Empathy in engineering education: Notes from an informal chat

During our first Big Engineering Education (EER) Meet Up on May 14th, we held seven informal breakout sessions that we called Coffee Chats. One was on empathy in engineering education.

The main leaders of this session were: Dr. Carlos Efrén Mora from the Canary Islands of Spain and Assistant Professor of Departamento de Ingeniería Agraria, Náutica, Civil y Marítima Área de Construcciones Navales at University de La Lugana, and Dr. Sally Male, the Chair in Engineering Education at The University of Western Australia. Dr. Inês Direto and I (Dr. Shannon Chance) assisted. At least 27 individuals participated in the chat.

Following the event, Carlos sent an email documenting the event, which I have used to generate this blog. I believe it’s worth sharing this information as it can be a resource for others to learn from and use. If you read through, you’ll discover:

  • Something special each participant had to say about themselves.
  • Each person’s main interest in Empathy and Engineering Education.
  • Q1: How, if at all, do you intentionally develop empathy in your students?
  • Q2: How, if at all, do you observe or measure empathy in your students?
  • Q3: How, if at all, do you research empathy in engineering education?

Dear all,
Thank you so much for your contributions in our coffee-break session about Empathy in Engineering Education. I felt that the session was a success, and that our sharing of ideas, experiences and research was very helpful, pleasant, and productive. The session was a bit experimental, and we didn’t know at the beginning if our idea about using forms, text chat, and videoconference simultaneously would work, but it seemed to work well.

As promised, the coffee-break session was mainly about networking and sharing, and we didn’t want to keep this info for ourselves. (…) I am sharing with you all ideas and comments that emerged during the session. (…) Again, thank you for participating. I hope that this info is useful to you. I am looking forward to seeing you again soon.

With best regards, Carlos Efrén Mora

Email from Carlos

Below is an anonymized record of our communications.

Say something special about yourself.

  • I am a Marine Engineer, but I love Arduino stuff 🙂
  • Aerospace Engineering Education Afficionista
  • I have the Chair in Engineering Education at The University of Western Australia
  • I love teaching
  • I research how to develop competencies in engineering (teamwork, leadership, etc.) and how to develop effective pedagogical practices to promote those competencies
  • I’m teaching practice
  • I teach and research engineering ethics, sustainability, social responsibility, leadership, mentoring, identity, …. 
  • I’m delighted with this new EER communication platform!
  • My research: Humble practice in engineering
  • Process Engineering educator 🙂
  • Director of First-Year Engineering at York University in Canada.
  • Hi! I’m in my final year at Monash University in Australia, completing my bachelors degrees in Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering and Biomedical Science. As a side note I’m quite interested in the differences in teaching between the biomedical science and engineering faculties.
  • Passionate about understanding students’ mind
  • I’m a Psychologist
  • Really interested to understand the way that academic systems evolve, or don’t
  • I am a PhD student researching on the experiences of international female engineering students in Australia
  • Mechatronic engineer doing engineering education focusing on sustainability in engineering
  • Former K-12 STEM teacher
  • I would like to do something good for this world and I try it every day in small things and in my PhD research
  • Web Designer and Programmer / Teacher / Social Development Researcher
  • I would love to be helping to make the world a better place, through my actions and through teaching
  • I teach Engineering and I really enjoy it

What is your main interest in Empathy and Engineering Education?

