Can Empathy Be Hacked?

Posted by Elaine Guarnieri-Nunn on August 27, 2015

Recently, I drove from Facing History’s office in the East Bay to Silicon Valley to attend a youth civic hackathon. As I passed by the giant “like” sign at Facebook’s sprawling campus on One Hacker Way in Menlo Park, I found myself thinking about hacking, technology, social media status updates, and also about empathy.

I was about to spend the next two days with students from across the Bay Area who were coming together to use different modes of making, or "hacking" to create innovative solutions to civic problems, including pollution, traffic congestion, and homelessness. In the Bay Area, the epicenter of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), hackathons like this bring people together, often for multiple days, to tackle various problems and scenarios.


What would happen if these same students were asked to think about using technology to strengthen democracy and build community? Or how to use technology to bolster advocacy, activism, and engagement? What would happen if STEM students also studied lessons from history and the dangers of apathy and indifference? How would they cultivate empathy in our increasingly digital world?

When I taught Facing History as part of my U.S. history class at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles in the mid-90s, my students and I discussed how upstanders (individuals who choose to stand up to injustice) affected history. In a lesson we at Facing History call “choosing to participate,” I asked students how they could be upstanders in society. They came up with many different ways to participate, from engaging in community service to registering to vote.

But that was more than 20 years ago. Today’s students, who are fluent users of digital technology, have a host of new ways to participate, and many more communities from which their actions can ripple. These days, choosing to participate includes civic engagement across different social media outlets. What connections can we make between the societal emphasis on STEM and the important questions around membership and community we raise in Facing History classrooms?

In the Forbes article “Beyond the Maker Movement: How the ChangeMakers are the Future of Education”, youth hackathon organizer Libby Falck writes, “A robust economy demands more than STEM skills, it requires innovation . . . .The heart of innovation is not technology, but people. Great innovators are able to deeply understand human needs and create useful solutions . . . . Innovation simply requires empathy and experimentation. The Maker Movement excels at inspiring experimentation, but what about empathy?” 

Facing History’s focus on multiple perspectives, empathy for others, and moral choices is a much-needed addition to STEM education. As important as STEM skills are in the 21st century, we also need to equip students with empathetic habits of mind. Increased awareness and concern for others could inspire students to use all of the digital tools available to them to help create a more just and tolerant society. We need to move towards STEME education: STEM + Empathy.

Topics: Classrooms, Teaching, Schools, San Francisco Bay Area, Teachers, Empathy, STEM

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.


Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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