I'm currently developing a design thinking curriculum geared toward upper elementary students and will be studying the impact of this curriculum on their empathy, civic engagement, and self-efficacy as part of my master's thesis project. I'm hoping to take a new spin on more conventional participatory design models by having students simultaneously function as both users and designers throughout the entire process. Instead of focusing their research efforts solely on other users whose experiences differ radically from their own, they'll work to synthesize the more subtle differences between their own and their teammates' perspectives on community issues into one coherent design solution.
The empathy-building part of the project centers around peer interviews/observations and persona-building activities, and has a similar angle to the Video Pen Pals post I shared. (The civic engagement/self-efficacy part is more tied to prototyping/implementation/iteration--i.e. I want them to do more than hang posters on a wall!!!).
I don't want students to disavow their personal experiences and struggles as part of this process. I think that understanding their own feelings and needs is in an important precursor to being able to understand those things in others, and I envision empathy arising out of the process of identifying the similarities across life experiences that are different but also the same in certain fundamental ways.
UPDATE: Working on a Design Thinking K-5 Curriculum aligned with NYC Social Studies Scope & Sequence units and essential questions. Here's a website where I'm beginning to compile my findings and resulting curricular materials, but it won't be done for at least another month. (It's part of my master's thesis project.) https://ebb344.wixsite.com/dt4all/