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How to Get Your Students Empathizing Through Novel Engineering

How to Get Your Students Empathizing Through Novel Engineering


Why teach empathy?

After watching this RSA Animate about the importance of empathy and outrospection (, I realized that I wasn’t doing enough to prepare my students for the “good life,” as it is put in the video. Philosopher Roman Krznaric espouses that in the 20th century, people believed that the “best way to discover who we are and what to do with our lives was to look inside ourselves.” He asserts that this line of thinking does not accomplish what it sets out to do; thus, in the 21st century we need to look outwardly at the lives of other people, civilizations, and cultures. He claims that the ultimate art form for the age of outrospection is empathy.


Why should students care?

As a fifth grade teacher, I knew that empathy would be a tough sell for pre-pubescent tweens, who often think the entire world is looking at them and making judgments (both positive and negative). How could I increase buy in? What’s in it for them? Why should they develop their empathy muscles? After all, they live in a society where some are praised for their self-serving mentality. In fact, Donald Trump is a living testament to the lack of a need to think empathically as he denounces our “PC culture.”


Krynaric offers several examples to show that empathy is becoming a popular word in our culture today, but he has a simplistic way of looking at its value. Empathy doesn’t just make you a more moral person; it is a philosophy of living with major benefits- improved relationships, the ability to think more creatively, and the creation of “human bonds that make life worth living.” In other words, empathy is not only ethically good, but you will get something out of it too.


Beyond that, however, he explains that empathy has great power, specifically the power to bring about “radical social change.” My students care about problems in the world, but feel helpless in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Perhaps, intentionally practicing the type of empathy that Kryanic describes as cognitive empathy-“perspective taking…stepping into somebody else’s world,” my students will be able to see that empathy isn’t just a noble and fluffy idea for “do-gooders.” My hope is that they will be able to see empathy as a vehicle for change.


What does empathy look like?

Human beings naturally make assumptions about people and label people into different categories based on the prejudices we have developed. Kryanic tells us that highly empathic people “get beyond those labels by nurturing their curiosity about others.” We need to teach our students to become “empathic adventurers.” How do we accomplish this? We know the following about highly empathic people:


  1. They are good listeners. They are good at understanding the needs of others.
  2. They “make themselves vulnerable” in conversations. They connect with others and share parts of their own lives.
  3. They empathize with individuals, but they also empathize with collective groups.
  4. They don’t only empathize with the downtrodden. They step into the shoes of those in power and empathize with them as well.
  5. They empathize with people across space and time (people in the future and in other countries).


How does STEAM relate to empathy?

STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) is the buzzword of the minute in education today. Female and minority students are not choosing these career paths, and our science and math scores continue to slip behind those in other developed nations. As a result, the STEAM movement has picked up momentum. Anecdotally, I think my female students in particular are not usually drawn to these types of careers because they seem disconnected from human experiences. Students see these jobs as careers for intelligent people who don’t like being around others- those who want to look at data and facts all day in seclusion.


Of course, we know that this isn’t the case, but how do we convey that to our students? The answer is empathy. Students need to see engineers as problem solvers who care about others, not people who solve isolated problems in a disconnected way. In fact, design centric companies like Ubur and Apple actively recruit employees who can think empathically with consumers when designing prototypes.


What is Novel Engineering?

I learned about Novel Engineering at the STEM Institute at Washington University in the summer of 2015. It was originally developed in 2014 by the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. Essentially, this teaching strategy is a process that can be used for any age group for teachers of any subject, hence its mass appeal.


The concept is simple. Students read a book (or a teacher reads a book to the whole class), and look for problems in the story. They choose a problem that they want to solve through the engineering design process. Then, students work to empathize with their client and understand his/her concerns, personality, and the constraints in the book that limit him/her. Then, they develop a product that will help this character to solve the problem that aligns with the client’s needs that they have considered. After that, they present their designs to small groups of students to receive constructive feedback. It is important that this feedback be in the middle of the design process and not at the end. Students must have time to improve their designs based on this feedback. Then, they work to change their designs in preparation for their final presentation.


