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March 2024

Gen Ed in Action

Diana Bairaktarova speaking during the final presentations for her course, Create! Ideation for Innovation. Photo credit, Javeria Zulfqar.


How Diana Bairaktarova uses empathy to design successful student projects

Project-based learning is a great tool for building students’ collaboration and communication skills as they work towards a shared solution. While group projects are commonly assigned across campus, Diana Bairaktarova wanted to take a slightly different approach for her course, Create! Ideation for Innovation.

“My whole idea was to lead the students on an exploration of creativity, design, and collaboration that hopefully reshaped their understanding and perspectives,” said Bairaktarova, an associate professor of Engineering Education. “To reshape their understanding of design and creativity, highlighting that tangible outcomes aren’t the sole markers of success in this realm.”


To plan the course, Bairaktarova chose to use Design Thinking, a framework for problem solving created at Stanford University and used by educators. The process follows five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. 

The course, which counts as credit for the Pathways Innovation Minor, focuses on exploring the intersections of arts, science, and design to hone students’ collaboration skills, and the empathy-focused approach of Design Thinking drew Bairaktarova’s interest.  

“It was very appropriate to adopt this approach of teaching Design Thinking,” said Bairaktarova. “Especially to let students develop empathy towards the users of their creations. It was a really transformative experience for my students and for me.”

Bairaktarova deliberately designed this course to challenge traditional boundaries, urging students to delve deeper into interdisciplinary collaboration and navigate the complexities of global issues. She decided on six global crises as the topics for her students’ projects. In groups, students then decided on the major points of each case and were then able to choose which project they wanted to work on for the semester.

Bairaktarova emphasized her desire for her students to feel empathy for the end “users” of the group projects.  

To create that connection, each project began with a “human face” activity, where students literally created a human face for their project. One group concentrated on young Rohingya children within the refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. Another group, assigned the war in Ukraine, focused on the perspective of young Americans.  

By bringing the project down to one face with a personal story, students can empathize with their individual users and gain a better understanding of the hardships they’re facing. Additionally, it kept students more dedicated and invested in their projects.


Bairaktarova chose not to organize the course with a rigid structure and guidelines. She intentionally incorporated ambiguity and gave students freedom to figure out their projects. 

She knew this would be uncomfortable for some students, especially the first-semester students who were still used to the rigidness of high school. While they expected to be evaluated on the final outcome, Bairaktarova did not require a protype solution to the projects. In other words, creating a physical prototype of their proposed solution was not the norm. This opens the potential for ideas and creativity, and forces students to think outside the box.

The group addressing the Rohingya crisis proposed a digital library containing instructional at-home medical videos tailored for children. The team working on the war in Ukraine proposed a campaign aimed at educating young Americans about the conflict, with the goal of raising funds for Ukrainian refugees. 

“Probably for the majority of the students it was a very daunting idea, but I think they trusted me to lead them through the semester and they were dedicated,” said Bairaktarova.

To help through the semester, Bairaktarova provided specific resources for her students. She assigned weekly activities that fostered empathy, teamwork, and critical thinking. She also arranged for guest speakers such as librarians and ethnographers to help her class learn how to conduct proper research. 

These resources helped students define the scope of their projects, allowing them to break down a complex global issue into one specific problem they could try to solve.

Creativity and vulnerability

“There were several moments during the semester when the enormity of the global issues the students were tackling in their projects felt overwhelming,” said Bairaktarova. “This vulnerability stemmed from the realization that our solutions might not fully encompass the depth of the problems and that there is a long way for us humans to learn to care with more compassion. However, this vulnerability wasn’t a setback for me.”  

These moments pushed her even further to reflect deeper and to strive ever more for empathy education. 

“Instead of shying away from this vulnerability, it propelled me to talk more openly, and this vulnerability, in turn, steered me towards a more comprehensive and nuanced approach to problem-solving, aligning with the course objective of demonstrating problem-finding as part of the design process,” she added.


In her end of the course reflection, Bairaktarova wrote to her students “creativity and growth often dwell in vulnerability. Embracing creativity requires vulnerability, as does the act of empathizing deeply. Learning and growth, while immensely rewarding, rarely thrive within the limits of comfort.”

At the end of the semester, students presented innovative solutions for their projects. They were dedicated, knowledgeable, and excited about their solutions. They empathized with their users, understood their different perspectives, and worked as a team.

“It requires a lot of effort and time to engage students to design projects like this.” said Bairaktarova. “But to me it’s like, isn’t that the essence of education? To let students work on projects and go through experiences that help them grow, and to educate the whole person?”

By Javeria Zulfqar, editorial intern at the Office of Undergraduate Education