Building Empathy and Finding Joy in the Classroom

Five years ago Karen P. Kaun, founder of Makeosity, pondered an age-old question: why do so many kids hate school? Her answer sparked an idea that altered the way she interacts with students and educators, and in so doing, has inspired thousands of disadvantaged kids to think beyond the walls of their daily lives, imagine new possibilities, and gain the confidence and skills to pursue them.

Kaun thought that many kids hate school because they can’t relate to it. “What <kids> learn in school is unrelated to what they learn online or what their daily lives are like.” “But,” she adds, “everybody wants to make money.” Which gave rise to a new question – what if she could combine Making and entrepreneurism and show these kids that they could take all the tech tools they were learning and start making a living with them NOW?

Here are some of Kahn’s suggestions for teachers who want to combine design, fabrication and entrepreneurship to help their students forge a path to success.

Encourage Resilience

“I often hear students call out, ‘I need help’ before they’ve taken the time to think a problem through,” says Kaun. “But given a little time, they often figure it out. One of the best gifts we can give students is time to work out problems themselves. This supports them in working toward mastery, which gives them a feeling of self-confidence.”

Take budding tycoons 15-year-old Shakeena Julio and 14-year-old Allieberry Pitter. They were in fifth and third grade, respectively, in the after-school Maker program Kaun had launched at PS 107 in the Bronx when they hatched an idea to build a wooden scooter that could charge a cell phone while moving.

But creating a prototype that actually worked wasn’t easy, but after numerous iterations and with a variety of input, the girls eventually produced a working model. Fast forward. Shakeena, a rising junior at Frederick Douglass Academy, and Allieberry, a freshman-to-be at the Young Women’s Leadership School, recently won $3000 in funding on Rachael Ray’s Shark Tank and are now awaiting the blue-ribbon copy of the patent for their energy scooter.

Karen_Kaun-1501464950.jpg
Karen Kaun
Build Empathy

Empathy, stresses Kaun, is crucial to entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurs often begin their journey through identifying a problem that has personal meaning and then thinking ‘what if’ leading toward a quest for a solution,” she explains.

Kaun encourages educators and students to begin with a project that addresses a community or personal challenge, building students’ capacity for empathy as well as their Making skills.

Recognize Opportunities

A few years ago, Kaun read about a contest to build a self-contained ipad-type system for kids in Africa that taught literacy and numeracy. It prompted her to push the education envelope again, this time by enlisteding a group of Bronx Science students to improve on the intended project and instead develop a platform and game to teach kids engineering skills that could lead to actual products. “Think Minecraft, but where you build and can create real inventions online and offline to sell and make money,” she says.

“I really believe children can have these entrepreneurial opportunities right now,” she says. “They don’t have to wait.”

Create Connections

Recognizing the role parents play in encouraging their children’s aspirations, Kaun has been building connections between school and community. Last year her initiative, launched through the NYC Department of Education Family and Community Engagement (FACE) program, trained 80 parents in 20 elementary and middle schools in robotics. Kaun enlisted robotics coaches from RoboFun, which trains educators and runs programs for students. “We had retired teachers, MTA engineers, mechanical engineers, industrial designers. It was a rainbow of talent and skills and passion—passion for the children.”

Find the Joy

Kaun doesn’t just think of Making as a launch pad for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. She also believes that making “leads to joy.”

“If you have a vision for an invention and have the time to think about it and immerse yourself in its design,” says Kaun, then “the pure joy of making in itself leads to perfection which leads to innovation,” she explains.

Kaun says there’s nothing she’d rather be doing than inspiring kids to be creators rather than consumers. “I see a Steve Jobs in every school, in every classroom,” she adds. “The potential is there.”

Entrepreneurial Making: Tips for Teachers

For educators looking to combine Making and entrepreneurship in their own classrooms, Kaun suggests starting with a personal passion—whether it’s gardening, robotics or vermiculture. Some of her favorite resources include:

Toys from Trash project ideas from Arvind Gupta
Maker Ed vast resources for educators
Instructables user-created DIY projects
Eight Entrepreneurship Values You Should Teach Your Kids from Entrepreneur magazine
Design Thinking for Educators toolkit from Stanford’s d.school and IDEO
K12 Lab Network design thinking to educators from Stanford’s d.school
4-H STEM programs
Nuts and Bolts of Business Plans for teachers who want to learn more about the business of entrepreneurship from MIT OpenCourseWare
Introduction to Scrum for teachers who want to delve into the product development process
The Agile Coach a deeper exploration of product development

Follow on Twitter: @makeosity
Makeosity Website: www.makeosity.com

This post was excerpted from EdSurge: Build Empathy and Find Joy – How To Combine Making and Entrepreneurism In Your Classroom.