Since feeling is first (EMPATHIZE)

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Students will be able to: 1) Analyze the solution process used in the Marshmallow Challenge to identify class trends 2) initiate and participate in a variety of conversations with peers in order to develop empathy for others' hopes and fears; 3) synthesize shared hopes and fears as evidence of classroom problems that might be addressed through an engineering design thinking process; and 3) develop an operational definition for empathy.

Big Idea

Empathy is the first step in the engineering design thinking process. How might we develop empathy for our classmate by sharing our hopes and fears?

FRAME: Engineering design thinking

The engineering design thinking process will be an essential competency in this course. Students will use it frequently.  Here is a diagram derived from the Stanford that outlines the essential elements:

The philosophy of this course is that skills and concepts become meaningful and relevant when they are applied to real-world scenarios. Engineering design thinking is a framework that pushes students to consider the impacts of Environmental Science content on the environment and people.  This is a framework that is often also called "human-centered design."  While this course is about the environment, it is concerned primarily with how human impacts the environment and how we can solve many of the environmental problems that we have caused.  As such, many units in this course will take an engineeering desing thinking approach to environmental problems that aims to consider how to reduce human impact on the environment.  

The empathize stage of the engineering design process is conceptually easy for students to grasp. However, empathizing is much more difficult to actually practice.  Students (and adults!) will often assume that their egocentric perspective of the world is the only one that is real, even if they understand that other individuals may hold very different perspectives.  As such, this lesson challenges students to enter the hearts and minds of other members of the community to better understand the full spectrum of needs in each classroom.


How did we approach the Marshmallow Challenge?

7 minutes

Standard: SP4 

How do I frame the opening activity?

At the beginning of class I quickly review the marshmallow challenge by modeling a prototype solution observed during the previous class.  Then, I display the elements of engineering design thinking from the previous lesson and read out the summary definitions of each stage.  

In this opening activity, I want us to consider when we experienced one of these steps of the engineering design process during the Marshmallow Challenge.  Did your team spend time in each step?  Did one step seem to be more important than another step?  Is there a step that you wish you had spent more time with?  We will consider these questions through two tasks.

What will students be doing?

Students will have the following task, either projected or on paper slips:

Estimate the percentage of time your team spent at each step during the marshmallow challenge and to reflect on this distribution (The way in which the numbers are spread out).  Your team’s percentages might be evenly distributed (you spent about the same amount of time in each step) or they might be clustered (your team spent a lot of time in only a few steps).  Here are some guiding questions to jumpstart your thinking:


  • Did your team spend more time at one step? Why?
  • If you had to repeat this challenge, do you think your team would spend the same amount of time at each step?  Why?

Write your responses in your STEM journals.

If you complete this task before other students: Represent your data visually.  Consder creating a pie chart or bar graph.

What will the teacher be doing?

During the opening activity, I will: push students thinking, provide positive encouragement, reframe the activity, encourage wild thinking, check for student preparedness, and assess students’ ability to consider the Marshmallow Challenge from the perspective of the engineering design thinking framework.

Understanding begins with empathy

10 minutes

Standards: SL.11-12.1  SL.11-12.1d

TEACHER RESOURCE:  The attached article from IDEO explores the importance of empathy in the engineering design thinking process.  

How will we transition from the opening activity to the mini-lesson?

Sample teacher directions: First I want each member of a team to share responses.  Other team members DO NOT comment on response.   Once all team members have shared,your team will collaboratively agree on the percentage of time spent in each part of the designprocess.  One team member will place an X on the board for each stage of the design process at the appropriate percentage.  

I will model the expected outcome with an example and then cold call students to repeat directions back to me.  While it is only the second day of school, I will have hopefully learned the majority of my student’s names from my “Photobooth prototype.”

What will we do with the data we have collected?

As a whole class, we analyze the data table for trends.  What do we notice?  Where did we spend a lot of our time?  Why?  Where did we not spend a lot of time?  Why?

