Ann P. McMahon, Ph.D.: Transforming Children's Education through Innovation

Innovation Masters Series: Design Thinking and the Art of Innovation

Design thinking may be synonymous with companies like Apple and Google, but can it transform early childhood education? Ann McMahon knows it can. McMahon is a nationally recognized educational consultant and speaks to audiences across the country about systemic changes in education. She works with the LUME Institute in St. Louis, MO, a research and professional development-based organization she helped launch that develops methodologies to enhance early childhood education.

"I couldn't wait to experience Stanford's empathetic approach to design and innovation first hand."

  • STEM Consultant and Researcher/Educator, Ann P. McMahon LLC and LUME Institute
  • Professional Certificate, Innovation Masters Series, Stanford University
  • PhD Science Education, University of Missouri - St. Louis
  • BS and MS, Mechanical Engineering, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Hobbies include astronomy, travel, and writing her blog at

"Recent developments in neuroscience have highlighted the importance of early relationships with attuned, empathic adults in the healthy development of children's executive functions," says McMahon. "This, in turn, can lead to greater achievement in academic and social settings throughout life." LUME creates methodologies to improve the systems and practices of early childhood educators, creating a culture of innovation and teaching educators design thinking as a context in which to practice their considerable empathic skills.

"LUME is a newly launched organization," she says, "and our team is working to establish it as an innovative thought leader in the early childhood education field."

While conducting research for her doctoral degree in science education, McMahon discovered a Stanford professional development program called Innovation Masters Series: Design Thinking and the Art of Innovation. The course, taught on the Stanford campus, leads participants through hands-on workshops where they learn the problem-solving tools and problem-finding frameworks that lead to innovation and strategic leadership.

McMahon, a former engineer and science teacher who is a leader in the field of educational reform, already knew a lot about innovation and design. Her research and consulting interests include applying design thinking and system dynamics methodology to improve systems and practices in pre K-12 science education as well as in early childhood education. She enrolled in Stanford's program, hoping the courses could give her additional tools and inspiration to take back to her job. She looked forward to learning from some of the best faculty in the world, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

"I've practiced as an engineer and taught science through inquiry, so I expected the course to be experiential rather than didactic," she says. "After all, designers and innovators make things! The program met my expectations in that regard but surpassed them in the empathic insightfulness of the teachers. In my work as an aerospace engineer, I haven't met many engineers who value empathy with the consumer as highly as the Stanford teachers do."

A fan of experiential education, McMahon was impressed by the empathy and creativity of all the teachers. She liked Professor Bernie Roth's presentation about making the question the answer in order to determine the most important problem to pursue. "Bernie's down-to-earth style underscored the wisdom and pragmatism in his message," she says. Another favorite presentation was Professor David Beach's prototyping experience, where the class interviewed a "customer" and quickly prototyped a design to meet their customer's needs. She especially enjoyed spending time in Professor Beach's lab. "I felt like a kid in a candy much to work with. I could have stayed and played all day."

McMahon took her learning back to St. Louis and has created an Innovation Institute for the staff at LUME and their affiliated partner, University City Children's Center (UCCC). The goal is to create a culture of innovation at UCCC and to facilitate that same culture of innovation in other child care centers across the state. The LUME Institute was awarded a partnership with Child Care Aware of Missouri to serve approximately 3700 child care and early learning centers and 25,000 teachers in eastern Missouri. As a result, they have the opportunity to bring innovative, high quality programs to more children, families, and caregivers through this partnership. McMahon is using Stanford's course materials binder and the three books as references to plan and implement the Innovation Institute.

"I am excited to teach educators design thinking as a path to empathetic expertise in their profession, whether they teach preschool or K-12 students," McMahon says.