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.
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.
The Empathy Toy
…is a blindfolded puzzle game that can only be solved when players learn to understand each other.