ITEEA The Elementary STEM Journal, Vol. 23, Issue 4
PublisherInternational Technology and Engineering Educators Association, Reston
ReleasedMay 1, 2019
The Elementary STEM Journal, Volume 23, Issue 4 - May, 2019

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Article: The Power of Building Empathy in STEAM!


The Power of Building Empathy in STEAM! art3-200.png

 By Daniel Edelen, Sarah B. Bush, Kristin Cook, and Richard Cox, Jr.


The inclusion of the ‘A’ to transform STEM into STEAM is about much more than just the aesthetics.

Rather, it is importantly about the inclusion of culture, self-expression, creativity, and community, as students gain insights into the lives of others and ultimately themselves. STEAM brings in the much-needed human side of the problem-solving process as students design, create, and empathize their way to making sense of our world. Art can be the vehicle in which subjects can be integrated in ways that transcend typical boundaries and connect to students’ personal expression. Within such integrations, students become so enthralled in making sense of the task that they draw upon and apply previously learned content as well as gain new knowledge from the STEAM disciplines as they generate novel solutions to problems with the goal of helping others (Bush, et al., 2018). Planning and implementing transdisciplinary learning experiences can be daunting, as this type of instruction has not been the focus of most teacher preparation programs (Kelly & Knowles, 2016). Transdisciplinary teaching and learning occurs when the content area disciplines become authentically intertwined as students focus on finding a solution to the problem under investigation and seamlessly apply the disciplines (in this case, in STEAM) to solve the authentic problems (Quigley & Herro, 2016). These types of learning experiences help students see how the disciplines are truly interconnected in our world.

Through our collective experience implementing transdisciplinary inquiries, we have seen firsthand how transformative this type of instruction is for students as they move from their traditional role as a receiver of information to being positioned as an expert—one whose lived experiences are valued and important to solving the problem. Living in a world that is changing daily through innovation and technology and where the workforce is relying more and more on interdisciplinary collaborations, it is becoming increasingly important for students to have experiences that require them to transfer content knowledge and practices from multiple disciplines so that they can be positioned as problem-solvers to improve and solve complex problems of the world.

planning for transdisciplinary instruction through design thinking

We have found that planning STEAM transdisciplinary learning experiences through the lens of the Design Thinking Framework (Cook & Bush, 2018; Doorley, Holcomb, Klebahn, Segovia, & Utley, 2018) helps teachers thoughtfully create valuable learning experiences for their students. Through Design Thinking, students tackle authentic problems in their school, community, or the world, and they enter the problem by first establishing feelings of empathy for the person or situation under investigation. Design Thinking is a systematic yet flexible process of solving an authentic problem that maintains a critical focus on human needs (Swift, Strimel, Bartholomew, & Yoshikawa, 2018). See Figure 1 for an overview of the Design Thinking Framework, which has been adapted to focus on empathy of person(s), organism(s), and environment(s).  Copy of Design Thinking Figure 4 web.jpg

Design Thinking has five nonlinear phases. Phase one begins with developing empathy towards the person(s), organism(s), or environment(s) in need. Students transition into phase two as they define the problem based upon their empathetic feelings by asking questions to seek further information needed to aid in generating solutions. Phase three entails students brainstorming new, novel, and creative solutions to their defined problem. In phase four, students focus upon one solution and generate a prototype of their idea. In the fifth phase students test their prototype to determine if their solution helps their person(s), organism(s), or environment(s) in need. Importantly, students might move back and forth between these phases multiple times throughout the duration of the Design Thinking process (Cook & Bush, 2018). 

Empathy is a key component of transdisciplinary inquiries, as we have found through our own teaching experiences that when students are solving a problem for someone else they are positioned as the one in charge of their own learning who has valuable insights and contributions to help another. Students develop an immense compassion for the person(s), organism(s), or environment(s) for which they are solving the problem and begin to seek out the knowledge they need to solve the problem on their own, rather than waiting for the teacher to guide them step-by-step. We have found that positioning empathy as a focal point of STEAM inquiries pays off in high dividends, as any time invested in building empathy pays off many times over in student engagement and passion for creating a solution to the problem (as described in Bush & Cook, 2019). Expressing empathy can provide meaningful engagement into the context of the problem. Empathy can also position students to discuss and traverse difficult concepts that often exist outside of their own concrete world views.

how do I build empathy?Copy of Figure 2-Empathy Paper 4 web.jpg

As you develop a STEAM inquiry, intentionally pose the problem (we use a problem statement) in such a way that will allow for students to feel empathy. Make sure the problem is about a person(s), organism(s), environment(s), or situation to which your students can relate. When introducing the problem statement to your students, give them a copy (or have it permanently posted) so that students can refer back continually as they work through the inquiry. Teacher guidance is needed to ensure students are returning to the problem statement and staying true to the goals and parameters of their inquiry. Now, let’s dive into an example!

