Case Study: Building Better Societies with the Empathy Toy

Experts and educators have championed STEM education as a way to arm students with the skills they need to thrive in the workplaces of the future. But to really supercharge STEM education, students also need to learn to exercise empathy. This blending of tech and soft skills has become so valued, it’s earned a catchy portmanteau – STEMpathy. With empathy woven into STEM, students don’t just master the hard skills; they also hone 21st-century skills that allow them to apply their STEM education to real-world problems. With empathy as the foundation of STEM learning, students can use their technical skills to develop effective solutions that address people’s needs.

The refugee crisis is one of the major global issues where STEMpathy is being put to good use. Learning from refugees and better understanding their experiences helps individuals and organizations come up with better solutions and supports in response to disaster and conflict situations.

A lack of empathy can make it difficult for refugees to integrate and build relationships in their new communities. In Kenya, the Nairobi Play Project uses game design and play to foster understanding between young refugees and local communities. These games aren’t just child’s play: they’re instrumental in bringing about much-needed social change. We sat down with Ariam Mogos, the initiative’s founder, who believes that the right mix of problem-solving, making and empathy can be a powerful tool for solving big, real-world problems.

Tell us how and why the Nairobi Play Project started.

Ariam Mogos:
My family is from Eritrea and there’s a large Eritrean and Ethiopian population in Nairobi. I didn’t know there were so many urban refugees in Kenya. I started hearing some of their stories. The quality of education is poor and there are very few viable employment opportunities for them.

A lot of refugee initiatives are siloed, meaning that they’re only for refugees and don’t support the integration of refugees into host communities, which is a big problem because there has been little to no intercultural dialogue and it promotes segregation and xenophobia. I wanted to design a learning experience that would provide refugee and host communities with tangible skills they could apply in the real-world, with a focus on intercultural competence.

This turned into a game design program with Ethiopian, Eritrean and Kenyan youth all working together to make games about issues in Kenya, everything from gender inequality to corruption to food to health. We didn’t tell them what the goal of the program was, they just thought it was an “IT camp”. On the first day they were definitely a bit surprised to see each other and we didn’t address it openly, but by the end of the week, they had all become very good friends.

Two students sit at a large green table. both are wearing empathy toy blindfolds and holding pieces of the toy. number other stand behind them around table watching them.
Nairobi Play participants play with the Empathy Toy. Photo courtesy of Nairobi Play.

If you were to do this program again, would you still hide your goal from participants?

Ariam Mogos:
Yes, otherwise I think it might influence if they want to participate in the program. I asked one Eritrean refugee “Do you have opportunities like this? Are you exposed to these type of programs where you work with people from different backgrounds?” and he said “Honestly, it’s rare. When I showed up on day one I thought, I’m going to keep my head down, I’m going to keep my mouth quiet, I’m going to learn what I can and then I’m going to leave at the end of the week. But I just can’t believe how many new friends I’ve made and what this experience has been like – it’s not at all what I expected when I arrived on day one.” It was amazing to hear him say that because that was the goal of the program.

Did you have conversations about that during the program, or was it all about game design?

Ariam Mogos:
It was important for the program to be as hands-on as possible. I don’t think empathy and intercultural competence can be as easily acquired through conversation as it can through experiential learning, and game design (storytelling) was the vehicle which helped make that possible. We don’t use games and overall “making” enough to bridge gaps between different types of people. The Empathy Toy was also really important in creating intercultural dialogue because many of the Empathy Toy concepts are aligned to intercultural competence, like making assumptions about others, active listening, etc. They all play a role in escalating and de-escalating conflict and building relationships.

A quote from the article is shown on a blue geometric background. The quote reads I don't think empathy and intercultural competence can be as easily acquired through conversation as it can through experiential learning [...] We dont use games and overall making enough to bridge gaps between different types of people.

Can you explain how you used different gameplay variations of the Empathy Toy?

