The Bridges We'll Build Together: Cultivating #STEMpathy for Syrian Refugees

Invite the life lesson between active and authentic STEM, design thinking, and how to honor and attend to the reality of human suffering.

Photo of Kevin Day
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Last year, a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report concluded that there are currently more displaced people today than after World War II.  While spectacular suffering in Syria has grabbed American news headlines and convulsed European communities who struggle to invite displaced people in or keep them out, millions of other families continue to scratch out a daily existence away from their home.

Many of them are school-aged children.

How might we collaborate across grades, across generations (students, parents, and teachers) and even across schools toward finding, honoring, and addressing some of the daily challenges of international refugees and locally displaced people?  How might we re-design and humanize the refugee experience, and let the refugee experience re-design and humanize us?  

How might we cultivate #STEMpathy among students, schools, and local communities for the plight of Syrians -- and, perhaps, for all people forced away from wherever (and whomever) they would call 'home'? 

Let's build the bridge together.  Check out this google doc for Version 2.0.  

You should also check out the new website of my collabo partner, Alicia Zeoli, right here for even more insight into how we might unpack and cultivate #STEMpathy with the plight of refugees. 


Version 1.0 Write-Up

    - Embark together upon age and school context-appropriate research into the current plight of Syrian refugees, particularly those who are en route to or crammed into refugee camps.  For younger students, perhaps we focus less upon the constellation of sociopolitical forces that perpetuate such misery (as important and as worthy a learning conversation this might be for high school-aged students) to really zero in on the plight of school-aged children and families.  

    - We might find and share online video interviews of those living in these camps, which -- combined with more traditional research, particularly around the history of post-World War II refugee experience -- might help our students focus and frame their empathy-laden "HMW's" around offering care, comfort, community, and access to learning opportunities for school-aged children in refugee camp conditions.  (Those of us living near major urban centers might be able to find in-person interview opportunities by which classrooms can Skype interview with someone willing to share their personal refugee experience. 

    - After working through design thinking methodology to probe, ponder, and powerfully empathize, participating schools might organize a local "Community Build-Out" event -- say, on a Friday or Saturday -- in which students share their proposals, and the rest of us (read: teachers, faculty/staff colleagues, parents, neighbor/partners) help them prototype some ideas forward in cardboard.

    - Each participating school coordinates an online "Community Share-Out" in which students present their cardboard prototypes.  A judging panel, which might include some "collaborating experts in the field" with the gift of professional experience (UNHCR) and resources (IdEO, Autodesk, and Google) might be willing to choose a few to iterate towards the next level of completion -- this time, using something a bit more sophisticated than cardboard.  (For example, computer science-related ideas might find more finishing power and polish through some expert collaboration with Google, while other maker/STEM projects might evolve through focused time in Autodesk's candyland of a makerspace studio.) 

    - From this pool of ideas, a few might be put forth to UNHCR for serious consideration and feedback.  Others might be presented and shared with local partners who seek to attend and solve local homelessness issues.  

Evaluation results

8 evaluations so far

1. Do you love this idea?

Yes! I love this idea! - 100%

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Team (9)

Ellen's profile
Ellen Deutscher

Role added on team:

"Hey there, friend! Want to light this candle with us...?!?"

James's profile
James Campbell

Role added on team:

"Oh, teacher! My teacher! Let's collaborate on this...! More info to follow...."

Eric's profile
Eric Chagala

Role added on team:

"Hey there, friend! Want to light this candle with us...?"

Sara's profile
Sara Brown

Role added on team:

"Hey there, friend...! Let's you and me take last year's lesson to the next level of "Wow." For the students, too...."

Kevin's profile
Alicia's profile
Alicia Zeoli

Role added on team:

"Hey there, friend...! Let's light this candle. More info to follow...."

Alex's profile
Alex Bragg

Role added on team:

"O Teacher, my Teacher! Come and see us as we try to carry your vision forward...! [Bowing in gratitude]"

Kim's profile
Ela's profile
Ela Ben-Ur

Role added on team:

"Yo yo yo! Can you join us for the next phase of this thing...?!? Could sure use your insight/wisdom/awesomeness...."