  • Empathy is for me the key to access students’ confident, and a basic resource to motivate them and making them more productive, conscious, and improve society. My interest is learning how to use empathy as a driving feeling to improve students’ and teachers’ motivation.
  • We are working toward an inclusive campus climate and empathy seems like a good way to start teaching empathy to engineering students and researching empathy in engineering.
  • Currently doing research on ethics education.
  • I really believe that students learn better when we show to them that we care about their learning.
  • I think learning is directly connected to feeling safe, included and engaged, empathy plays a big role on that
  • How to develop in all students
  • Advancing empathy in my students’ experiences in their education and beyond.
  • Links to ethical engineering practice, sustainable development
  • Carlos’ student facilitator data!
  • How we can instill empathy as a key trait of engineers (through Eng Edu)
  • Align practice with GenZ interests
  • Seeking ways to help students develop and apply empathy
  • I’m an undergraduate student doing my final year project in investigating empathy and accessible practices in engineering student teams at my university, and I’m really interested in learning what research and information exists currently around empathy in academic settings, especially student-student empathetic practices.
  • Empathy in the classroom for learning engineering skills, relationship between instructors and students.
  • Empathy is key to diversity, inclusion and equity in Engineering.
  • Changing practice
  • Using empathy to understand intersectional identities.
  • We had a workshop on this and it failed badly! like to see what are the alternatives to this and if it can be used for sustainability.
  • Leading pre-college engineering education and interested in incorporating empathy as part of our K-12 engineering programs, which are led by a team of undergrad/grad students.
  • I think empathy can connect and if you are connected you can do great things.
  • Improve my Self About Empathy in Education because I am a teacher.
  • I work with Engineering students on their careers and employability skills and I’m interested to understand more about current thinking on this area.
  • For helping future engineers to understand the perspectives of stakeholders, to be more effective engineers.
  • I am an engineering teacher and I think that empathy is very important to connect with students.
  • I really believe that without empathy you cannot succeed in education or in the professional practice of engineering. And most importantly, it cannot be enjoyed.
Empathy, Compassion, Friendship

Q1: How, if at all, do you intentionally develop empathy in your students?

  • Most often, individual interactions. But also organized programs of study abroad and community engagement projects.
  • I try to actively look for opportunities in one-on-one interactions if it is needed but also I try to lead by example by being empathic myself.
  • Team-based learning; following a systematic framework to create diverse teams with different cognitive abilities and demographic backgrounds.
  • Not specifically empathy, but we talk about professional attitudes, human centered design; internationally talk about respectful listening.
  • Showing students case studies of engineering projects that failed because the engineers failed to engage with and empathize with people.  In design projects, include rubric criteria for plans of community involvement/consultation/engagement.  We are exploring adding community service learning so that students can engage with people and practice empathy.
  • I constantly emphasize (since the first day of class) how intelligent and capable they are. It is nothing based in theory. I try to make them to trust me and believe that I am there for them.
  • Encouraging students to think about what they are creating and how it will be used by people. How it will impact those people. Emphasizing it is not as an end in itself.
  • Stanford Design Thinking https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FzFk3E5nxM
  • Not explicitly developed but seen as an enabler of good interaction.
  • Engage my undergrad/grad student team in co-designing our pre-college engineering education curriculum based on their area of study and interest in engineering. This empowers them and reinforces that their knowledge and experience are valued and important in helping to create the next generation of engineers.
  • Practicing empathy myself and maybe a little by introducing a collaborative teaching experience in the lab.
  • We use experiential learning through Humanitarian Engineering and inclusive design.
  • Overseas immersion activities, trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
  • They have to develop a project proposed by another group, but they cannot start until they know and can perfectly explain the wishes and needs of their “client”.
  • (1) try to be empathetic with students; (2) try to encourage students to view problems from the different perspectives of their stakeholders, and gain insight to the challenges of stakeholders.

In our audio discussion, we talked about learning activities we have led to help students develop empathy. Comments entered in the chat box during this discussion are included below.

