Building Empathy & Creating Meaningful Learning Experiences Through STEM Education

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In this case study, we highlight how one teacher uses an inquiry-based approach to  foster critical thinking, problem solving skills, and a deeper understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts. 


Learning with a purpose

STEM education teaches students so much more than math and science — it equips them with the skills and knowledge needed to tackle real-life problems and create a positive impact on the world. 

At Calavera Hills Middle School in Carlsbad, California, students in Aaron’s Sottile’s STEM course spent a semester learning about the design process and put their skills to the test by building assistive devices for individuals with disabilities. 


Igniting curiosity 

To engage and motivate learners, Aaron uses an inquiry-based approach to STEM education. Each unit starts with a problem or task for students to investigate. Students acquire skills by pursuing solutions to these problems, fostering a deep understanding of STEM topics. 

In one unit, for instance, students are tasked with designing an orthotic for an individual with cerebral palsy (CP) using a variety of simple modeling materials like cardboard, duct tape and foam. Throughout the design challenge, students learn about CP and work with a physical therapist to improve their designs for real-world end users. Building understanding and empathy for those with mobility challenges is not only an important life lesson, but the key to completing the assignment successfully. 


Nurturing inquiry and supporting student success

Unsurprisingly, this inquiry-based approach involves a lot of prep work behind the scenes.

“Half of what we do as teachers is thinking through ahead of time what materials are going to be needed and how we are going to allow students to have access to those things, how we keep them in stock, and so on,” says Aaron.  

The course also uses 3D printing extensively, so Aaron trains an alumni from the course as a teacher’s assistant to help manage the print queue and workflow. 

Planning and developing a semester’s worth of inquiry-based lessons from scratch takes a massive amount of work, so Aaron taps into existing resources like the Project Lead The Way (PLTW) curriculum — a project-based learning program that incorporates science, technology, engineering, and math. He also partners with organizations like Makers Making Change and Printlab that provide lesson plans, tutorials, and 3D printer blueprints for assistive devices for individuals with disabilities. 

Over the course of the semester, students work in groups to complete a number of design challenges. Aaron sees his role as a facilitator and coach, fostering collaboration between students and providing support as they navigate the inquiry process. 

“During design challenges, we start class with a morning meeting where each group shares their intentions, what phase of the build they’re working on, and what they’re struggling with,” explains Aaron. “The beautiful moments are when one group shares what they’re stuck on, and another group chimes in with a possible solution. I get to step back and watch them support one another.” 

While STEM classes naturally support students with disabilities and learning differences,  Aaron also uses supports like visuals and backup instructional videos to scaffold instruction. Students are provided with rubrics and exemplars of success, and are encouraged to self-reflect on their performance. They are also given the opportunity to retake assessments until they achieve a 100% score, encouraging them to persist and work towards mastery and competency development. 

“I’ve got one student that is not afraid to resubmit things two or three times until she gets it right. And as much as I don’t love grading things multiple times, if it helps the student gain that skill and move forward with confidence, it’s worth it.”


Bringing it all together

As their capstone project, students participated in the Make:Able Challenge — an international contest to design and 3D print an assistive technology device that improves the life of someone with a disability. For instance, one group developed a key turner to help someone with dexterity issues open doors. Another built a switch-operated toy car for a child with limited mobility. 

The hands-on nature of these projects and the connection to authentic end-users have had a significant impact on student engagement. Students are active participants in the learning process, driving their own education and developing skills they will take with them into college and their careers. 

“Every classroom has a reluctant learner, even if they signed up for the project or the class. But sometimes they discover things about themselves that surprise themselves,” says Aaron. 

In the end, Aaron hopes that anchoring learning experiences in empathy and real-world problem solving will help his students become better ‘problem finders’. 

“If we can become better problem finders, we start creating better solutions. Our world needs people who can look around and not necessarily accept the world for how it is, but try to make it better.”



Big Takeaway

“It’s powerful to see that there are groups of kids that want to make a positive impact on their world, and they’re just looking for a place to put their energy.”

What I would tell other educators/leaders

Aaron stresses the importance of teachers partnering with professionals in other disciplines and organizations like Makers Making Change. “There’s a million different ways to systematize this approach. The design elective is just one way to do it. It’s about finding those people and getting them together and brainstorming how a project like this or an elective course like this can happen. Good things happen when you get good people together.”

What we are still figuring out

Grouping students for projects — especially those that require outside-of-class collaboration — can be a challenge. “Sometimes I let students self-select groups. Other times I use a program called Flippity to randomly assign groups. For the final project, I had them pick roles they were interested in fulfilling and put them in groups based on what I knew about the kids and who I thought would work well together.”

About The Author


Aaron Sottile is a science and STEM teacher at Calavera Hills Middle School in Carlsbad, CA.  He has taught a variety of STEM courses for 22 years in both the Santa Barbara and Carlsbad Unified School Districts.  He earned his undergraduate degrees in Molecular Biology and Science Education at California Polytechnic University, Humboldt and holds a Masters in Education in Teaching and Learning from the University of California, Santa Barbara.   Aaron currently teaches 8th grade science and Project Lead the Way STEM electives Design & Modeling as well as Medical Detectives.  His Design and Modeling course received the Impact Award from the Classroom of the Future Foundation for implementing innovative instructional modules that connect students to the design process utilizing both high tech methods like CAD drafting & 3D printing, and low tech solid modeling opportunities.

School Background

Calavera Hills Middle School is a student-centered learning community powered by meaningful, relevant and rigorous content. They use critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity to instill college and career skills in students.