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Raymond Weeden

KMD - This is the type of work our kids need to grapple with. I love that you know our kids have the capacity to think about our toughest problems in the way they know best. Keep pushing yourself and your class to move the next level. 

I am most interested to see how students can take international issues and connect to their own backyard - i.e. urban development, affordable housing, blended neighborhoods.  Taking from your text above "for all people forced away from wherever (and whomever) they would call 'home'?"

Photo of Ellen Deutscher

Yes!  So much good stuff!!  I like the idea of this being a school community challenge.  I think there are so many "small" HMWs to tackle within such a huge, sticky problem.  This leaves many openings/opportunities for design. Like you said, from logistics, to small comforts, from physical needs, to emotional needs.  
Anyway to make real, in-person connections with refugees... even play dates with younger kids. That is how I started with my 7th and 8th graders designing for the severely physically disabled students in the portable next to us.  Just hanging out and getting to know each other.  
Love, love, love this!  Imagine if schools and communities all over could play in this space!

Photo of Emma Scripps

Kevin Day don't leave this hangin! Update with a photo and more detail. LOVED meeting you. 

Photo of Kevin Day

Hey there, friend!
More ideas to follow...., more co-conspirators joining us.... Super-stoked!
By the way: Are you able to read through these comments? We have some insights that I'l be putting into our "official" project description soon, but -- for now -- might you take a peek in our comments, and see what you think...? 

Photo of Margaret Powers

This is a powerful project idea Kevin Day I love the idea of building on an existing model, like the Cardboard Challenge and infusing an element of human-centered design. 

Can you share more about this idea? How would you gather the various groups together to engage in this work and what would they do once together? I imagine empathy might be tricky and critical for this and would be interested to hear more about how to facilitate that (for one school and for many) to make this happen! 

Photo of Kevin Day

Hey there, friend!  
Thanks ever so much for this head's-up, idea-generating insight.  
More details to follow -- sooner than later -- but (before we dash off to a field trip): I sense we'll hone in on the experience of families, and especially school-aged children, who are currently living in refugee camps.  We'll do some selected research..., find some video interviews..., and hold them all alongside a UN human rights document which should  hopefully help our students focus and frame their empathizing/HMWs around how authentic learning might still happen for school-aged children, even in a refugee camp....  Perhaps you, Ellen Deutscher, James Campell, Alicia Zeoli, and we (at All Saints' Day School) might be able to work for possible interview connections at the urban centers to which we are most local...?  And invite parents, family, and our widest school family for a "Community Build-Out" event -- say, on a Friday or Saturday -- in which students share their research/empathy work, and the rest of us help them prototype some ideas forward in cardboard...?  

Photo of Sandee Bisson


I love this idea. I also really enjoyed collaborating with you at AutoDesk last week. It sounds like we are on similar paths as teachers. Please keep us posted on how this goes if you decide to do it.

One of our art teachers is doing a MS elective using DT to design architectural solutions to homelessness. It might be interesting share ideas. Let me know if you want contact info. 

Warmest Regards,

Photo of Kevin Day

Hey there, friend...!  Thanks so much for this note -- and thanks for sharing time at Autodesk the other week.  

I'd LOVE to stay connected.  By all means, let's continue to try to build bridges for our most deserving neighbors...!  Maybe our schools could work together on a common project -- you, me, Sara Brown and Kim Raisbeck (two co-conspirators of mine over here)...?  Send that contact info of your colleague, stat...!  (Also: Are you on twitter?)  Peace to you, KMD @knowKMD

Photo of Alicia Zeoli

Kevin, I love this idea! We should connect. After FUSE I've been partnering on a continuation of DT brainstorm from Refuge Coffee.
Maybe we could join forces? There is a design thinking project link coming soon. We are in the process of testing it now.

*I should note that the site is still under construction in "draft" mode.

Photo of Sara Brown

I think I know of a guest speaker who might be able to connect this to the idea of local homelessness as well as ways to service the community.

Photo of Sara Brown

Our empathetic 8th graders will go after this challenge. There is a lot of room to grow what we started this year.

Photo of Lisa Yokana

Love this thought. I think it's SO important to connect what students are doing to the real world, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on how these two things are connected!