Royal Ontario Museum • Toronto, ON

How a Museum created an Empathy Zone to Inspire Future Innovators

 

In our exciting world of new technologies, we are shifting the way we engage with stories and information. A trip into the original ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) building, which opened its gargoyle-flanked doors more than a century ago, feels like a journey directly into the belly of an ornate and precious artifact. What’s housed in this building embodies some of the most remarkable moments of our global history, but unfortunately, an iPhone screen bursting with Angry Birds can seem more appealing to the younger generation than an idle, taxidermied Dodo Bird sitting in a museum display case. In this cultural climate, institutions like the ROM are faced with an exciting challenge – to present history and culture in a way that excites and empowers a younger generation to apply their knowledge of the past to navigate future challenges.

The ROM in particular has identified STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math) and SEL (social & emotional learning) as the fundamental building blocks essential for connecting solutions of the past to questions of the 21st century. Their program, Club STEAM is a hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to invention and innovation.

We sat down with Cheryl Blackman, Assistant Vice President, Audience Development, and former Club STEAM Leader and classroom teacher, Jamea Zuberi, to discuss their program Club STEAM/ROM in My Backyard, an afterschool program that brings the museum experience into communities with underprivileged children who may not have the opportunity to visit the museum regularly. This program is unique in the way it integrates STEAM learning with social and emotional skills to give students an immersive learning experience that can be carried out of the program and applied to other parts of their lives.

Twenty One Toys:

A lot of people think a museum is a place of the past. Why is a museum an important space for preparing 21st century learners?

Jamea Zuberi – Classroom Teacher & Club STEAM Leader:

We’ve all been conditioned to think about museums using that framework, but I see the museum as a place of engagement where kids get the chance to think out of the box. It’s a dynamic, creative and innovative place that [allows kids to take a more] participatory role in their learning.

Twenty One Toys:

You are developing amazing programming to help young learners meet the challenges of the future. Why did you decide that STEAM was an important part of the ROM’s program offerings?

Cheryl Blackman – Assistant Vice President, Audience Development:

We always had STEAM in mind as a lens because we’re very interested in the idea of preparing 21st century students. It allows us to take a maker focus as opposed to the curriculum focus receive in school. STEAM is another way to engage kids in deep learning that’s not framed around curriculum.

Twenty One Toys:

Do you think this type of learning is important outside of school?

Jamea Zuberi – Classroom Teacher & Club STEAM Leader:

In school, you have prescribed instructions that may direct children’s creativity. Students are always given objectives and preferred outcomes. They are hardly ever allowed to freely think in the way they would like to and the rare times they are, there’s a time limit. One good thing about Club STEAM is that it enhances [the learning that’s happening in the classroom]. When the children go back to school, they’re able to make connections and integrate Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math in ways they have never considered.

Twenty One Toys:

Many people view STEM/STEAM and SEL to be on opposite sides of the learning spectrum. Where do you see the connection between them?

Cheryl Blackman – Assistant Vice President, Audience Development:

The reality is that in careers related to STEAM, innovation requires collaboration. You can’t be an effective collaborator if you can’t figure out empathy. There is a very strong relationship between teambuilding, collaboration, design thinking and how we say we are supposed to be working together in the 21st century.

Jamea Zuberi – Classroom Teacher & Club STEAM Leader:

In the past, we’ve had scientists doing awful things in experiments with the knowledge and education that they have. I think that was a result of not having soft skills like empathy. These [different types of intelligence] have to work together. I tell my students all the time, if you are a scientist who is at the top of your game, [you have the responsibility] to use that knowledge to make a positive change. We use The Empathy Toy and soft skills to bridge that gap.

Twenty One Toys:

How is the Empathy Toy being used in Club STEAM?

Jamea Zuberi – Classroom Teacher & Club STEAM Leader:

What we’ve created is an Empathy Zone where we use the toy as a tool to inform thinking and actions of young people in the program. We start every session with 15-20 minutes of Empathy Toy game play. When we have a problem we can’t solve or we’re having difficulty figuring out where we’re going to go with the team, we use the whole concept of empathy. We always come back to the toy and playing the game as a frame of reference.

Twenty One Toys:

How have participants reacted to The Empathy Toy, and has anything surprised you?

Jamea Zuberi – Classroom Teacher & Club STEAM Leader:

The last session really brought it home for me. We gave the children options of activities, including working with the 3D printer, working with the computer, building art pieces, putting things together with their hands, and the Empathy Toy. I thought that not many of them would be interested in the Empathy Toy. But there was a large group [that gravitated to] it. We seem to think that our children are just interested in computer games, and that moment was proof that that’s not true. If we give them alternatives, they surprise us.

The Empathy Toy has become such an essential and engaging part of the program. I think that the idea that there [are] no losers helps. It’s a competition where everyone must win.

Twenty One Toys:

What do you think was behind that choice?

