Using empathy to drive STEM learning

Issue: Volume 100, Number 15

Posted: 24 November 2021
Reference #: 1HARWa

Students at Mt Richmond Special School wanted their classmate, who had the use of only one hand, to be able to join in cooking lessons, so they designed a kitchen tool to make that possible. It’s STEM learning at its finest, using empathy to propel students through a huge design challenge.

Students Joshua and Adam at the Ōtāhuhu Library.

Students Joshua and Adam at the Ōtāhuhu Library.

Mt Richmond Special School in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland, caters for learners needing the highest level of specialist support. With support from community partners, the students’ STEM learning has surpassed all expectations.

As part of their transition programme, students aged 16-21 learn workplace skills such as car washing, lawn mowing and cooking. But one student couldn’t participate in cooking because she is visually impaired and has the use of only one hand. 

Her classmates wanted her to join in, ‘because she’s our friend,’ and teachers tapped into this empathy to drive motivation for a STEM challenge to design kitchen equipment that would enable the student to participate fully. 

Exactly what that equipment would be was a big question that took weeks to evolve, with assistance from design and engineering professionals. 

Design process

Steven Reay, director of Good Health Design at AUT, and post-graduate student Zora Situ helped students identify what they wanted to make by taking them through a design process of unpacking problems, generating ideas, mocking up and experimenting, then prototyping final solutions.

“We take it for granted that you can hold a food item and cut it, but when you try cutting a carrot with one hand it bounces around and rolls away,” says Steve.

Group evaluation of handle designs, assessing comfort and safety.

Group evaluation of handle designs, assessing comfort and safety.

“We also take for granted that we know where the knife is going to fall, and this was one of the key insights; it’s that cognitive spatial awareness of being able to hold an item with one hand and know where the knife is going to land. But if you’re struggling to position the food item and you don’t know the line of the knife, it’s really tricky.”

Steve explains that in one of their discussions, he asked students how people know where to drive on the road, and one student said, “Because there’s a line down the middle.” 

This questioning helped to focus the students to think how important it is to know ‘the line of the knife’, and then to make this visible on a chopping board. From here, it then became important to have a guide to fix the tip of the knife for better control. The student could then, with the top of the knife fixed into place, put food across the centre line and chop, knowing it would cut in the right place.

Steve says this led to more questions, like “How can you lift the knife in and out easily? How can the knife not rock backwards or roll over?” So, there was a lot of prototyping of handle shapes.

“The learning was a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved. It was a great experience for Zora as a young designer and challenged her to work with a user group not often accessible to university students.”

Role playing and student interaction

Zora says any nerves she had about the project quickly faded. 

“I think people have an idea that the designer is the one who comes up with the ideas and makes all the decisions, but the ideas come from people who experience the problem every day, and I think the designer in that space is there just to facilitate the process.

“It’s about role playing and asking the right questions of the users and spending some time making crazy ideas that could turn into really useful ideas.”

Zora says the most rewarding part for her was interacting with the students.

“Without this project, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get to know this community. The students are really wonderful, they are so nice and kind, and I cherish the casual conversations we had.”

Project partners

Toa at work.

Toa at work.

Other project partners include the Independent Living Charitable Trust, Marvle3D printing agent Victor Yu, Ōtāhuhu Library, and Sir Edmund Hillary Satellite of Mt Richmond School.

Specialist teacher Rachel Titchener, lead teacher Neelam Lalhall, and deputy principal Tracey Venter sought funding for the project from SouthSci, a part of the Curious Minds Government Participatory Science Platform initiative to show young people the value of science skills through collaboration with community partners. 

 “When we started out, I was thinking we were going to these people for help, not fully understanding how reciprocal the arrangement was,” says Rachel. 

“We met with a pastor from a local church, and he said, ‘You know, your cohort is largely invisible in the community. How does our youth group learn to relate and build empathy if they never have the opportunity to interact with the school community?’

“And our design partner, Steve, said much the same. His students design for the health sector, yet our students are a cohort they seldom see or interact with. We had underestimated how much value we could return to our partners.”

Tracey says those early discussions with partners guided  thinking towards making the project as ideal as it could be. Ōtāhuhu Library staff helped by offering use of their 3D printer and supporting students to learn how to use it.

“It was absolutely amazing how open people were to support us. It wasn’t a case of throwing money at us, partners bought into the project quite deeply and helped us formulate a way forward.”

Community and business connections

SouthSci’s guidance was also invaluable. Manager Ying Yang set up connections for potential community and business partners, read over the school’s application and suggested edits prior to submission. 

Renee (left) working with design student Zora.

Renee (left) working with design student Zora.

The school was awarded a grant of $16,350, which has enabled the purchase of a 3D printer and GoPro, design expertise, and trips to places to research their project such as AUT’s Good Health Design school, Independent Living and MOTAT. 

Ying says participatory science is about the community exploring science that is important to them and collaborating with partners to develop their research. 

“That’s exactly what Mt Richmond School has done. They’ve identified what their stakeholders need, they’ve got their partners involved, and they’ve worked with the team to develop solutions. 

“We provide as much help as needed, but the ideas and the learning activities involved come from the schools and the students because that’s how they’re going to be more engaged.”

Principal Kathy Dooley says the project ties in well with the Reggio Emilia pedagogy that the school follows.

“This places great emphasis on student-directed and collaborative learning, staff and students researching, the environment as the third teacher and involvement of whānau. The students who participated were highly motivated and we were thrilled with the increase in their self-esteem, confidence and ability to describe their project from inception to the end result.”

One student’s interest was so keen that it helped him override anxiety about talking and he was able to speak eloquently about his work. 

Cross-curriculum learning has been extensive and includes digital literacy through exploration of 3D modelling software and a GoPro with which to record the students’ learning and thinking, the maths required to gain accurate measurements, and the literacy involved in learning the language of design – stakeholder, prototype, fit for purpose, trialling, testing, evaluating. 

“In terms of social skills and confidence, all students have grown and even students who say they don’t like cooking are onboard because they’re so invested in the technical aspects.” says Rachel.

Zora and Steve worked alongside ākonga at Mt Richmond School. They are pictured here with Renee (right).

Zora and Steve worked alongside ākonga at Mt Richmond School. They are pictured here with Renee (right).

Huge learning curve

For staff too, the learning has been huge.

“At the outset we were daunted. We didn’t know what we were getting into, and we’ve learnt so much about making connections and from seeing people in action with our students,” says Rachel.

For Neelam, the project provided valuable insight into students’ thinking. “Seeing through the eyes and hearing through the ears of our students allowed us to feel their heartbeats.”

And Tracey says she has been reminded of how far students can go when given the opportunity. 

“Sometimes we limit students’ potential with our thinking. When we let them go, they can achieve so much more. I’d recommend this to all teachers because stepping out of your comfort zone gives you a new perspective on what your students can do.”

Comet Auckland's video on the project

SouthSci project funding

SouthSci funds innovative projects(external link) that give young people more opportunities to experience science and technology through hands-on learning and collaborative research.

Schools, universities, community and iwi groups can apply for up to $20,000, and each year around 10 grants are made.

The same venture runs in Otago and Taranaki.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:26 AM, 24 November 2021

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