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Assessing the Development of Empathy and Innovation Attitudes in a Project-based Engineering Design Course

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Entrepreneurship & Engineering Innovation Division Technical Session 5

Tagged Division

Entrepreneurship & Engineering Innovation

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Paper Authors


Antti Oskari Surma-Aho Aalto University

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M.Sc. Antti Surma-aho is a doctoral student at Aalto University. He has been conducting research at Aalto Design Factory since January 2017, supervised by Prof. Katja Hölttä-Otto. Antti's academic interests include design thinking, human-centered design, and usability.

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Tua A. Björklund Aalto University

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Tua Björklund is one of the co-founders and the head of research at Aalto University Design Factory. She conducts and leads research, teaches product design, and facilitates pedagogical development at the Design Factory. Tua has a DSc degree in industrial engineering and management and a MA degree in cognitive science.

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Katja Holtta-Otto Aalto University

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Katja is a professor of Product Development and the Aalto University Design Factory, School of Engineering

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To develop innovative solutions that fit end-users, engineers must understand the end-users’ needs. This user-centered aspect of engineering innovation has been highlighted in recent design thinking literature, where the construct of empathy has received increasing attention. Anecdotal support has been found for the benefits of empathy in engineering, and many engineering design thinking courses today teach engineering students to empathize with end-users. However, transitioning from anecdotal to evidence-based education requires being able to measure and track the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that educators attempt to impart on students. Thus, this study measures the development of empathic tendencies and innovation attitudes in students, and explores correlations between the two.

Data was collected by administering a self-report survey in January and June 2017 to 237 students participating in a global multidisciplinary design thinking course. The survey included subscales for empathic tendencies, innovation self-efficacy, and innovation interests. The responses were analyzed for differences in distribution between the two surveys, as well as for correlations between items. It was observed that the students’ empathic tendencies and confidence in experimenting and associative thinking grew (p < 0.03). Furthermore, the empathic tendency scores displayed weak but statistically significant correlation with interest towards planning and research activities (p < 0.05, τb > 0.2). This study is among the first to quantify the development of empathy and innovation attitudes in engineering education. The results indirectly repeat prior research on the development of innovation capabilities in the scope of individual engineering courses. However, there are some limitations regarding the applicability of the utilized survey instruments, thus requiring further research with larger amounts of data and a mixed-methods approach to generalize the results.

Surma-Aho, A. O., & Björklund, T. A., & Holtta-Otto, K. (2018, June), Assessing the Development of Empathy and Innovation Attitudes in a Project-based Engineering Design Course Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--29826

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