  • Service learning and study abroad have been activities I have lad that were most effective.
  • TBL (team-based learning)
  • I try to when I am supervising project groups. Some students just have not ever been exposed.
  • I constantly emphasize (since the first day of class) how intelligent and capable they are. It is nothing based in theory. I try to make them to trust me and believe that I am there for them.
  • We have our students answer 2-3 one page long prompts in a learning journal each week.  We vary the prompts across all domains of their development, however, many of the prompts drive at their empathy for the various stakeholders in their work.
  • Respectful listening to community voices; Yanna Lambrinidou / Marc Edwards engineering ethics course.
  • Gift-giving experience using design thinking by Institute of Design at Stanford.
  • Encouraging students to think about how their developed products would be used by the end user, especially usability for people with disabilities.
  • [Asked to another participant] Can you expand on what that is? Sounds really nice. [Answer] Info on Gift-giving experience using design thinking by Institute of Design at Stanford is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FzFk3E5nxM
  • As empathy underpins trust, in group projects I engage the students in reflective writing and then formative peer assessment (i.e. no marks) which has a focus on making their collaboration more effective which gives them a shared goal
  • We have an explicit rule for all interactions. It is called the rule of 1/x.  Where x=the number of people in the interaction.  eg. if there are 5 student engineers on a team, each person is responsible to participate at the level of 1/5th.  This is for working products, conversation participation etc.  It ends up creating a self-awareness whereby people must be cognizant of their own contribution and those of others.
  • Critical educators create teams underpinned by diverse cognitive skills and cultural intelligence backgrounds.
  • I agree that discussing differences in class helps them understand that not everyone thinks as they do.
  • I see different types developments: active actions, and reflective actions
  • There’s a Special issue on ” “COVID-2019 Impacts on Education Systems and Future of Higher Education”.  Could you please help to publicise more widely within your education networks? I also invite you to submit your work related to this topic. See below link for more details https://www.mdpi.com/journal/education/special_issues/Future_of_Higher_Education
  • I also think helping them learn how to do reflections is key in this space.
  • Engage my undergrad/grad student team in co-designing our pre-college engineering education curriculum based on their area of study and interest in engineering. This empowers them and reinforces that their knowledge and experience are valued and important in helping to create the next generation of engineers.

Q2: How, if at all, do you observe or measure empathy in your students?

  • N/A for me, up to now
  • Other than by looking and instinct no I don’t measure
  • Surveys
  • There are reflective essays; but not “measure”
  • I observe, but unfortunately I do not measure, because I have never research this topic.
  • N/A
  • Measuring it by to see if they have listened to their partner (the one they interview to gift). They need to develop the best gift according to their partner’s needs.
  • Through reflective writing but not directly measured, inferred through effective reflection on relationship with colleagues.
  • Informal observations via weekly undergrad/grad student team meeting and post-activity discussions, as part of our pre-college engineering program.
  • I just observe.
  • Observe, but not measure. We see it in the outcomes of student assignments and work, particularly in project-based assessment designing solutions for clients.
  • I they are able to adapt their solutions to the “other”
  • I agree with what a lot of participants mentioned about observing but not measuring. I like seeing this unfold organically. On a tangential note, it has been interesting to see students empathise with academics grappling with online teaching in times like this.
  • Observe through their approach to other students; in how they approach their design projects, if they demonstrate understanding of perspectives, in the questions that they ask.

Comments entered into the Chat about Question 2: How, if at all, do you observe or measure empathy in your students?

  • I observe, but I do not measure 😦
  • I look at interactions and the way they express themselves about and towards others
  • They will definitely recognise this by means of SET (student evaluation of teachers)
  • This is really interesting; I consider empathy to be the highest point of respect between students and instructors. I thankfully have been positively rewarded by my students when I show that I care.
  • In architecture we have Student Performance Criteria for Human Behavior, for instance.
  • I think a smile from students is one of the best indicators! 🙂
  • No rubrics to measure.  Maybe something to research.  But I really want to develop empathy to students.
  • I don’t think we explicitly measure it, but it would depend on how you define empathy, or what behaviours you characterise it as.
  • Sometime I see the opposite (resistance among senior students to the respectful listening exercise).
  • I think it is in how they address their design problems, demonstrated understanding of stakeholder perspective in their projects.
  • I agree with this (…), it is inferred from actions but this confuses how you define empathy.
  • Informal observations via weekly student team meeting, post-activity discussions.
  • From a practitioner/teaching perspective, I measure it by levels of engagement and commitment to the course, when they move from grades to caring about the topics.
  • Measuring it by to see if they have listened to their partner (the one they interview to gift). They need to develop the best gift.
  • My project is on student-student interactions, but we’re planning on measuring empathetic thinking by looking at inclusive and accessible practices of students within student teams and other elements such a retention rate and application rate.
  • I agree with (…). I think we look at empathy in how they approach problems and engage with communities.
  • This was the one I was thinking of, for the IR: https://fetzer.org/sites/default/files/images/stories/pdf/selfmeasures/EMPATHY-InterpersonalReactivityIndex.pdf