Figure 2 displays a STEAM problem statement created by the first author. We have highlighted key aspects for you to consider to guide in the development of your own problem statements.

We have also found the use of a bio card to be especially helpful. Bio cards help to add a level of authenticity and realness to the inquiry—especially if your students do not personally know those in the problem statement. See Figure 3 for an example bio card.

After equipping students with the problem statement and bio card, allow students the time to develop empathetic feelings towards those in the problem statement. As students continually return to the empathy aspect of the inquiry, allow them to ask questions and discuss with their peers at the beginning of the STEAM inquiry and revisit often so that students are reminded of "why" they are looking for a solution. Asking students to close their eyes and imagine what they might do in a similar situation is a great strategy to establish student empathy. Allowing students to share times they felt similar to the person in the problem statement can also be a great way to help your students feel empathy. Copy of Figure 3-Empathy Paper 4 web.jpg

The following is a list of helpful hints for building empathy in your students:

  1. Keep problems as authentic as possible. When developing problem statements, look for real-world opportunities that have multiple solution paths and solutions so that students can creatively approach the problem in ways they believe would be best for those in need.
  2. Develop problem statements relevant to students. Students will have an easier time developing empathy when the problem they are attempting to solve is something they have experienced or to which they can easily relate.  
  3. Empathetic problem statements should make each and every student feel included. Multiculturalism plays an important role in developing empathetic moments based upon the person(s) (and organisms or environments) for your students. Think about access and equity for your students and select authentic moments that your students would be able to relate to or may even have experienced themselves.
  4. Revisit empathy as often as possible. Remind students to revisit the needs of those for whom they are solving the problem as a means to refocus them. Allow for time throughout the inquiry for students to continue to develop empathy, as it does take time and will not always happen immediately.
  5. Solve for a singular problem. Allowing students to focus on the needs of a singular problem of a small group of people, animals, or the environment helps them critically focus on one issue. When students are faced with multiple problems, it becomes increasingly difficult to develop empathy as well as generate novel solutions.

our students

Our students have a difficult journey ahead of them. They will need to be able to navigate a world and make sense of situations that we, as teachers, cannot even predict. However, we can prepare them for an unknown future. Focusing on empathy, through problem solving, equips our students with much needed real-world skills. Doing so brings their humanity to the forefront of their learning experiences. As our students transition into future problem solvers, they will need the ability to empathize to make our world better for all.


Bush, S. B., Karp, K., Cox, R., Cook, K. L, Albanese, J., & Karp, M. (2018). Design thinking framework: Shaping powerful mathematics. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 23(4), 1-5.

Cook K. L. & Bush, S. B. (2018). Design thinking in integrated STEAM learning: Surveying the landscape and exploring exemplars in elementary grades. School Science and Mathematics, 118(3-4), 93-103.

Bush, S. B. & Cook, K. L. (2019). Step into STEAM: Your standards-based action plan for deepening mathematics and science learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Doorley, S., Holcomb, S., Klebahn, P., Segovia, K., & Utley, K. (2018). Design thinking bootleg. Retrieved from 

d. school at Stanford University (2018). Retrieved from 

Kelley, T. & Knowles, J. (2016). A conceptual framework for integrated STEM education. International Journal of STEM Education, 3(1), 1-11.

Quigley, C., & Herro, D., (2016). “Finding joy in the unknown”: Implementation of STEAM teaching practices in middle school science and math classrooms. Science Education Technology, 25, 410-426. doi: 10.101107/s109556-016-9602-z.

Swift, C., Strimel, G., Bartholomew, S., & Yoshikawa E. (2018). Cultivating a family of innovators through design thinking. Children’s Technology and Engineering, 22(4), 7-11.


Daniel Edelen is a doctoral student in elementary mathematics education at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Mr. Edelen’s research focuses on integrating social justice into mathematics and transdisciplinary STEAM with a critical emphasis on equity for high needs populations. He can be reached at

Sarah B. Bush is associate professor of K-12 STEM Education at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and is a member of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Board of Directors. Dr. Bush’s scholarship focuses on deepening student and teacher understanding of mathematics through transdisciplinary STE(A)M problem-based inquiry. She can be reached at

Kristin Cook is an associate professor of science education at Bellarmine University in Louisville, KY. Dr. Cook’s research focuses on engaging students and teachers with the community of science through the exploration of socio-scientific inquiry and transdisciplinary STEAM instruction. She can be reached at

Richard Cox, Jr. is a K-5 Instructional Coach and STEAM facilitator in Bullitt County Public Schools, Mt. Washington, KY and a doctoral candidate in the Education and Social Change program at at Bellarmine University (Louisville, KY). Mr. Cox's research focuses on conceptualizing and articulating alternatives to longstanding and dominant curriculum in science and mathematics through the use of transdisciplinary STEAM. He can be reached at


This is a refereed article.