Having students develop empathy for your place, project, or people surrounding an issue is one of the strongest ways to make a PBE effort meaningful and increase student engagement. Developing empathy is not an easy task, however the benefits of developing an empathetic classroom pays dividends in learning outcomes and overall excitement for your class or project. Although this video is more focused on interpersonal empathy, it gives an interesting portrayal of the difference between sympathy and empathy, which is often confused. One of the best places to begin exploring empathy for your classroom is at StartEmpathy.org .
The Empathy 101 video sequence found there is an ideal resource to begin understanding empathy and the role it has in education. I encourage you to watch all of the videos. Each video is short (1-2 minutes) and do a great job of exploring different facets of empathy. There isn't necessarily an order to how you build empathy so pick topics that seem interesting to you and explore those videos first.
So why is empathy important in PBE?
"The work of empathy is precisely trying to imagine a view of the world that one does not share, and in fact may find it quite difficult to share." – Halpern & Weinstein, 2004, p. 581
Students who can begin understanding perspectives from other people, animals, issues, and organizations that collectively constitute a "place" may be able to form stronger connections to the purpose and value of a stewardship project. http://student2steward.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Greater-Good-in-ACtion-logo.jpg
This article, Green with Empathy references a study that suggests developing an empathetic connection to the natural world may encourage more "environmental action." Unfortunately most students have never put themselves into the "shoes" of another individual, let alone another animal or plant. One group of researchers is attempting to provide digital experiences to help others develop a sense of empathy for non-human beings because it is a difficult thing to do.
So how do we begin cultivating empathy towards living and non-living objects in the natural world without virtual reality? In environmental stewardship education, students often grow attached to specific animals, plants, insects, geological features, or environments through the process of learning about facts, lifestyles, and experiences of those objects or species. Students' initial attachments are usually rooted in relatively superficial reasons. In the case of studying animals within an ecosystem a student might explain why she likes a specific animal with a statement such as, "It looks cool." Most students will not initially make statements like, "I value its relationship as a keystone species within its ecosystem." These initial attachments are entry points for helping students begin empathizing with individuals or other species involved in broader issues or subjects. Protecting the "cool-looking" animal can become a reason for a student to invest in a stewardship project. As they dive into the work, they may learn more about that animal, and begin thinking about its needs with an empathetic perspective.
Similarly, a student who likes to fish may benefit from learning that his class' storm water management project will help fish live healthier lives (which conveniently allows fish to grow bigger and become more fun to catch). Having a classroom full of students participating in a project with a purpose is much easier to manage than a group who does not understand the meaning or value of the work from the beneficiary's perspective. Students' development of self-worth and pride is also a contributing factor to the value of empathy in PBE. Students who are able to contribute to a cause that may not directly benefit themselves may begin to value their own contributions to community in more significant ways. One goal of place-based education is to help students understand their role in community, and helping others (human or otherwise) can go a long way in underscoring each individual's value to a larger system. Empathy lays a foundation for truly caring about communities and the services individuals provide to them.