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by Rich Lehrer
National Faculty

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Topic tags: STEM


August 17, 2016
Empathy: The Surprising Secret Sauce For Authentic STEM Project Design

by Rich Lehrer
National Faculty

Can middle school students create actual inventions that have tangible and positive effects on people’s lives while providing empathic and empowering learning experiences? If Brookwood School’s purposeful design PBL initiative is any indication, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Change Makers: Designing for Self and School, Community, and World
Students have never had as much potential to leverage their education and their classroom experiences to effect change in their lives, communities, and world as they do now. As I write this, young people around the global are developing new apps that use digital technology to address problems in their lives, creating compelling public service announcements to raise awareness of issues about which they care deeply, designing websites that allow visitors from around the world to engage and collaborate together, and inventing real life 3D printed solutions.

As the maker culture continues to permeate schools and new technologies arrive that provide students with opportunities to turn their vision, ideas, and passions into reality, incredible opportunities are arising for students to discover that what they do in school can actually matter.

Yet how do we ensure that authentic PBL and school maker spaces do not simply become that “next big thing”? As others such as Stanford’s and Purdue’s Engineering Projects In Community Service have discovered, it is becoming clear to me that excellent real world problem solving, and the deep learning that comes from it, depends on empathy and relationships.

A Culture of Empathy and Empowerment
Over the past five years, a partnership with MIT’s D-Lab and a desire to involve my students in work that truly matters have prompted me to transition from the use of such “semi authentic” strategies as simulations, role-playing, and design challenges to PBL projects centering on purposeful designing and real world making. Brookwood students constructed an efficient biomass stove for our campus, built a 3D printed Enable Community Foundation prosthetics for my son, created “purpose-built” attachments for his “Raptor Hand”, designed solutions for problems teachers have identified in our school, and invented assistive devices for residents at a seniors’ affordable housing residence; and in each case, taking another’s perspective has proven critical to the success of the solutions.

Problem Bank – A Chance for Students to Become Engineers and Inventors
In 2013, a pioneering 3D printed prosthetic project, and our subsequent deep partnership with the Enable Community Foundation, provided our school community with a clear and tangible example of the potential of 3D printing to solve authentic problems. Inspired by the response of my students to these challenges, two years ago I created the Brookwood 3D Design Problem Bank, which has become a powerful vehicle for this type of work. In this initiative, adults (including teachers, maintenance workers, and parents) post actual problems in need of a 3D designed solution on our Problem Bank website. Students from a variety of grade levels and settings then select the problems they want to solve, consider the problem from the point of view of the person with the problem, and enter into a reciprocal and iterative relationship with the problem “poster”.

Students create prototypes out of conventional material such as cardboard and duct tape, work with the poster to brainstorm potential solutions, use 3D printing to rapidly prototype and refine designs, and receive feedback that guides the development of the final device. From Apple TV housings, to board marker holders, to ball valve joint handles, to replacement pieces for our after school program’s board games, community members receive items they can use while our students receive an introductory education in designing, inventing, and engineering…and extensive practice in considering someone else’s point of view – an extremely important skill for adolescents often hyper-focused on themselves.

D-Zign Girlz! A Proving Ground for Empathic and Authentic Design
For one week each May, Brookwood students participate in “Steep Week”: A one-week, forty hour experiential deep dive in some area of study.  In late 2015, sixth grade science teacher Annie Johnson and I created a course called “D-Zign Girlz”, the purpose of which was to pilot a rigorous version of this purposeful 3D designing initiative and fully flesh out the potential of this work to connect 6th and 7th grade female students to their community. Our week broke down like this:

Day 1: Students received background in the concept of “designing for purpose”, saw examples of students creating change in their lives, communities, and world, received instruction on how to 3D design in Tinkercad, refined their empathic interviewing skills, and set about collaborating with teachers who had posted problems to our Problem Bank to create solutions to these problems

Day 2: Students met with my son Max, a pre-K student at our school, to find out more about him, discover his interests and passions, and delve into his thoughts about activities that might be difficult for him because of his upper limb differences. They then prototyped and designed purpose-build adaptors for his prosthetic hand that would allow him to ride his bike, steer his scooter, and hold a baseball bat – devices they tested with him throughout the session and shared with him at the end of the day

Days 3-5: Now experienced 3D solution designers, we then headed to the Harborlight House seniors’ residence where our students began by getting to know a small group of residents, shared information about 3D printing and the solutions on which they had been working, and interviewed residents to find out if there might be potential to design small assistive devices for them. Three days of conversing, empathizing, ideating, prototyping, and iterating eventually resulted in elegant, sophisticated, and innovative solutions to problems. The Harborlight residents received key sleeves, bagel cutters, assistive cutlery, improved Bingo chips, iPad holders, coffee cup spill catchers, and card holders while students morphed into junior engineers and inventors before our very eyes. And we learned some invaluable lessons along the way:

  • interviewing for empathy is a key to effective designing for others
  • prototyping with conventional materials is important in helping students “get their heads around” design solutions
  • rapid iteration and many times through the design cycle (redesigning, printing, testing, and evaluating), is the “engine” that churns out excellent student solutions
  • efforts to decrease the time needed to print ever improving iterations (focusing on “slices” of a device, or outlines of parts in order to confirm specifications) paid huge dividends in allowing multiple iterations

Future Digital Humanitarians
Students can design, create, and engineer effective solutions to problems. Powerful new technologies are allowing students to create and disseminate solutions to real life problems like never before. Interestingly, it is the power of the human experience - empathy, relationships, opportunities to improve, and a sense that what they do has meaning and matters - that is the key to true and purposeful changemaking for kids. How exciting to think about where these young digital humanitarians might take these skills, understandings, and mindsets in the future!


  • Excellent article!  While “semi authentic” scenarios can be a decent starting point for the teacher looking to create a PBL environment, the truly authentic projects are a major motivator.  Love the website for collecting project ideas, we will be borrowing that one!

    Michael Reilly on September 1, 2016 
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