Case Study: STEMpathy in Makerspaces with the Empathy Toy

Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) first opened its doors in 1914, and is a case study in the evolution of storytelling and education. The museum is constantly developing new ways to engage audiences, connecting ideas from across history and cultures to the navigate challenges of the present and the future. The ROM has identified skills related to Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) along with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) as fundamental to helping young people make these connections, and created Club STEAM as a hands-on interdisciplinary program for young people to work on these skills. We sat down with Cheryl Blackman, Assistant Vice President, Audience Development, and former Club STEAM Leader and classroom teacher, Jamea Zuberi, to discuss the program and how the Empathy Toy has been a part of connecting the past and the future.

A lot of people think a museum is a place of the past. Why is a museum an important space for preparing 21st century learners?

Jamea Zuberi:
We’ve all been conditioned to think about museums using that framework, but I see the museum as a place of engagement where kids get the chance to think out of the box. It’s a dynamic, creative and innovative place that [allows kids to take a more] participatory role in their learning.

You are developing amazing programming to help young learners meet the challenges of the future. Why did you decide that STEAM was an important part of the ROM’s program offerings?

Cheryl Blackman:
We always had STEAM in mind as a lens because we’re very interested in the idea of preparing 21st century students. It allows us to take a maker focus as opposed to the curriculum focus receive in school. STEAM is another way to engage kids in deep learning that’s not framed around curriculum.

Do you think this type of learning is important outside of school?

Jamea Zuberi:
In school, you have prescribed instructions that may direct children’s creativity. Students are always given objectives and preferred outcomes. They are hardly ever allowed to freely think in the way they would like to and the rare times they are, there’s a time limit. One good thing about Club STEAM is that it enhances [the learning that’s happening in the classroom]. When the children go back to school, they’re able to make connections and integrate Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math in ways they have never considered.

Many people view STEM/STEAM and SEL to be on opposite sides of the learning spectrum. Where do you see the connection between them?

Cheryl Blackman:
The reality is that in careers related to STEAM, innovation requires collaboration. You can’t be an effective collaborator if you can’t figure out empathy. There is a very strong relationship between teambuilding, collaboration, design thinking and how we say we are supposed to be working together in the 21st century.

Jamea Zuberi:
In the past, we’ve had scientists doing awful things in experiments with the knowledge and education that they have. I think that was a result of not having soft skills like empathy. These [different types of intelligence] have to work together. I tell my students all the time, if you are a scientist who is at the top of your game, [you have the responsibility] to use that knowledge to make a positive change. We use The Empathy Toy and soft skills to bridge that gap.

A group of children sits on chairs facing away from the camera. They face couple of flip charts, one of which says What is Empathy at the top. A woman stands next to the flip chart facing the children.
Children participating in Club STEAM programming.

How is the Empathy Toy being used in Club STEAM?

Jamea Zuberi:
What we’ve created is an Empathy Zone where we use the toy as a tool to inform thinking and actions of young people in the program. We start every session with 15-20 minutes of Empathy Toy game play. When we have a problem we can’t solve or we’re having difficulty figuring out where we’re going to go with the team, we use the whole concept of empathy. We always come back to the toy and playing the game as a frame of reference.

How have participants reacted to The Empathy Toy, and has anything surprised you?

Jamea Zuberi:
The last session really brought it home for me. We gave the children options of activities, including working with the 3D printer, working with the computer, building art pieces, putting things together with their hands, and the Empathy Toy. I thought that not many of them would be interested in the Empathy Toy. But there was a large group [that gravitated to] it. We seem to think that our children are just interested in computer games, and that moment was proof that that’s not true. If we give them alternatives, they surprise us.

What do you think was behind that choice?

Jamea Zuberi:
The Empathy Toy has become such an essential and engaging part of the program. I think that the idea that there [are] no losers helps. It’s a competition where everyone must win.

What is your most memorable Empathy Toy experience?

Cheryl Blackman:
I think the aha moment came for me the day I did my training [with] Twenty One Toys. I was playing with [my colleague] and felt so frustrated at times. Even though I was comfortable asking for help, I still felt like I needed to seek permission – which was weird. For me, the lightbulb went on because I was having my own internal conversation, “What do I do? How do I solve this? How do I listen?” but still also [hearing] what was being said to my playing partner. It started to inform a whole world-view that I wasn’t expecting. My senses were heightened by the experience. After that, I had the epiphany that the Empathy Toy had to be put into the projects I was working on. I could immediately see the connections between what I had just experienced and the bridges I was trying to make [in my work] to inclusion, and as a bridge to staff training but I had not yet made the connection to kids. Then, when we started to plan [Club STEAM/ROM in my Backyard], it hit me like a tonne of bricks. The Empathy Toy became the only non-negotiable for what needed to be included in every session.

Jamea Zuberi:
My moment with the kids was when some conflict was happening and I heard one of the kids say, “Hey! That’s not very empathetic!”. And I thought, woah – they’re actually using the vocabulary.

A quote from the article is on a blue background. It reads The reality is that in careers related to STEAM, innovation requires collaboration. You can’t be an effective collaborator if you can’t figure out empathy.

What recommendations would you give to people who want to incorporate the Empathy Toy into their STEAM program?

Cheryl Blackman:
The Empathy Toy causes you to reach inside yourself to tap into other parts of your mind, and emotions that are under-worked. And once you begin to work that part of yourself, it really does begin to change your perspective.

Jamea Zuberi:
What I love about the Empathy Toy is that it restores a sense of humanity in people. And you can only do that when you are able to identify the vulnerable pieces that we all have in common.

For students pursuing careers in STEM fields such as engineering, computer science, or medicine, technical skills are not enough to excel – especially when the future of work is so unpredictable. The social and emotional competencies that can be practiced with The Empathy Toy including problem solving, adaptability, collaboration, creative communication, risk taking and of course, empathy are fundamental to future career success.

Museums like the ROM are well positioned to support the development of essential skills for the future by connecting young people to diverse ideas from around the world and across time. The ROM is also dedicated to being an institution that is always growing, sharing new discoveries, including more diverse stories and histories, and highlighting the contributions of more people and communities. Defying the image of museums as places stuck in the past, the ROM is constantly finding ways to look to the future..

A evening picture of the front of the Royal Ontario Museum, showing the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.
ROM Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. Photo courtesy of Studio Libeskind

Bursting out of the ROM heritage building and onto the street is a giant crystal that houses new collections and event spaces. When it was constructed in 2007, then ROM CEO, William Thorsell, called it a “radical intervention” that would “liberate the soul of the museum.” This world-class piece of architecture represents the ROM’s bold commitment to relevance in our contemporary world, paving the way for future innovation by inspiring new generations.

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