Empathy is an odd idea to discuss in math or even in STEM/STEAM education. It is usually thought of as an issue in psychology or sociology, perhaps in the humanities, a topic for English or history classes to consider in school. Yet, it is the first step in the Design Learning process where Stanford’s D School tells students to empathize “you observe, engage, watch and listen.” In short, you begin the creative problem-solving process by looking at problems in human terms, from the standpoint of the people who have the problem they need to solve. In the Functional Thinking problem solving process that mirrors Design Learning, we ask students to visualize the problem to make a problem real, see it in context, and picture the kind of answer they will be looking for. We believe that students who visualize a problem will naturally empathize with it.

There is an even greater role that empathy must play in our schools. For if we want our students to care about solving the problems we assign to them, then we must develop and assign those problems empathetically. An empathy-based curriculum may seek to find those few amazing problems that nearly every student empathizes with, or problems that have such a potent human emotion attached to them that students engage immediately. Those great projects are worthy targets. But there is another way.

Imagine instead a future STEM curriculum made up of thousands of creative problem-solving Labs so that students can, in large measure, choose those they want to work on, those they find interesting, those they have observed, those that engage them, those they already have established empathy with. If our goal is no longer the mere acquisition of knowledge, the development of personal libraries of information or techniques, because such libraries are available to all on the Web, then we can focus on practicing creative problem-solving, the skills they will need for the digital age. And they can build these skills because they have also developed the empathy to truly understand how to solve problems in the digital age. Those of us who create these Labs must thus hold empathy as our core vision and first step.