Q3: How, if at all, do you research empathy in engineering education?

  • N/A for me, up to now
  • Not yet, but is definitely a project I am interested in.
  • Linking cultural intelligence to demographic factors, and then the results to cross-cultural interactions including empathetic behaviours in teams.
  • Research somewhat related to empathy = care, sustainability, ethics, societal context, listening to the community,…
  • As far as I experienced engineering is not a field you can go through alone easily, teams and groups as well as collaborations are essential and with all of this, of course empathy.
  • Empathy can let you feel what other people feels and helps you drive all the emotion in one direction for a bigger common goal.
  • We are considering using the Empathy Quotient (https://psychology-tools.com/test/empathy-quotient) to measure empathy in students.  This tool was originally developed by researchers working on Austism.
  • I do not  😦
  • N/A
  • Not yet.
  • I do not, for now
  • I research it tangentially – empathy is related to my research and highly linked.
  • No, I don´t rerearch empathy but I try to apply it and increase it.
  • I haven’t read much on empathy from a research perspective but am familiar with empathy as part of the design process.
  • Still thinking about this…..the research needs to translate into engineering practice that better meets the needs of our global community.

Entered into the Chat about Q3, How, if at all, are you researching the topic?

  • Not yet. But as we are looking at creating a more emphatic climate we will need to see if we are successful.
  • Empathy is part of the research, but we are starting a great group to do research on emotions in engineering education. For me individually I’m interested in understanding how instructor provide and receive emotional support.
  • I’m sending out a survey to all of the engineering students (including masters and PhD students) to gauge their attitudes towards the accessibility of student teams, and to see how those in the teams feel about the culture – so not a part of how empathy is being taught from a top-down perspective, but still looking at how empathy in general is engendered in an engineering context.
  • I’ve supervised research on trust in technology sharing in SMEs and this was shown to be very dependent upon empathy, interpersonal relationships and largely outside any management of the commercial relationship
  • @(…), that’s a very interesting idea. It would be good to understand if engineers even value empathy…
  • @(…) I am interested to see if they do! I have a feeling most engineering students won’t necessarily think of it in these terms’
  • Students tell me they need a mix of ways teams are composed [response from another participant] I think there are times for this but I’m almost exclusively working with students close to graduation in high stakes projects. [reply back] Yes, the year level matters a whole lot. [from a third person] How do you decide when to offer self-selection/ not?
  • I’ve been exploring the role of ethnicity in cross-cultural team activities and found interesting results; BME students significantly showed higher motivational ‘cultural intelligence’ as compared to Asian and White students that may suggest they may be more empathetic.
  • We do blended self-select: so min requirements such as at least 2 of each gender and two non-Dutch speakers and then self-select based on topic.
  • Students sometimes feel pressure from their friends and sometimes they want wider exposure. Because their friends want to group together every time and they don’t get the diversity they want. This is particularly acute for students form minority groups who don’t feel comfortable asking majority students to be in their teams. It takes action from teachers to help overcome that. [Agreement from 3 others, including] absolutely and this is so important [and] That’s why we have a hidden algorithm.
  •  In the UK we really need more women students to allow us to form diverse groups.
  • As someone who is still doing group projects, I usually prefer being allocated into a group – as someone who is in the minority of engineering students, I feel very weird trying to sort out my own group.
  • We are trying to find a space in the curriculum to reflect on the different teams that they have been a part of.  Give students an opportunity to think about self-selected vs assigned teams.  What were the challenges and how did they overcome them?

