10.23.20 / Communities (COVID-19)

STEMpathy in Schools: A Conversation with DonorsChoose

At Samsung, we have always had a pioneering spirit, a drive to push the boundaries of technology, and a steadfast mission to create meaningful innovation. We acknowledge the integral role that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) plays in our daily lives and, as a corporate citizen, we are working to bridge STEM education gaps by readying a workforce through initiatives like Samsung Solve for Tomorrow (SFT). Entering its eleventh year, the national K-12 public school program is inspiring young minds to become seeds of change in their local communities and is effectively creating a viable talent pipeline to fill the growing STEM workforce needs.

As Samsung Solve for Tomorrow embarks upon a new decade, equity and empathy are top-of-mind. This has sparked a heightened focus on “STEMpathy” – embedding human compassion and empathy into STEM education to further evolve both emotional intelligence and cognitive development. Empathetic understanding leads to human-centered ways of solving problems and that conscious view also frames critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, decision making, leadership, entrepreneurship, and more.

Samsung has always been fundamentally human-centric, designing leading edge innovations to contribute to a better global society. So, we believe the intentionality behind STEMpathy to create social and economic value is a vital concept – and one that should become the centerpiece of a bold, new STEM education model. Samsung Electronics America Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship Ann Woo recently connected with DonorsChoose CEO & Founder Charles Best for an inspiring conversation on how they are supporting teachers’ STEMpathy vision in classrooms across America.

Ann Woo (Samsung): DonorsChoose turned 20 this year. How does it feel to lead and grow such a purpose-filled brand?

Charles Best (DonorsChoose): When I founded DonorsChoose out of my Bronx history classroom in 2000, I never imagined it would grow into a national organization helping teachers and students get everything from crayons to tablets. None of that is possible without the hard work of teachers, donors, and partners who join to bring learning to life for students every day.

It’s been incredible to see more than 600,000 teachers across the country use DonorsChoose to provide students with learning resources. We recently crossed the $1 billion mark for donations to learning project requests. And while that number may seem large, teachers spend an average of $1 billion out of pocket each year. So, we still have work to do.

Ann W.: What has been the most gratifying part of helping public school teachers bring their classroom projects to life?

Charles B.: We predominantly serve low-income schools, which is why Dan Domenech, Executive Director of the AASA, calls us “the PTA equalizer.” Unlike other crowdfunding platforms, which act as a way for teachers to hit up their friends and family for cash, DonorsChoose connects teachers to a network of more than four million people excited to help their students thrive. Three-quarters of donations come from people and organizations who don’t personally know the teacher they’re giving to, meaning that teachers who don’t have affluent social circles can still bring great learning opportunities to students.

Ann W.: Are you seeing an uptick in teachers requesting funds for STEM projects that have empathy or compassion bend?

Charles B.: In the last year, teachers have posted more than 200 STEM projects that include “empathy” or “compassion” in the project essay. One example is Ms. Hughes’s project, “Trash Hunger by Recycling!” Ms. Hughes requested resources to keep her Georgia middle school’s recycling program — which fundraises for local food banks — running safely and contact-free during the pandemic. She described how the project bridges STEM and empathy: “The students are gaining leadership and communication skills, expanding their knowledge about finances and the cost of food, while protecting the planet and having compassion for others.”

We’ve seen a definite increase in the need for social and emotional learning resources overall this year as teachers help students process the impact of COVID-19 and of the fight against inequality across the country this summer. Knowing that this need exists, we’re thrilled to see Samsung encourage and inspire teachers to bring an empathy-centered mindset to STEM teaching.

Ann W.: Is the philanthropic public receptive to such “STEMpathy” projects?

Charles B.: Nearly three-quarters of the STEM projects we’ve seen that mention the words “empathy” or “compassion” have been fully funded, which is higher than our average success rate. This year more than ever, teachers and donors alike have students’ mental wellbeing in mind, and building empathy among and between students will be key for a successful school year. We’re excited to see how Samsung shining a light on this concept will inspire more donors to give to such projects.

Ann W.: As a former teacher yourself, why do you feel empathy in STEM education is so important?

Charles B.: When you’re teaching students, you’re connecting with a full person. Incorporating elements like empathy and compassion into science and math education helps students engage with the material from a different angle while inspiring them to care for the world around them. This generation of students has already been tasked with extraordinary challenges, and we have a chance to give them the tools to face those challenges head on.

Ann W.: As a non-profit harnessing technology to tap into the public’s compassion for access and equity, what are the parallels between the STEMpathy concept and DonorsChoose?

Charles B.: I was inspired to found DonorsChoose in part by my colleagues’ dedication to their students’ well-being and success — a dedication fundamentally based in empathy. They were constantly dreaming up ways to inspire students and often reached into their own pockets to cover basics. I had the sense that there were people out there who felt a similar empathy towards both teachers and students, and who would support those teachers’ dreams if they could see where their money was going.

DonorsChoose harnesses the power of technology to tap into people’s empathy. Our platform encourages teachers to authentically share stories of their classroom, inspires people to help students they’ve never met before, and moves companies to invest in this country’s future generations.

We accomplish those goals by building our product with people in mind first. One example: When teachers are creating their request, we encourage them to use asset-framing in their project essay through prompts and examples. Asset-framing was coined by DonorsChoose board member and BMe founder Trabian Shorters. He describes it as “defining people by their aspirations and their contributions, then acknowledging the challenges that often extend beyond them, and investing in them for their continued benefit to society.” When teachers use this approach to describe their students, donors are really able to get a picture of the classroom and everything that could be possible for those students if given the right tools.

Ann W.: Since 2018, DonorsChoose and Samsung Solve for Tomorrow have provided funding directly to 4,000 teachers. How does partnering with Samsung enhance the mission of DonorsChoose and what sort of enduring impact does the collaboration have on local communities?

Charles B.: Samsung Solve for Tomorrow and DonorsChoose were both founded on the idea that we should listen to teachers and students when looking to improve the world around us. Samsung Solve for Tomorrow encourages innovation, critical thinking, creativity, and fun, making DonorsChoose teachers (who already go above and beyond for students) perfectly poised for this opportunity.

This year, Samsung is investing even more in teacher professional development. Teachers, most of whom are adjusting to virtual teaching for the first time, are hungry for the opportunity to increase their skills and deepen student engagement.

In addition to the $3.9 million in resources we’ve delivered to classrooms thanks to this partnership, Samsung Solve for Tomorrow also serves teachers in non-monetary ways. Giving teachers and students the tools to improve their community signals a strong vote of confidence, and shows that we trust in teacher wisdom and student ingenuity.

Ann W.: Be it virtual, hybrid, or in-person, we’re nearly two months into the new school year. How can we get involved and support teachers that are already under such immense pressure?

Charles B.: In early September, we released a survey of 1,000 DonorsChoose teachers sharing what’s top of mind for them as they head into the school year. Technology, basic supplies, and resources to stay healthy and keep classrooms clean showed up as teachers’ largest needs.

I think one of the most important things we can do for teachers right now is to listen to them and fulfill as many of the needs they identify as we can. Right now, more than 45,000 teachers are requesting resources on DonorsChoose. Every district, every class, and every student is facing such different circumstances, and those differences threaten to widen education inequity. Teachers have both the wisdom and proximity to figure out the resources and materials that can help bridge those gaps, and keep students learning no matter where they are. We just need to bring those solutions to life.

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