Problem-Based Design Thinking Tasks: Engaging Student Empathy in STEM

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Regina P McCurdy
Megan L. Nickels
Sarah B. Bush



The integration of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the science classrooms around the globe is considered by some science educators, education policy makers, and government leaders to be necessary to increase the number of STEM professionals helping to increase national economies by developing innovative technologies. However, there may also be a more meaningful connection between students and STEM: relevancy to their lives and the lives of others as an expression of empathy. This study examines the interaction between students’ expressions of empathy and the use of STEM integration in the science classroom. Third space theory provides the theoretical framework from which the ethnographic study took place, as it provided an environment in which discourse among students’ sociocultural perspectives, life experiences, and academic backgrounds could develop and interact. Nineteen seventh-grade students from a Title 1 school, a school that receive federal aid to better support students coming from low-income families, in the Southeast United States participated in this study. Participants generated their own real-world problem-based design-thinking (PBDT) tasks to address and solve. Students exhibited significant characteristics of empathy and integration of various STEM content and practices evidenced by in-class discussions, field-notes observations, student artifacts, and individual student interviews as part of the STEM Third Space Genius Hour sessions. The PBDT Framework, inspired by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) learning cycle and design thinking (DT), provides the conceptual lens by which to view the connectedness among students’ PBDT tasks STEM, and empathy. 

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Research / Empirical