Engineering Empathy

Building a bobsled for a baker. Designing an exercise space for a snow queen. Constructing a bathing contraption for a beloved family pet. It’s all in a day’s work for Ellis Lower School students, who learn about engineering through the lens of empathy—and use a lot of imagination while doing so.
Students in kindergarten through grade 4 participate in an engineering unit as part of their STEM class, with each grade completing a developmentally appropriate project that incorporates creating something to help someone else. That “someone” becomes each student’s client, and students learn to shift their perspective to see through their client’s eyes, identifying the client’s needs and interests and prioritizing them as they take their creation from initial sketch to final product.

"Empathy is the first step of the engineering process, which is why students learn to create for a client from the get-go,” explains Lower School STEM Teacher Kim Mechling. "It’s intentional that, throughout the engineering unit, they are always creating something for someone else rather than themselves. This can be a challenge for students, because it adds a step to their iterative process; not only is what they’re working on maybe not going as planned so they have to try and try again (which they learn is totally okay to do), but they also have to remember to keep their client’s needs in mind, rather than just build whatever they’d personally like.”

For kindergarteners, the engineering project looks like crafting unique inventions that could rescue a bird that’s stranded on a high ledge. In grade 1, students can make any kind of contraption they wish, as long as they demonstrate how it would benefit who they’re choosing to build it for, whether it’s a family member or a favorite stuffed animal. Second grade students also get to choose their clients, but the stipulation for their invention is that it must be a structure. Their project is paired with a mapping activity where students identify structures from around the world (bridges, buildings, statues, etc.), giving them an idea of what a structure can be, as well as who they could build a structure for and why. 

As students progress through the grades of the Lower School, the engineering unit projects start to incorporate a bit of detective work, encouraging students to use their powers of deduction and attention to detail to brainstorm how whatever they are building can be made to better suit their client. Third graders design vehicles for clients they are assigned at random. Each student receives a slip of paper with a brief paragraph about their client—including information like who they are, what they do, and where they live—and use it to infer what kind of vehicle would be most useful to them. Finally, as fourth graders, students push their imaginations to the max as they pick both their client and specific creation criteria from a randomized deck of cards, though they do get to choose whether their creation will be a gadget, a building, a piece of clothing, a general invention, or a vehicle. Students work in pairs to examine the various photos on their client cards, flexing their visual literacy muscles to uncover clues about the wide array of characters they’ll be creating for, which range from fierce pirates to intrepid time travelers.

The engineering projects provide a wealth of learning opportunities for students, who gain hands-on experience with critical thinking, creative problem-solving, working with others, constructing detailed models that represent their ideas, and designing solutions to unexpected issues as they arise—all the same skills and disciplines that scientists and engineers use in the real world. 

Students build their creations with items from the Lower School maker space, a treasure trove of recyclable materials contributed by students and faculty alike. The objects, including everything from egg cartons to bottle caps to scented candle lids, are shared among the Lower School community and can be used by anyone for any project in any class. 

"Something a student brings in to add to the maker space might end up being the exact thing that one of their classmates needs for a project of their own, which the girls get so excited about.,” says Ms. Mechling. "They love being a part of the process, and it makes them want to find even more items that they can contribute. Girls, with practice, get really good at looking at materials in new and innovative ways, and it completely changes their perspective. It makes them better problem solvers—and better people.”
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