Jamea Zuberi – Classroom Teacher & Club STEAM Leader:

The Empathy Toy has become such an essential and engaging part of the program. I think that the idea that there [are] no losers helps. It’s a competition where everyone must win.

Twenty One Toys:

What is your most memorable Empathy Toy experience?

Cheryl Blackman – Assistant Vice President, Audience Development:

I think the aha moment came for me the day I did my training [with] Twenty One Toys. I was playing with [my colleague] and felt so frustrated at times. Even though I was comfortable asking for help, I still felt like I needed to seek permission – which was weird. For me, the lightbulb went on because I was having my own internal conversation, “What do I do? How do I solve this? How do I listen?” but still also [hearing] what was being said to my playing partner. It started to inform a whole world-view that I wasn’t expecting. My senses were heightened by the experience. After that, I had the epiphany that the Empathy Toy had to be put into the projects I was working on. I could immediately see the connections between what I had just experienced and the bridges I was trying to make [in my work] to inclusion, and as a bridge to staff training but I had not yet made the connection to kids. Then, when we started to plan [Club STEAM/ROM in my Backyard], it hit me like a tonne of bricks. The Empathy Toy became the only non-negotiable for what needed to be included in every session.

Jamea Zuberi – Classroom Teacher & Club STEAM Leader:

My moment with the kids was when some conflict was happening and I heard one of the kids say, “Hey! That’s not very empathetic!”. And I thought, woah – they’re actually using the vocabulary.

Twenty One Toys:

What recommendations would you give to people who want to incorporate the Empathy Toy into their STEAM program?

Cheryl Blackman – Assistant Vice President, Audience Development:

The Empathy Toy causes you to reach inside yourself to tap into other parts of your mind, and emotions that are under-worked. And once you begin to work that part of yourself, it really does begin to change your perspective.

Jamea Zuberi – Classroom Teacher & Club STEAM Leader:

What I love about the Empathy Toy is that it restores a sense of humanity in people. And you can only do that when you are able to identify the vulnerable pieces that we all have in common.

For students pursuing careers in STEM fields such as engineering, computer science, or medicine, technical skills are not enough to excel – especially when the future of work is so unpredictable. The social and emotional competencies that can be practiced with The Empathy Toy including problem solving, adaptability, collaboration, creative communication, risk taking and of course, empathy are fundamental to future career success.

In 2009, the Obama administration launched “Educate to Innovate,” a program developed to engage and support students to excel in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math). Obama allocated $3.1 billion of the 2013 federal budget to support STEM programs. In Canada, the US, the UK and across Europe there are not enough skilled workers in STEM fields to fill manufacturing and tech jobs, and this shortage is projected to grow. Meanwhile, in classrooms designed to house rows of textbooks and desks, our education institutions are facing similar challenges as they scramble to adapt to the future. With limited budgets and teachers who aren’t trained to teach STEM programs, the challenge can seem insurmountable. Ironically, it is proving to be institutions like museums and libraries, often perceived as archaic, that are leading the way in STEM learning and makerspaces. These establishments are uniquely positioned to harness the SEL skills as they have spent centuries mastering through storytelling, and combine them with teaching technical competencies, preparing our young people to be expert collaborators and innovators.

Bursting out of the ROM heritage building and onto the street is a giant Crystal that houses new collections and event spaces. When it was constructed in 2007, the then ROM CEO, William Thorsell, called it a “radical intervention” that would “liberate the soul of the museum.” This world-class piece of architecture represents the ROM’s bold commitment to relevance in our contemporary world. It is a perfect metaphor for the shifting perception of museums from stodgy and stagnant to an exciting places that pave the way for future innovation by inspiring new generations.

Request a call with us to find out how YOU can launch an Empathy Zone in your STEAM Program

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The Impact

As much as 1 in 3 kids directly associate STEAM learning with the Empathy Zone

Nearly 9 in 10 children identified as enjoying making or building things, and over 8 in 10 could identify, or think of adults who make or build things in their career.

Hear what students had to say after spending the beginning of each session of Club STEAM playing with The Empathy Toy :

“When you think of Club STEAM, you think you’ll do science, technology, not Empathy Zone. But then in the corner of your mind you think of Empathy Zone that we do every time and you think it must be connected somehow.”

“Club STEAM is different from the Science and Math we do in school. Usually you wouldn’t be doing Empathy Zone.”

[In Club STEAM] “We talk about empathy and learn to understand people.”

Suggested Materials for incorporating the Empathy Toy in your STEAM Program

We recommend that a STEAM program start with:

  • Minimum of 1 Teacher’s Kit, depending on the size of your program (the ROM currently uses 3 Principal’s Kits)
  • 90 Minute online training for your teachers/program facilitators OR
  • 1 full day of training for at least one of key teacher or program facilitator, which comes with lesson building blocks and a complimentary 21 minute Skype demo from Twenty One Toys for the students