STEMpathy in SCASD k-5 STEM


Empathy in SCASD K-5 STEM


When taking on a project, it is natural for us to ask, or at least wonder internally, “What’s in it for me?”  Both children and adults are naturally inclined to think of themselves first. Though it is, of course, important to understand the personal benefits in any undertaking, studies show that humans are generally happier and more productive when we think beyond our own needs to see and meet the needs of others (Reiss, 2017).


Researchers from the American Society for Engineering Education define empathy as “perspective taking”.  In our elementary-level Second Step curriculum lessons, students learn that empathy is feeling or understanding what someone else is feeling, resulting in many important and vulnerable discussions with peers.  Still, employing empathy in daily interactions and decisions is a challenging endeavor that takes intentionality and practice. 


The good news is, in K-5 STEM, students have many opportunities to practice empathy and put it to use.


In STEM class, each grade level tackles two engineering units per year.  These units, guided by Engineering is Elementary curriculum, require students to use the Engineering Design Process  -- Ask•Imagine•Plan•Create•Improve -- to design solutions to real-world problems. Empathy comes in at every step of the design process, as students gather information about who the design is for, imagine, plan and create their design with the user in mind, and then test and improve their design according to the needs of the user.  Kindergarten is currently practicing empathy as they work to design a shelter for a dog named Penny who is too hot in the sun. In the spring, fourth grade will practice empathy by designing a tarpul for children in Nepal who need to cross a river to get to their school.


STEM students practice empathy when coding, too.  In our Technology in Action units, students tackle a variety of coding challenges and projects through, Scratch, Ozobots, Meet Edisons, Sam Labs, and more.   A favorite challenge in is coding an Angry Bird to move safely through a maze. In order for the Angry Bird to turn and move in the correct direction, students need to put themselves in the Angry Bird’s place, taking on the perspective of the Angry Bird.  Deceptively simple, deciding to turn left or right from the bird’s point of view is actually quite challenging, and is proving to be an impactful way for students to practice the “perspective taking” required for empathy. 


STEMpathy at work across the district:


At Mount Nittany Elementary,  5th graders are 3-D printing door stops to meet a real need in their school community.


At Spring Creek Elementary,  3rd graders are planning and coding stories in Scratch for their younger book buddies to enjoy.


At Radio Park Elementary, Kindergarteners are designing and building structures to meet the needs of a variety of animal “clients”.


At Corl Street Elementary, 4th graders tackled the Pipeline Challenge by working together to move a ball from point to point


At Easterly Parkway Elementary, Kindergarteners used Seesaw to record their solutions to Penny the Dog’s problem.


At Park Forest Elementary, 5th graders are designing and printing name plates, pencil holders and organizers for their classroom teachers.


At Ferguson Township Elementary,  1st graders are examining sound vibrations to find ways to represent sound visually to others.


At Gray’s Woods Elementary,  2nd graders will interview Kindergartners about their playdough preferences before designing a playdough process.

Riess, Helen. “The Science of Empathy.” Journal of patient experience vol. 4,2 (2017): 74-77. doi:10.1177/2374373517699267


Second Step.  “Restorative Circle Conversation Starters, Grades 3-5”, 2019.


Walther, Joachim, Shari E. Miller, and Nadia N. Kellam.  "Exploring the Role of Empathy in Engineering Communication through a Transdisciplinary Dialogue".  2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas, 2012, June.  ASEE Conferences, 2012. Internet.  18 Oct, 2019