What do I want students to understand about the data? (Italicized text indicates teacher voice)

From prior experience with the Marshmallow Challenge, students generally spend very little time at the early stage of the design process, especially empathy.  Most teams will jump right into a solution, rather than engage each other first to understand the diverse perspectives and feelings of the group.  I will explicitly communicate that this is a mistake.  

Great design begins with empathy.  We need to empathize if we are going to develop effective solutions to problems.  This will be especially important as this course progresses because usually we will not know what our problem is.  I was nice when I gave you the Marshmallow Challenge.  You all were given a clear idea of what needed to happen.  You needed to put the Marshmallow on top of a structure built out of the materials provided.  But in engineering design thinking, usually we won’t know exactly what to do.  You may not even know exactly what the problem is that you want to solve.

This is where empathy matters.  So what is empathy?  I will field responses, being sure to clarify what I am hearing, without additional comment.  All ideas end up on the whiteboard with the name of the originating students for reference later.  Great!  We have a diverse set of ideas about empathy.  I have a clip I really like that explores this idea of empathy.  Students often confuse empathy with sympathy or pity.  Understanding the difference is critical for becoming well-develop engineering design thinkers.  The RSA animated short explains the different between empathy and sympathy in a way that is engaging for most students.  As we watch, try to write a one sentence definition for empathy.  After the clip plays we will discuss the main idea and connect it to our proposed definitions of empathy.  I will refer to each definition by the name of the student who proposed it.  This is a practice I hope will ease students into the practice of  owning ideas that may fail publicly in a low-stakes way.  So with all of these rich ideas, what is empathy?  As a class we will develop one definition for empathy.  

How will I transition to the next activity?

Class definitions tend to reflect a legacy of bias towards abstraction in classroom.  I want to counter this habit immediately by establishing an operational definition for empathy.  Okay, we have described what empathy is, but how do we do empathy?  See in this class, I want us to think of definitions as descriptions of actions we take.  This is something very important in engineering design thinking called “a bias towards action.”  Here is what I mean.  I will define empathy right now as interacting with other people through interview questions that seek information about feelings.  In other words, to empathize is to interview.  This is sort of strange right?  I am describing an action.  So, let’s try out our definition.  We are going to do something called an empathy interview.  It is the start of an engineering design process for this class.  I have noticed that classroom environments do not always work very well for students.  This year I want our classroom to be a place that helps your learn, that you like, that you help to create.  So I want to start the year by having us understand each other better.  And that starts with an empathy interview.  An empathy interview is one of many ways to empathize.  We will learn the others throughout the year.  

Empathy interview

10 minutes


TEACHER RESOURCE:  Students might use a version of the first page of the attached file to complete interviews.

NOTE: Italicized words below are representative of teacher voice used in the classroom.

How will I frame this?

In theory, interviews are easy.  You just ask some questions.  But in practice interviewing can be tough, especially because we are going to be asking some questions about personal interviews.  So I want you all to think of this exercise as an opportunity to take a risk.  Push against the boundaries of your comfort zone.  For some of you, this might mean interviewing a student you do not know well.  For others, this might mean asking at least one question.  I will review the expectations for this activity (“what will students do?” below). I trust you to choose an action that fits you. You have five minutes.  Go!   

What will students do?

The classroom empathy interview will explore students' feelings related to classroom experiences.  Each student finds three other students, each from a different group to interview. Interviewers will ask questions related to the ideal classroom. Suggested questions include:

  • Where would your class be?

  • What would you learn?

  • What kinds of activities would you do?

  • What would homework be like?

Interviewers may also develop a question of their own choosing.  

Once interviewers have been conducted after five minutes, students will return to their teams and find one common response to each question asked.  Each team will then share out something they learned doing these interviews.

What will the teacher do?

I will gently push students to move beyond their comfort zones and encourage students to interact with students.  During the share out I will write down answers on the board and synthesize what we have learned about each other.  

How will we transition to the next activity?