What does Novel Engineering look like in practice?

I have completed a few Novel Engineering activities with my classes over the past two years, and I have seen its benefits in helping to stretch my students’ empathic thinking. For example, we read the book Muncha, Muncha, Muncha, a picture book about a gardener who becomes frustrated when three rabbits continue to outsmart him and eat all of his vegetables. Eventually, he creates a huge tower to surround his garden, but the rabbits still manage to sneak in by slipping into Mr. McGreely’s basket. This is what the novel engineering process looked like in my fifth grade classroom:


Identify a Problem and Understand the Client

My students had to decide if they wanted to help the rabbits or Mr. McGreely. Then, they wrote a list of noticings about the character (personality traits, etc.) with text evidence to support their thinking. Following that, they had to decide what problem they would solve for their character. Then, they had to design a solution that would work for the character’s personality and specific needs. Mr. McGreely, for example, had been dreaming of having a garden for a long time. The students empathized with his selfishness, even if they didn’t condone it. They worked to understand why he would create such barriers for the rabbits- maybe the rabbits are making him feel stupid? Maybe his pride is hurting? They also had to understand that it appeared that Mr. McGreely lived alone, so the product would have to be something he could use and operate on his own, while helping him with his self-esteem and still helping him to fulfill his lifelong dream of having a garden. Their solutions had to be humane (they could not hurt the rabbits) and legal.


Some students chose the rabbits as their clients. Many students identified that although the rabbits were smaller and seemingly less powerful that Mr. McGreely, they were determined. The students wondered if the rabbits could find food elsewhere. Were they hungry and desperate or did they see this as a challenge? They decided to capitalize on the teamwork skills the rabbits showed throughout the book and create prototypes that could be used and operated by more than one “person.”


Design a Solution

I made available many everyday objects for students to use to build their prototypes: string, fishing line, boxes, clay, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, plastic cups, wax paper, cling wrap, zip ties, pipe cleaners, wire, construction paper, plates, cotton balls, coffee filters, egg cartons, etc. Students worked with their team members to design a solution that would work for their client while fulfilling their client’s unique needs, while fitting with the natural constraints within the story.



I split the class into two groups to offer feedback. Students would present their prototype to their audience, and their classmates would offer feedback using the “yes, and” stem to frame their comment. They had to recognize something their teammates did that was good (example: I like how you thought about how all three rabbits would be able to play a part in the launcher you made). Then, they had to offer a suggestion about how to improve the design or something they could consider (and I think it might be smart to think about how the rabbits will get out once they have made it inside the fortress, not just how they will get in). The team would simply respond, “Thank you for your suggestion.” They would not reply or defend themselves, and they could choose to take the feedback or not once they returned to their workstation. In not simply providing corrective feedback to each other, students had to empathize with their classmates’ thinking. What went well with their design and why did they design it that way? Additionally, by using “yes, and” language, students proactively empathized with how “yes, but” might feel to designers.


Improve Designs

Students eagerly went back to their workstations to improve their designs. Because the feedback opportunity was strategically placed in the middle of the cycle, students could receive low-risk corrections that they could try out with their design. They used this information to enhance their prototypes and address their classmates’ questions/concerns. I told my students to not be offended by corrective feedback that they felt was not needed, but to empathize with the people giving the feedback. Why did they not understand their design? What could they do to help people understand their vision better? What did they do that wasn’t coming across to others clearly?


Present Solutions

Students shared their designs with the whole class and received positive (not corrective) feedback from classmates at this time. Students would share their understanding of their client and the problem and discuss how their product would align with both of these.


Empathy in the Classroom

Of course, teaching empathy cannot start and end with novel engineering. This can simply serve as the starting line. We must be purposeful and direct with our students when it comes to teaching empathy. They aren’t dumb; they know that empathy benefits others.   It is our job to tell our students how empathy can do more than shape them into compassionate people- they will receive positive benefits from practicing empathy that will help them as well. Perhaps, then, our students will become adults that don’t just talk the empathy talk, but actually walk the empathy walk. What a different world it could be.

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