Too often, STEM education is characterized as both too analytical and too critical. Feelings are for “soft” subjects like English and social studies, right?
As many schools and programs are showing, incorporating empathy into STEM education isn’t just possible. It helps students make profound real-world connections.
As an Pekka Peura asks on hundrED says:
Contrary to the idea that digitization and the advances in technology will shake up the educational system, it is actually age-old skills such as empathy and social skills that are being labelled as future trends for schools. Why are we returning to moralistic qualities in an age where STEM skills are usually considered the most important for school children?
Developing empathy actually improves both the human and technical elements of STEM education. Empathy makes better tech.
At Because Learning, we believe that empathy and STEM are not mutually exclusive. There is most definitely a way to teach compassion and empathy in a STEM classroom. Growing evidence shows that socio-emotional skills increase both academic outcomes and well-being.
Much like how coding lessons can integrate into nearly any STEM lesson, empathy can be taught in all subjects.
For example, some of the following questions may help students consider others’ perspectives:
- Why would someone draw a different conclusion from the same set of data?
- Why would another student have a different hypothesis than you?
- Why is it important to consider another person’s perspective when reviewing their findings?
- How will what we’re building possible help/harm people?
- Are there people who are using what I’m engineering that might not understand it? How can I help them see my perspective?
…And so on.
Some of the most powerful lessons on empathy in STEM classrooms will come from our quiet, constant examples as educators. Here are some approaches to enhancing your STEM teaching through empathy.
1. See Students as Individuals
It comes as no surprise that each student is their own unique individual. Each student manifests both strengths and weaknesses in a classroom setting. Unfortunately, many curriculums have a tendency to see students simply as test scores.
(Perhaps this is especially true in STEM classes, as they rely so heavily on objectivity rather than subjectivity.)
That is why it is imperative that teachers see each student as an individual. Teachers must consider the areas in which students shine as well as the areas in which they struggle. By doing so, teachers can provide an example of what it is like to understand the feelings of another person. This teaches their students what empathy looks like in action.
2. Reject Gender and Other Stereotypes
The stereotype that “girls aren’t good at math” has somehow persisted, yet rejecting this idea – and others like it – is crucial. Educators must dismiss the idea that outward appearance affects academic performance. This helps ensure students see one another as humans, not outdated stereotypes.
Instead, students will look at one another as individuals. They’ll see each other – regardless of race, gender, or any other identity – as capable of thriving in a STEM classroom setting. (And they’ll see themselves in the same way.)
3. Encourage Mindfulness
Bullying is a massive problem in today’s schools, which very well could come from students’ lack of understanding of their peers. Many K-12 students simply fail to think about the consequences of their actions. As educators know all-to-well, this negatively affects themselves or other students.
By encouraging students to be aware of how their behavior makes others feel, they become better citizens. They’ll learn how to put themselves in one another’s shoes, thinking before they act.
Considering helping students explore why others may have differing hypotheses or conclusions from data, for example. STEM teachers can actively promote compassion and empathy in their classrooms.
4. Provide Experiences That Spark Curiosity
It’s natural for students to feel defensive pretty much all the time during grade school. (Who didn’t feel intimidated during middle school?) By providing engaging lessons, the active learning students experience helps transcend defensiveness. This makes them more emotionally open to genuine empathy.
And since studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between empathy and self-esteem, experiencing empathy in the classroom boosts their confidence.
In a way, classroom experiences that spark curiosity lead to an upward spiral of empathy.
Lessons like those on the Because Learning platform ensure students feel engaged. They adapt to each student’s ability and interests. This provides students an enjoyable experience naturally sparks their curiosity, getting them excited about various aspects of STEM.
Preparing the Next Generation Through Empathy
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.
Though teaching empathy to our students may seem out of place in STEM classrooms, it really isn’t. In every lesson, we can help our students learn empathy through our examples. Our students will build the confidence they need to become empathetic, active learners. Most importantly, they’ll become the next generation of leaders in STEM.