Amazing work!  Now there is another way to define empathy.  Empathy is listening to your classmates’ hopes and fears.  So let’s try this.  You will notice that this is totally different than our first operational definition of empathy.  And this is okay; in fact, with operational definitions we will have a lot of options.  This is a good thing because this way we can gather a lot of information about topics we want to explore.

Fears and hopes

20 minutes


TEACHER RESOURCES:  1) Teachers may search for a commonly used version of this protocol is available here.  Search for “hopes and fears.”  Additionally, this space is an excellent resource for many collaborative structures (text-based protocols, tuning protocols, idea generation protocols) that will aid student groups. 2) Page two of the attached pdf contains an organizer that students might use.

What is the purpose of this protocol?

The purpose of the fears and hopes is to surface students' expectations and concerns about the coming year.  This is similar to the empathy interview; the key difference is that the hopes and fears protocol is based on past experience with school, while the empathy interview surfaces ideal hypotheticals.  Both establish the foundation for a courseframe--the how and why of our interactions together over the course of the year.  Groups go through predictable stages of development (forming, storming, norming, performing, adjourning).  The frame we establish will help to keep us together as we move through inevitable growing pains.

What are the steps of this protocol?  (What will students be doing?)

  1. Students write down their three greatest fears about class.  What is the worst experience we could have?

  2. Students then write down their three greatest hopes.  What will this class be like by the end of the year if it is the best experience we have ever had?

  3. Students share their lists with a partner.

  4. Students review each list and select one fear and one hope to share with the whole class.

  5. Two scribes record fears and hopes from the class.  All students must give at least one hope and one fear.  Scribes and other students do not comment on or judge expressed hopes and fears.

What will the teacher do?

My primary role during this activity is to establish an atmosphere of safe expression.  We will each share one hope or one fear.  Everybody will speak.  Nobody will comment on any of the ideas shared.  This is an activity without judgement.  It will be impossible to understand each other if we are thinking about statements from our own perspective.  So again I ask you to take on the challenge of moving out of your comfort zone. Depending on the group I may share model risk-taking by sharing a hope or fear that I know students may have but might be afraid to say. Example:  I fear that I will have to explain my ideas in class.  Or I hope that this class is not boring.

Process reflection

5 minutes

Standard: W.11-12.1e

TEACHER RESOURCE: preview of norms, the next step in this engineering design thinking process that students experience during the first two weeks of school.

What will students be doing?

Students reflect on the fears and hopes process in their journals by responding to one of these questions for five minutes:

Choose one of the following questions to answer.  Use evidence from today's activities in your response.

1. Did you notice anything surprising/interesting while doing this activity?

2. What is the impact of expressing negative thoughts?

3. Why did we ask you to do this activity? What might it accomplish?

4. What are next steps you might take to actively address other students' hopes and fears?

What will the teacher be doing?

I will primarily focus on students' ability to write for a sustained period of time.  Five minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but many students struggle with writing stamina after a break.  I want to catch these struggling students as soon as possible.  Additionally, I will be circulating and reading random responses to gather formative assessment data.  What do my students think about this process and what do these thoughts indicate about their understanding of empathy? And are students able to developing a concluding idea that follows logically from evidence presented?

EXIT TICKET: Defining empathy

3 minutes

What will students do?

An operational definition describes something in terms of procedures that can be repeated by anybody.  For example an operational definition of love is "hugging a person."  This is a different way of thinking about definitions that we will use a lot in our work.  For your exit ticket, first create an operational definition for "empathy."  Second, describe how your operational definition helps you understand a classmate's perspective.

What will the teacher do?

Tickets will be collected and assessed.  Do students understand that empathy is an action?  And where are students in the Stanford design school rubric?  Rubrics are a work in progress, and multiple sources were considered.  Among the most promising rubric resources was work done by the Henry Ford Learning Institute.  Currently, the rubric used will need an iteration that makes the language actionable for a high school student.  The level of abstraction in the proficiency descriptions is difficult for students to immediately understand as actionable feedback.  As such, this rubric is not as impactful as it will be in the future.