Brendan Largay, head of school

BrendanLargay, Head of School

Empathy as the Starting Point for STEAM Education and Innovation

Years ago, before I arrived at Belmont Day, I was fortunate to attend a professional development conference in Hillsborough, CA, at the Nueva School. The conference featured the process of design thinking as a novel and alternate method of delivering content with a process derived by some of the leading designers in the world. For those who know of the company IDEO, their founder sent his children to Nueva, and the program resonated with a community fully invested in the process.

When I attended the institute, I did so with healthy doses of skepticism and enthusiasm at the prospect of learning a new way to imagine curriculum delivery. As the conference began, I was delightfully surprised to learn that empathy was at the heart of their innovative design process. The design process—whether determining the appropriate size of an iPhone (which Apple did in conjunction with IDEO) or designing a curriculum—starts with the user in mind. In the case of education, the user is the student. That notion of discovering solutions through the process of design rather than expecting the product to hold the answers is fundamental not only to design thinking but also consistent in its alignment with what we believe about the process here at Belmont Day.

All these years later, Nueva’s program is still going strong, and thanks to a generous gift from a Belmont Day family, we will be sending six of our own to Hillsborough this summer for the conference. But more than that, what is also going strong is the notion that at the heart of great pedagogical design is the notion of empathy.  

As Annie Fuerst, our director of technology and innovation, in collaboration with members of our science department, prepares for our first-ever STEAM Expo this coming Wednesday night, I asked her for a brief overview of how this empathic approach to innovation takes hold. Her answer, not surprising if you know her, was comprehensive and thoughtful. Innovation at BDS is alive, well, and vibrant throughout the curriculum.

Currently, sixth grade students, for example, are incorporating maker skills in their science inquiry projects, researching a topic and learning through an iterative process of creating and testing prototypes. Before the April break, third graders iterated on their annual oil spill lab by building custom vehicles for their animals and then coding Finch robots to serve as “rescue vehicles,” developing their programming and engineering skills. Seventh graders are learning science through LEGO robotics, building collaboration, growth mindset, and perseverance skills while learning about physics and engineering. And fifth grade students designed monuments using TinkerCAD. Then they created silent films to bring those monuments to life through augmented reality, synthesizing their understanding of symbolism, mood, and tone in texts and beyond.

The school is also abuzz with planning for iterations on next year’s projects, Inspire Summer Stipends and Lenesa Leana Endowment for Innovative and Collaborative Education grants. Ideas in the works include an interactive Día de los Muertos Spanish installation; a set of cross-curricular design thinking and cardboard engineering units in fourth grade; podcasting and filmmaking across many content areas; and on the heels of Daniel P’s Capstone project, an exploration of what virtual reality might mean to Belmont Day as well.

On their face, the projects themselves are innovative and a unique approach to our study of any of these topics. More importantly, each project starts from a place of empathic understanding: placing the student at the center. Empathy is critical in our mission, values, school culture, and community. To see innovation, engineering, and technology start from a place of empathy at Belmont Day is truly inspiring. Next Wednesday night, you will get a look at the process and the learning that comes with it. 

I hope to see you at the STEAM Expo in the Barn on May 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. Many of the projects described above–and many more besides–will be on display mid-process as we celebrate the vital role that empathy and design play in the educational experience of our students.

BrendanLargay, Head of School

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