Why Does A STEM Curriculum Need Empathy?

In the last few years, there has been a push to get more kids interested in STEM subjects from an early age. That’s understandable, since the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that we will need one million more STEM professionals through 2025 than our colleges will train. Girls especially are unconsciously conditioned to lose confidence in these subjects, resulting in a large gender gap in many STEM fields. Despite the success of many programs for youth to encourage participation in STEM, problems in these fields persist.

In order to make a STEM education a force for good in our world, and help students to solve social and economic problems, we need to understand the role of empathy in STEM curriculums.

Why is Empathy in STEM so Important?

STEM fields are often associated with “left brain” attributes. They’re based on logic and formulas, not on emotions. So why should empathy come into play when designing a STEM curriculum? Largely because humans are not purely logical, and a lack of empathy causes serious consequences in social situations.

It’s no accident that emotional intelligence has become a hot commodity in the workforce. It blasts IQ out of the water as a performance predictor, taking credit for about 58% of success in jobs across all fields. A brilliant engineer or developer may be able to do the work he or she is assigned, and do it well, but without empathy and emotional intelligence, the work can only go so far on its own.

A well-rounded STEM education needs to teach the ability to consider other people’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. These skills are not only helpful for relating to coworkers, but for understanding and developing breakthroughs. Understanding your market or audience is key to success in every industry, and empathy is required to really get to the heart of that audience’s specific needs. This holds true whether the audience is waiting for the next iPhone or interested in saving the planet with alternative energy sources. Considering the audience’s thoughts and feelings helps to produce better devices, upgrades, and solutions to global problems.

Empathy also plays a role in innovation, since collaboration is an important part of bringing a product or idea from brainstorming to reality. In the workplace, if people don’t have empathy or the social skills they need to work together, innovation will be hampered.

Google Firing Provides Real-World Illustration

If you’re skeptical that there is an empathy problem in STEM fields like tech, just look at the recent example of former Google Engineer James Damore. Damore was fired after circulating a memo slamming Google’s diversity policy and arguing that biological differences are the reason there is a gender imbalance in the tech industry. At that time, company reports showed the Google workforce was made up of 69% male employees.

Though Google’s diversity policy shows that the company recognizes the importance of empathy and diversity, in theory, the case also showcases the shocking lack of empathy in some STEM fields. Damore was unable to empathize with his female coworkers, and that lack of empathy is unfortunately not an isolated case. Many women and minorities are pushed out of STEM fields because of a hostile and discriminatory work environment. Empathy is needed alongside STEM subjects to balance technical skills with social skills. Although there will always be people like Damore in every industry, empathy training could go a long way toward improving the culture of the tech industry and other fields as a whole.

STEAM in the Classroom and Leading by Example

The STEAM movement has been building, well, steam in the last few years. STEAM was spearheaded by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to highlight the importance of art alongside STEM subjects. Art, which is more intuitive and creative (using “right brain” skills) could help students develop necessary empathy and innovation that needs to drive the new wave of STEM workers.

As an educator, you can start bringing empathy into the classroom in several different ways. First, it’s important to lead by example. Practice and demonstrate empathy, and work one-on-one with students who are having trouble cultivating it.

Working in teams is also a key factor in developing empathy. Have the class work together on a real-world problem, like the Brookwood School’s 3-D printing prostatic project. The school also incorporated role-playing into their curriculums for more empathetic students.

Hope for the Future

While change has been slow, there is hope for the future. Teachers, as always, have an enormous responsibility to help course-correct and bring empathy back into the STEM curriculum. With patience, empathy, and hard work, we can prepare students to contribute to STEM fields in a deeply meaningful way.

Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education. When she's not watching the New York Yankees play, Sarah enjoys practicing yoga and reading a good book on the beach.

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