#18 – How Redesigning a Face Mask can teach Biology (and student empathy too!)

Teaching arts and sciences together can make science more applicable and exciting. That is one of the suggestions in the article My Wish List for University Science Education published on Medium.com. At its core, the article suggests ways in which we can alter university science education to make it reach more learners, to show more student empathy. The same can be said and used at the high school level too.


So, how can we teach arts and sciences together and what does it look like? What are some things students will learn and do? And, is it going to be just another PowerPoint or poster presentation? Last year, my grade 8 science students redesigned objects that prevent students from getting sick (for example, face masks and kleenex packaging) to learn about the transmission of the common cold. In this case, I was teaching science and design together. In the process, my students also gained empathy for their user (ie. other students). I outline below what we did. A checklist is also available for download at the end of the post.


Learning through a product redesign

After teaching the properties of life and the differences between bacteria and viruses, we talk about disease prevention and treatment. There are lots of interesting questions to discuss in class: Why don’t all bugs need drugs? How does one contract HIV? Why don’t we have vaccine for the common cold? And, why do we need to get a new flu vaccine every year?


On top of discussing some of the questions above, I also have my students redesign an object that helps to prevent illness. Some students redesign a face mask. Others redesign herbal remedies. And, others redesign waterless wash (ie. Purell). However, the challenge is not just to redesign the object, but it is also to redesign it in a way that students will be more likely to use. That means my students must interview the students they are designing for. They must understand why students don’t currently use the object being redesigned. My students must develop empathy for their user (ie. student empathy). And, after all the interviews, students need to build a working prototype.


For example, if a student wants to redesign a face mask, then changing the colour from the standard pale blue to red will not count as a redesign. First, the student needs to research why students currently are not wearing face masks. This could be for a variety of reasons: it’s ugly, it’s inconvenient to carry around, it’s awkward to wear. Then, the student needs to redesign the face mask so that it addresses the reason why they’re not being worn as much. If the reason is because face masks are inconvenient to carry, then how can we change the face mask so that they are more convenient? If the reason is because face masks are awkward to wear, then how can we redesign them so that they are easier to wear? A redesign is not just changing something for the sake of change. The student needs to develop student empathy – to understand their obstacles and apprehensions – and design with that in mind.


The Results

  • One student made a pen/pencil that also had Purell on the other end (where the eraser head should be). This student found that other students did not use Purell because it was inconvenient to carry around. Plus, students also tend to pack less to school. Thus, this student made a 2-in-1 object: a pen with a healthy benefit.
  • Another student found that students enjoyed juice concentrates that mix with water. Thus, this student sought to redesign herbal therapy in a juice concentrate mix that students would use.


Wrap Up

Science education is changing to being more interdisciplinary. It’s easy to blend math and science together (like in STEM), but not all learners are into STEM, math, or science. By merging science education with arts, it allows students to explore a new range of problems in a scientific way. And, sometimes, it also helps to develop some other interdisciplinary skills too like student empathy. That’s pretty good thing too. If you want a quick step-by-step guide to our product redesign project, please click the link below and join our mailing list. We’ll email you the guide.

For the Face Mask Redesign Guide, Click Here


Until next time, keep it REAL.

Posted on October 17, 2017 in Activities

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