Unit Synthesis: empathy + define the problem + ideate (1 of 4)

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Students will be able to: 1) create examples of the core competencies of social- emotional learning; 2) describe why human needs are the primary driver of effective design; and 3) assess common classroom needs in order to define a problem and ideate solution ideas

Big Idea

Reframing engineering design thinking as human centered design is an important reconceptualization. How might we surface the common, sometimes painful needs of students to design solutions that meet those needs?

FRAME: Social Emotional Learning

What is the purpose of this series of four review lessons? 

This is the first in a series of synthesis lessons.  Today students will engage in an empathy exercise that they will eventually connect to social and emotional learning competencies.  The design challenge--not yet revealed--is for each student to develop a prototype behavior using these competencies as design constraints. 

Why would a teacher focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies?

High school students become college ready largely by developing SEL competencies.  The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines the development of these competencies as follows: "Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions." Character education--the increasingly common focus on developing grit, persistence, and growth mindsets in students--shares a similar outcome, and may be more common to teachers.  



CASEL wheel review

5 minutes


Students record current understanding of the Social and Emotional Learning Competencies graph developed by CASEL. Students will have encountered the "CASEL wheel" during advisory sessions and other core academic content courses.  

Prompt-In STEM journals, respond to on of more of the following questions:

    • What is your understanding of this diagram?  
    • How have teachers described it in your other class?  
    • Why have other teachers introduced it?
    • Provide a definition and example of each of the five categories.

Knowledge share-CASEL Competencies

20 minutes


Students engage in a small group structured discussion to share understanding; whole group share outs serve to then norm understanding.

Structured Talk Protocol

This lesson is the first introduction of the Talk-Think-Open Exchange protocol.  Students are grouped into triads.  Each member of the triad will have 30 seconds to define and give an example of a social emotional competency.  While one student is talking, the other students are actively thinking or taking notes.  After 90 seconds, the group has a one minute open exchange.  During this time, students norm understanding of the chosen competency.  Finally, one student from each triad will share the key findings from the Talk-Think-Open Exchange with the class.  This process will repeat five times, once for each competency.  To summarize, there will be five rounds and each round will consists of three 30 second individual shares, a one minute open exchange, and a whole class share.  During the whole class share each group gives a one sentence summary of the discussion.  Teachers will need to adjust timing for groups depending on maturity and comfort with student-led discussions.  More time will be needed the first few times students engage with this protocol.

A key teacher move for facilitating this process is to have students identify speaking by raising hands order before running the protocol.  (Who will speak first?  Who will speak second? Who will speak third?)  Also, before running the opening exchange, teachers will want to have student presenters identify themselves.  This move will drastically cut time wasted to negotiations of speaking order and also creates accountability.

Talk Think Open Exchange

*Diagram source:  ALL-ED

The self and human-centered design

10 minutes


Students will watch a clip from designkit.org to learn that engineering design thinking is often called human centered design because it is a form of problem solving that actively meets the needs of people.  I will explain that this shift in language underscores one of the primary purposes of this first unit--for us to use engineering design thinking to develop classroom practices that better fit our needs.  I will further explain that as part of our synthesis process we will use social and emotional learning competencies as design constraints.  Why?  There are many ways to define human success.  One way that I will emphasize this year is a high level of social and emotional competency.  To this end, I argue that these core competencies are a common human need.  We will use the next lesson to design prototypes for the unique version of this need that we each uniquely possess.

Discussion questions

  • Based on this film, how do we know if a product we designed is successful?
  • Why are humans an important part of the engineering design process?
  • What are our needs that we need to meet?

What I will look for in answers and how I will push student thinking

The key move I make in this discussion is to push students to connect a human need to a proposed solution.  We have done this repeatedly throughout this unit, but many students will still fall short of coherently articulating the necessary connection between a human need and an engineering-design solution.  In terms of mastery, here is a quick look at how I might assess responses:

1 (beginning)- Responses do no demonstrate any connection between needs and solutions: "I don't know", "humans are smart"

2 (approaching)- Responses demonstrate some understanding between needs and solutions: "Successful products fix the problem", "humans need to understand how to make something that fixes stuff"

3 (proficient-goal)-Responses demonstrate a clear understanding the engineering-design thinking develops solutions to needs: "Successful products address the needs of humans", "Humans are an important part of engineering design thinking because they have the needs that need to be solved"

4 (exceeding-"college ready)-Same as 3, but provides an example: "Successful products address the needs of humans.  For example if I need to hear somebody read a text to fully understand it, I could listen to an audio book version of a reading."


Human-centered design clip from designkit.org (scroll down). 

Empathy popcorn + we all have problems

20 minutes


This is an emotional intense activity designed for students to understand the common needs of the class.   


Students complete this form and read out results displayed at the front of the room.  We will read these results in a "popcorn" format, as the feeling moves us.  This means that somebody speaks next when their is silence.  Many teachers may feel comfortable with wait time in this situation, but it is extremely important not to call on students or communicate any feelings of panic or anxiety.  This activity can be very challenging for students and it is the teacher's job to ensure that the classroom remains a safe space.  If a teacher must speak, an effective move is to participate in the discussion and read out one of the results.

As for guidelines, teachers should communicate to the class that students do not respond to other students, and all students speak at least three times.  When there is a clear break (one minute or more), students craft a personal written reflection of the process and identify one need that seems to be common in the class.  We share out "how might we?" problem definitions as a closing.

Reflection Prompt

What are the common needs we must meet?  How might we define these needs as a problem? And what ideas do you have to solve these needs?  Students will share out ideas at the end of the class.

Teacher moves

I will actively participate in this discussion by reading out statements.  This move is extremely important for modeling expected behavior and creating a safe environment for taking risks.

Managing reflections-TEACHER NOTES

During the reflections share, be prepared for strong reactions.  In my experiences, students will often report that this is one of the most powerful learning experiences that they have had in high school.  Be prepared for just about anything--tears, happiness, general discomfort, expressions of care.  Be especially vigilant at the end of class and speak personally with any students that appear to be upset by this experience.  I have never had a student become deeply disturbed by this activity, but I have had a couple that were very sad because this experience brought up painful memories.  As such, I strongly urge teachers to think deeply about the dynamics of a specific class before engaging in this work.