Sowing the Seeds of Empathy With Technology?

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By Rich Lehrer

A unique 3D printing partnership leads to deep learning and new friendships – for a group of 6th grade students

In May, 2016, fellow Brookwood School teacher, Annie Johnson, and I had one of the most transformative experiences of our respective teaching careers when a small group of our 6th lehrerrichgrade students participated in an authentic 3D designing and printing relationship with the residents of Harborlight House in Beverly all documented in a wonderful WGBH Design Squad Global video.

This week-long experience was the culmination of what has been a three-year deep dive  into an incredibly exciting and innovated educational initiative we have been piloting at Brookwood: The use of human centered design and purposeful and authentic 3D printing to teach middle school students how to consider another’s perspective and to, potentially, become more empathic.

This journey started for our school in 2013 when, after seeing an inspirational Youtube video on the first open-sourced, 3D printable prosthetic, I engaged a group of students in an exceptional year-long pursuit: the creation of a mechanical prosthetic device for my son. When, quite surprisingly, the project actually ended successfully with my son using the device my students had built, it was clear we now had a powerful and tangible example of the power of this new technology to effect real change in the life of another person.


Over the past two years, Brookwood School has begun to break some interesting ground in the use of authentic 3D designing and printing to teach empathy to our students. In addition to becoming one of the leading collaborators with the global 3D printed prosthetic group, the Enable Community Foundation, in 2014 we created a unique initiative called the Brookwood 3D Design Problem Bank. In this project anyone from our community can post a problem in need of a 3D designed solution to a website we have created and our students become the inventors (in the true sense of the work) who spend time considering the point of view of the problem poster  and then design, iterate, print and share the solutions they have created.

Last year, drawing on these and other projects, Annie proposed an interesting extension of this authentic community designing work during our planning of a one-week experiential 3D printing course for a group of 6th grade girls. Her idea? Taking our students out of the school and into the community to have them work with a group of seniors from Harborlight House seniors affordable housing residence to design and print assistive devices that might, in some way, be of use to the residents.

This idea of having students engage in this work with a group of adults they had never met and who might also not be familiar with 3D printing promised to push us all outside of our comfort zone – but the potential for huge educational payoff, not only in terms these girls’ problem solving experiences and growth but also in terms of creating empathic connections between our independent school students and residents of an affordable housing facility while breaking ground for other schools to do this sort of work, seemed very promising. After Annie reached out to Andrew DeFranza, Harborlight Community Partners Executive Director, and he was on board we were on our way.

In May, after Harborlight Community Partners representatives Deanna Fay and Karen Estey visited the school to tell our students a little more about Harborlight House, students were given a chance to ask questions in order to further their understanding of affordable housing, the residents with whom they would be collaborating, and the types of problems in need of a 3D printed solution they might encounter. We then spent two days preparing the students for their first visit, teaching them design skills, having them practice solving problems with 3D printing, and exploring the issue of empathy and how putting themselves in the place of the people with whom they will be collaborating could be the most important key to effective problem solving. By the time the first of the three days we had allotted for this project arrived, and our students entered Harborlight House and were introduced to a group of five residents, they were excited at the prospect of beginning ¦if not a little nervous.

Students began by doing a small presentation on 3D printing for the residents and shared some of the solutions they had been designing as well as several 3D printed prosthetics that classmates had built. residentThe response from the residents could not have been more wonderful. Excellent questions, sincere interest in the previous work of the students, and a genuine appreciate for the power of this technology abounded. Any trepidation that the students had been feeling melted away when students in pairs or by themselves broke off to begin interviewing for empathy.  Students introduced themselves and began asking questions about the residents’ interests, living situation, and past.

As we had rehearsed, these burgeoning engineers then began to steer the conversations toward the types of challenges residents or their friends might be facing for which there could be a potential 3D printed solution. The students heard how arthritis was making it difficult for some of the residents to do things that had once been easy: turning keys in locks, holding tablets during long Skype sessions, safely cutting bagels, and even holding cutlery. Students also heard about how some of these challenges were affecting residents’ daily lives when, for example, the difficulties associated with picking up small plastic Bingo chips was discouraging residents from coming down to engage in some much needed social interactions. After over an hour of lively discussions, brainstorming, trips to residents’ apartments, and measuring, our students headed back to school with a number of very promising problems to solve.

bingo         toast

For the following two days, students brainstormed solutions, created prototypes out of conventional materials such as cardboard and duct tape, began to produce their first digital iterations using the free online designing program, Tinkercad, and 3D printed these first draft  versions of their inventions. The next day we headed back to Harborlight House to reconfirm measurements, have residents try out first iterations, and provide feedback for students. We headed back to the lab to continue refining, printing, and testing and by the third day, student inventions were ready to be shared. Students and residents met in the dining room to celebrate the friendships formed, the collaborations and relationships that resulted in some wonderful assistive inventions and of course to reveal the solutions themselves. From Noffee  coffee cup spill catchers, to E-Z Grab  Bingo chips, to Safe-T-Bagel  cutter, and the Key Sleeve , students proudly presented their inventions and residents were delighted in their functionality.

resident2       resident3

Both Annie and I were struck with how the shared purpose and collaborative nature of this project broke down any barriers between these seniors and children and the relationships that were formed provided a means for our students to develop a newfound understanding of the lives of seniors in an affordable housing facility. Residents clearly appreciated the students’ willingness to both work with them to create the assistive devices and acknowledge the importance of considering a perspective other than their own in the pursuit of a collaboratively solved problem. We have no doubt that we are on the way to something very special with this work if the incredibly positive responses from people with whom I shared our project at the World Maker Faire in New York City are anything to go by – and we look forward to further collaborations between Brookwood School and Harborlight Community Partners.

groupAbout our Guest Blogger:

Rich Lehrer is a teacher and the Innovation Coordinator at the Brookwood School in Manchester, MA.   He is a graduate of the University of Regina, B.S.; University of British Columbia, B.Ed.; and The College of New Jersey, M.Ed.

Brookwood School’s D-Zign Girlz Steep Week class, co-taught  by Rich Lehrer and Annie Johnson  are the  recipients of Harborlight Community Partner’s  2016 Celebration of Partnerships, Service Partner Award for the Harborlight House collaborative project described in this article.