In the chat box, we also discussed how we see the teaching of empathy in engineering education

  • Critical
  • Succesful
  • Essential for effective engagement.
  • Missing
  • Undervalued
  • The way to support future global working environment
  • Fundamental if we want our students to really help to make the world a better place
  • Not as high as in architectural education.
  • It’s a need.
  • Important for fostering collaboration and self-reflection.

What is empathy in engineering education?

  • An understanding of other people
  • Empathy in Engineering Education is The Next New Boundary to Push
  • Empathy in Engineering Education is… finding better solutions
  • The root for care
  • Culturally hidden
  • Inclusivity
  • It Is a bridge to new knowledge and innovation
  • KEY for a more diverse and inclusive engineering culture = diverse and inclusive engineering solutions [another participant agreed] That’s certainly been my experience as an electrical engineering student…
  • Being involved in academic development I agree that the discipline differences are also shown by staff – this leads to the question of how do staff who find empathy difficult support students, particularly those from minority groups?
  • Some data …There is one unit in all Australian electrical engineering programs which directly addresses empathy as a learning outcome. [Asked by another] which unit? [And] Where about is the program? [Answer] It is more content than a learning outcome. https://www.deakin.edu.au/courses-search/unit.php?unit=SEJ101 and empathy for bais.
  • I think that empathy opens up the ability to understand different perspectives – which opens up different ways of framing problems and solving problems.
  • In the UK the National Student Survey asks if the lecturer makes the subject interesting, engineering scores 5% below the all subject average which may say something about staff empathy?

In the Chat at the wrap-up

  • Thank you for this session.  I learned a lot.
  • Many thanks! Really interesting discussion 🙂
  • Thank you, a very interactive session!
  • Thank you all! very interesting.
  • Thank you! Was great to take part and see you all again!
  • tnx 🙂

Study of GRIT in engineering education

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The European Journal of Engineering Education just published the systematic review that Inês Direito and Manis Malik and I conducted. For this study, we located and reviewed all the journal articles and conference papers in the field of engineering education that dealt with university-level engineering students’ “grit”.

Grit was defined by Angela Duckworth and it involves two parts: persistence (consistency of effort) and passion (consistency of interest).

We analyzed the data, results, and findings reported in each article. We carefully and critically considered each author’s discoveries and interpretations.

We used a highly structured approach to studying groups of papers on a common theme; this method is called a “systematic review” of literature on a given subject. We wanted to answer one main question: What type of studies have been conducted on grit in engineering higher education, and what were the main outcomes?

The title of our paper is The study of grit in engineering education research: a systematic literature review and we have paid for Open Access so that you can download it and read it for free.

This is a new area of study among engineering education researchers and only 2 journal articles had been published by the time we were collecting data (spring 2018). On the other hand, 29 conference papers were available in the engineering and education databases we used.

The theory we are studying was developed by Angela Duckworth and is described in this book.

By studying the content and findings of these 31 papers, we were able to identify trends and unresolved questions. We made recommendations about things that need more investigation–and also about the best way to report findings to help make the reports more valuable to engineering educators and researchers.

Collaborating with Inês and Manish on this project was a joy–it was a huge challenge and realizing this publication required loads of grit–but doing this work with these budding scholars was also fun and rewarding. We decided to do this project together because we wanted to learn the systematic review method, execute it well, and learn about the psychological construct of “grit” at the same time.

Download the paper to find out what we learned!

To cite our article:

Inês Direito, Shannon Chance & Manish Malik (2019) The study of grit in engineering education research: a systematic literature review, European Journal of Engineering Education, DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2019.1688256