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Learning Empathy Through Design
Make, a middle school elective, blends technology and art with a focus on the design process. The ultimate goal of the course is for students to build confidence in their ability to create for themselves and others. Empathy is one of the most important elements of good design, but it also is one of the most challenging. Creating something for a “customer” requires a designer to focus on the needs and wants of another, often setting aside their own preferences completely. The development of empathy was at the heart of a recent design collaboration between the seventh grade Make class and a class of third graders.
One of the benefits of being St. Timothy’s Media Specialist is that I get to teach across a wide range of grade levels, and sometimes I get the opportunity to provide a chance for them to work together. This fall, while the seventh grade Make class was in the middle of a unit on empathy, I realized that I had the perfect group of customers in Mrs. Boardman’s third grade class. So I asked them to imagine their perfect pencil pouch. Where would they keep it? How many pencils would it hold? What would it look like? After thinking through their options, they sketched out their ideas and made notes about the elements they would like it to include. I had no idea what kinds of designs they would come up with, but I was so impressed by their thoughtfulness and creativity!
The next day, I assigned each Make student a third grader, and they set out to try and bring to life the ideas on the paper. At first it was a struggle. Some of their “customers” had sketched big wonderful dreams, and figuring out how to realistically create something was a challenge. But everybody worked together, feeding each other ideas, taking on an aspect of someone else’s project that they could help with and, in the end, I was completely astonished by what they accomplished.
Side by side the design sketches and the realized products were wonderful examples of how empathy informs design. While some of the pencil holders looked exactly like the original idea, others had required alterations in order to “work” properly. In those products, you could see how the Make student had still tried to stay true to the overall vision of their young designer by using a different material but keeping the same shape or adding little aesthetic touches that were reminiscent of inclusions that hadn’t been possible. Every single pencil pouch was a thoughtful rendering of a design that was not their own, but that they had made come to life. It is an understatement to say that I was crazy proud of them.
In the end, the third graders loved their pencil holders. Watching them run straight towards their designs, knowing immediately which was theirs, was incredibly fun. It also was a poignant lesson. Designing with empathy may be a challenging experience, but as demonstrated by the results of the project, it became absolutely clear that it is a rewarding one.
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