Connection, Baby! (The importance of teaching empathy in STEAM classes)
Written by Hannah Clifton, Upper School Math & Science Teacher
Many years ago, as a young and relatively inexperienced middle school teacher, I had a colleague who taught seventh grade social studies. Widely loved by his students, this professional educator could regularly be heard shouting “CONNECTION, BABY” in the last few minutes of every class. As a math teacher at the time, I didn’t include emotional connections in my algebra curriculum. Math teachers don’t feel; leave the “mushy stuff” for the humanities teachers. Or so I thought.
In the ensuing fifteen years, my life changed significantly. I got married, had two kids, and took a seven-year hiatus from teaching to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom. When I returned to the classroom in the fall of 2019, I realized quickly that teaching had changed a lot while I was absent from it. And then a few months later, in March of 2020, school changed again, and it has not stopped changing since.
Like a thief who breaks into a house with no warning, the COVID-19 pandemic stole things from teachers and students that forever altered our school experiences. A lot of these things can be easily measured; statistical data from standardized tests and reading assessments can give us information about what academic things were lost. However, it was the loss of the unmeasurable components of teaching that I have been trying to find again for the past two years. It turns out that even I, as a decidedly logical math (and now science) teacher, can recognize that what is most important in any school curriculum is the “mushy stuff.”
The mission statement of the Sage School is to “encourage our diverse community of gifted students to engage in academic challenges, nurture their love of learning, and cultivate their humanity so they can serve, inspire, and create impact.” Interestingly, the crux of this statement is not academics but social-emotional learning, which has caused me to pause as I write lesson plans and to think about how I am teaching my students to connect our lessons to the larger world around them.
From a purely academic point of view, teaching weather and climate to fifth grade students does not seem like an exercise in social-emotional learning. The first year I taught the content, we focused on weather and weather systems, gathering and graphing data, and learning a bit about different types of extreme weather. In the second year, I taught all of those same things but also took some time for class discussions around the idea that extreme weather affects different communities in different ways.
This year, after listening to a very impactful podcast by fellow science teacher Regina McCurdy, I decided to commit even more class time to helping my students draw personal connections to what they are learning. In the podcast, Dr. McCurdy explains the importance of teaching empathy as part of STEAM classes; while talking about students choosing an idea for a science project that connected to their own lives, she said:
“The core of it was they [my students] had a sense of something that was meaningful to them or meaningful to others. Whether it was the water pollution or the litter on the school campus at the time, and it was just, it was fascinating. And there was a lot in that study there, but I am so pleased that this is still something that is helping others understand that the science classroom should extend outside of the four walls. And we need to bring in these experiences and the topics and ideas that students care about into the science world if we want to have a sustainable future, you know, as far as our physical world but also our social one and how we interact with others who are different and have different perspectives as well.” Full transcript of the podcast
If my goal is to instill empathy in my science students, how will I know if I have met the objective? Instead of just focusing on air pressure levels and wind speed in a hurricane, we will ask the question, “If I lived in an underdeveloped country with very little infrastructure, how would a category 5 hurricane affect me?” Instead of watching news reports of hurricane devastation in other parts of the world and thinking, “Phew, I’m glad I don’t live there,” we will think, “How terrible.” “I wonder how I can help.”
My hypothesis is that if I can teach empathy in my science classes, the skill of considering others first will stick with my students, and they will start to use empathy in other areas of their lives. Is this a measurable goal? Not really. Will it instill in my students a desire to serve, inspire, and create impact? Possibly. Is it worth my time to test my hypothesis? Absolutely.