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Empathy, Connection, and Dealing with Disruptors in the PBL Environment

Post contributed by Chuck Pezeshki 



Folks in the academic community may be following the Halloween costume conflict at Yale, involving the issue of cultural appropriation. You’re probably wondering how this could be relevant to engineering education?

It matters for one big reason – Big Beacon, through advancing models of education like Olin College’s, counts on the idea of students sharing in governance and being more largely responsible. These models promote increased agency, and through that increased responsibility and empathy. And all three of these values are jeopardized not by the administration at Yale – but by the students themselves.

The Yale Controversy

Pre- Halloween, members of the Yale Intercultural Affairs Committee sent this e-mail to all members of the Yale community regarding dress for the holiday, stating that dressing like any other culture than your own is off-limits, reinforced by a Pinterest board that also outlines “Costumes to Avoid”.

An email penned by professor Erika Christakis made a case for independent agency — the ability for students to choose their costumes on their own — and expressed her confidence in the students’ ability to judge which costumes would be distasteful.

In response, a group of students known as Next Yale responded with outrage —complete with demands for apologies, resignations, and even a very public confrontation of Erika’s husband, Dr. Nicholas Christakis.

From where I stand, these students aren’t arguing for an increase in their agency or responsibility, as Professor Christakis expressed in her email. These students are asserting their role as the actual authority, judge, and executioner if their wishes aren’t fulfilled. And the biggest part of that means not being uncomfortable, even if it’s just a Halloween party.

What’s the immediate take-away? Increasing agency, responsibility, and feeling uncomfortable seems to be difficult for today’s young people.

Dealing with Feeling Uncomfortable in Project-Based Learning

There are many levels to unpack as far as how we, as project-based learning (PBL) educators, need to manage these situations. The idea behind PBL is that kids are placed in more demanding social situations that require greater empathetic development of the students. In these types of environments, they can’t be egocentric, or assume others think like them, and succeed.

In the case of my program, the Industrial Design Clinic, students are given an industrial or non-profit customer whose needs they have to satisfy. Often, the customer will place demands on students that the students find onerous. They may ask them for tasks to be completed that the students don’t know how to do

And though most students are overwhelmingly positive toward all of it, some students react very negatively to the Clinic experience. These are those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to partner and form relationships, or become uncomfortable with greater responsibility. What does one do?

Empathy, Attention, and Respect

Empathy, Attention and Respect (EAR) are the three modalities for dealing with students having social difficulties in our environments.

First off, we want to Empathize with their situations. In my Clinic program, the customer that students have for their project is often their first customer ever. Managing the professional transition from having an authority tell you what to do, to having a customer whose needs must be negotiated, can be very trying. I connect with the student and help them understand these things. Further, I DO NOT REACT. Students having a more difficult time are more likely to exhibit mirroring behavior, meaning that if I get upset, they get even MORE upset. That ratchets up the tension in the situation, and can lead to an incident.

Attention comes next. When the students talk, I listen. That doesn’t mean I DO everything they want. But I listen to their concerns, and pay attention. I wish I could tell you that I’m never irritated when I’m paying attention – I often am. But the students know that it’s getting through.

Finally, Respect is paramount. In my PBL classroom, there’s little question that I’m the Big Dog. But I never play that card unless all other avenues are exhausted (and they almost always aren’t!) Students know that I respect them, their efforts, and that I’m there for them to make progress in their lives. If you disrespect the kids, they won’t respect you.

As high schools continue their standardized test-taking fervor, and university class sizes continue to increase, there’s no indication that our life as progressive educators is going to get easier. But we can look out at the landscape and understand exactly what the challenge is that we must confront— fostering a social connection between our students and ourselves. In the end, it all comes down to empathy. Without it, there is no larger path to agency, or responsibility – the cornerstone of the larger learning goals we all share.

Chuck Pezeshki is a Professor and Director of the Industrial Design Clinic (IDC), School of MME, Washington State University. For more of his written work, please check out

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