Ariam Mogos:
One of my favourite gameplay scenarios involved breaking them up into two groups and mismatching their toy sets. We built the models for the guides that were impossible for the builders to recreate because they had the wrong pieces. They got very frustrated and started blaming each other when the builders couldn’t find the pieces that the guides were referring to. And they kept going back and forth blaming each other until they came to a point where they realized, “Okay, maybe something bigger is happening here that doesn’t have to do with either one of us. Let’s think of all the possibilities beyond I did something wrong or you did something wrong.” I love that activity because sometimes we fail to take external factors into account when we’re engaged in a conflict.

Do you think the students could draw all the connections you intended between Empathy Toy game play and their lives?

Ariam Mogos:
Absolutely! Through reflecting on their frustrations, they got the take-aways very quickly. And as facilitators we guided and supported them to ensure they applied these skills during the game design process.

What is the connection between empathy and the design process/STEM learning?

Ariam Mogos:
In a program like this, if youth aren’t building their empathy skills, then they’re not going to be able to create a game that reflects a shared narrative, or a narrative that represents and respects different perspectives. That was a challenge. They had very different opinions on social, political and economic issues in Kenya because they were coming from different contexts. The aim of this model is to create a shared experience through the process of making something and telling their stories collectively, which can have a critical impact on their lives and how they choose to interact with others in the future.

In education we generally teach STEM to build things, but sometimes we fail to take an interdisciplinary approach. I think young people need to be encouraged to leverage STEM and making to solve real-world problems, and those problems don’t have to be science or tech-related either. In the case of Nairobi Play, youth are applying STEM and computational thinking to solve issues related to conflict, culture and broader societal issues, in tandem with empathy and other 21st century skills. I think we don’t see this enough because creating programs to teach tech skills is easy, it’s the other stuff that’s more challenging to design for and assess. I also think the “jobs of the future” rhetoric is hyper-focused on technology and computer programming, which unfortunately ends up devaluing these other skills.

Can you tell me about intergroup contact theory to teach intercultural dialogue?

Ariam Mogos:
In a nutshell, the more contact that different groups in conflict have, the more beneficial it is and the more productive for resolving conflict. It can break down borders and lead to intercultural dialogue, understanding between groups and less prejudice. It’s a powerful model and there are specific conditions that have to be met (equal status, intergroup cooperation, common goals, and support by social and institutional authorities). We thought quite a bit about how to create and maintain these conditions through the program design, but research has shown that even in sub-optimal conditions, contact between groups is correlated to reduced prejudice.

How do you want to see this project grow?

Ariam Mogos:
The project is currently being supported and implemented by UNICEF Kenya. My hope is that Nairobi Play continues to grow and supports a movement of similar initiatives. As global migration accelerates due to conflict, climate change, economic inequality and other factors, I think it’s important that global citizenship is made a priority in our educational spaces. Young people need to be equipped with the skills to successfully live together, work together and build wonderful diverse societies. Those are really the skills of the future.

Issues related to migration, integration and acceptance continue to make headlines, and we can expect that climate change and conflict will continue to create more refugees in the future.

We can also expect that we won’t just rely on technology to help address the complex, global issues of the future. Instead, it will be empathy – the most important 21st-century skill – that will enable us to best use technology to address real human issues. Experts are already talking about how to change our response to the refugee crisis and develop better solutions. And not surprisingly, STEM solutions led by empathy are at the heart of many discussions.

The Nairobi Play Project shows the power of STEMpathy and play to create meaningful solutions in local communities. When young people are armed with the dual powers of tech skills and empathy, they can create effective, creative solutions to real-world problems that are designed to improve the lives of real people. And it’s those people-focused ideas that have the power to create radical, lasting change.

Since the time of this interview, the Nairobi Play Project has expanded to be called the Intercultural Play Project. The model has been adopted in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, and multicultural communities in Spain, Tunisa, and Morocco. Ariam and her team at the School of Intercultural Computing have also used the work and insights from the Nairobi Play Project to inform an anti-racism program in the United States called Decoding Racecraft.

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