Pattern Recognition: Certain similarities exist within all backpacks and must be factored into the prototype. For instance, all backpacks have the same purpose…to easily transport items. All backpacks also must have a way to be carried conveniently. The variables lie in the partner’s needs. Based on the variables, alterations must be made to the standard design. As students are prototyping, they are constantly considering which elements to keep (similarities) and which to replace (differences).
  • Abstraction: At its core, a backpack serves to conveniently carry items. What this looks like and how it works are elements students must create based on their interview. Another aspect of abstraction is deciding what the most critical elements are. As students carry out the interview, they may receive conflicting data or ideas that don’t seem feasible. It is their responsibility to determine which pieces of the design are most critical in meeting the needs of their client–aka partner.
  • Algorithm Design: The process of the redesign is in itself an algorithm: students must interview their partner in order to gain insight to their needs, students must then reflect on these needs and convert them into tangible design choices, students then take the changes that need to be made and combine them with the existing elements of backpacks, and finally students receive feedback on their design.

Taking the Challenge Further with Data

One of the sub-standards within ISTE’s computational thinking standard for students is to gather and analyze data digitally and then use that analysis to guide the solution to a problem (5b). I immediately thought of Google Forms, which is a very powerful (yet extremely easy to use) tool for collecting and analyzing data.

After students go through the interview and backpack redesign process with a partner in class, why not open the challenge up to a broader audience using Google Forms? Data can be collected safely from fellow students, family members, teachers, and even the public at large (if shared through social media).

If you’re not sure how to get students started on Google Forms, this video is an excellent introduction which can guide them through the creation of their survey. After sending the survey out and collecting responses, this video will guide students through the process of transporting their data into Google Sheets, working with various types of graphs, and publishing the results via Google Slides. Students can then use the Google Slide to share their data, insights, and backpack redesign prototype with the class or teacher. If students select the Google Form option to collect responder’s emails, the presentation could also be shared with anyone on the internet who took the survey. This enables students to still benefit from the feedback piece of the project. Another interesting option would be to have students pitch their data, insights, and prototype to the class who could then provide feedback and judge if the ‘clients’ needs were met through the redesign.

This extension task with Google Forms encourages students to be deliberate and strategic with their questions. In digital format, they don’t have the ability to say, “That’s interesting, can you tell me more?” So they must be sure to phrase questions and choose data input types (short text, long text, multiple choice, checkboxes, etc.) that will yield the most valuable information. For this reason, I think it is valuable to carry out the traditional challenge with an in-person interview before switching to Google Forms.

The collection of data from multiple sources introduces a new challenge for students. What to do when you receive conflicting data? For instance, one person loves traditional backpack straps and another prefers a shoulder bag style…which do you decide to implement into your design and why? While challenging, these type of decisions mimic real-world decisions that companies must make all the time. What a great opportunity for students to have an authentic experience!


A Taste of Design Thinking: Redesigning the Backpack. (2012). [ebook] Institute of Design at Stanford. Available at: https://dschool-old.stanford.edu/groups/k12/wiki/956b6/Design_Thinking_Projects_and_Challenges.html [Accessed 4 Mar. 2018].

Computational Thinking for Educators. (2018). What is Computational Thinking?. [online] Available at: https://computationalthinkingcourse.withgoogle.com/unit [Accessed 4 Mar. 2018].

Iste.org. (2017). ISTE Standards For Students. [online] Available at: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students [Accessed 1 Mar. 2018].

Valenzuela, J. (2018). How to develop computational thinkers. [online] Iste.org. Available at: https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=2137&category=Computational-Thinking&article=How+to+develop+computational+thinkers [Accessed 3 Mar. 2018].




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