Ben Kelly: STEMpathy Education

Justin Trudeau and Ben Kelly stand, holding an award certificate between them

Benjamin Kelly is an award-winning New Brunswick teacher, Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, and classroom pioneer. He loves to explore new tools, let student interests guide instruction, and follow learning where inquiry leads. For Ben’s work in fostering a future-ready classroom, he was recognized by the Prime Minister as one of Canada’s leading educators. Read his story of STEM, empathy, and global impact!

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I believe that nearly every educator in Canada teaches Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) in some form. With cross-curricular experiences becoming the norm, the demand for technology support in education has found its way into almost every classroom. What was lacking from my earliest STEM experiences with students was an authentic purpose. Recognizing that gap, I adapted as a teacher and discovered initiatives that STEM teachers could add to their learning experiences to empower students with global, empowering opportunities.

In 2017, after teaching for just over a decade, I discovered the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development. These 17 directives feature numerous targets and tasks to be accomplished by the year 2030 to strengthen humanity’s chance of thriving on Earth in the long term. This global project inspired my students, and even though the adoption of these goals in class was made up of one part student self-interest, there were a profound 7.6 billion parts of empathy in every lesson—one for every person on earth! Up to that point, I was missing that kind of purpose from my programming. Once I strategically embraced empathy, it changed my STEM teaching forever. I feel that the more we can get students of all ages thinking about others, the more Canada and all of humanity will thrive as we move forward together. Tech industry leaders like Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Alibaba’s Jack Ma have said that empathy is the essential skill for the workplace of tomorrow. I believe that STEM and empathy education combined into “STEMpathy” will position my students for the greatest success in their personal and professional lives.

For me, STEMpathy is more than just a catchy moniker. I design STEM experiences with empathy in mind. Using the game-based learning juggernaut Minecraft: Education Edition, I created my first global lesson. Today, it’s among the most popular lessons in Minecraft Education’s catalogue! Rooted in empathy and called “Empathy Education,” the experience asks students to build a dream home based on needs and wants of an in-game villager family who has suffered great tragedy. Just like HGTV’s Extreme Home Makeover, students build dream homes for Minecraftian families and focus solely on their needs, wants, and ambitions. More recently, I was also thrilled when my class pitched using Minecraft: Education Edition to build a Battle of Vimy Ridge tribute for its 100th anniversary. The students placed 3279 signs and poppies individually recognizing every Canadian soldier that lost their lives during the four-day battle. The resulting tribute build was both empowering and empathetic. Several students cried while working on the build as they thought of the monumental sacrifice and recognized familiar surnames.

A Minecraft: Education Edition environment featuring a large statue of a soldier

My empathy education experiences expanded as I created Minecraft: Education Edition’s most extensive global collaboration, the “Sustainability Shuffle,” which addressed the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. But smaller experiences focused on empathy as much as these larger undertakings. I started a series of cybersecurity teams at the school, where students focus foremost on fixing and securing Windows systems for others. Project UTOPIA – Understanding Technology’s Overall Purpose in Arts, helped students identify citizens who didn’t receive enough gratitude—or gratitude without strings attached—and awarded them with a priceless and personal artistic gift, rooted in empathy. Finally, I launched Canada’s first K-12 Dronography (Academic Drone Application) program, where students completed flood surveying for victims and practiced delivery of first aid during natural disasters. I believe that this adaptation, growth, and commitment is the reason I was chosen to receive the highest recognition a STEM educator can earn in Canada. In late May 2019, I received the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Teaching STEM from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa.

So what can you do? If you’re teaching STEM directly or indirectly, consider reframing the purpose of each day’s efforts. The rewards that come when working with others in mind are far better for student growth and Canada at large than those targeting individual achievements.

A group of teachers poses in front of the Canadian Parliament Buildings

If you’re interested in joining the community of Microsoft Innovative Educators and discovering a forum for free online PD, resources, and discussions, check out the Microsoft Educator Community. To learn more about Minecraft: Education Edition and find out how you can deploy this digital learning tool in your classroom, head to education.minecraft.net.

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