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Exploring the Relationship between Empathy and Innovation among Engineering Students

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Studying Engineering Education Research & Institutions

Tagged Divisions

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society and Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.740.1 - 26.740.12



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Paper Authors


Justin L Hess Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Justin Hess is a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University's School of Engineering Education, Master's student in the School of Civil Engineering and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. He received his Bachelor's of Science in Civil Engineering in 2011 with a minor in philosophy and anticipates receiving his MSCE in 2015, both from Purdue University. His research focuses on understanding engineers' core values, dispositions, and worldviews. His dissertation focuses on conceptualizations, the importance of, and methods to teach empathy to engineering students. He is currently the Education Director for Engineers for a Sustainable World and an assistant editor of Engineering Studies.

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Nicholas D. Fila Purdue University

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Nicholas D. Fila is a Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and a M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His current research interests include innovation, empathy, and engineering design.

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Senay Purzer Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Ṣenay Purzer is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering Education. She is the recipient of a 2012 NSF CAREER award, which examines how engineering students approach innovation. She serves on the editorial boards of Science Education and the Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education (JPEER). She received a B.S.E with distinction in Engineering in 2009 and a B.S. degree in Physics Education in 1999. Her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees are in Science Education from Arizona State University earned in 2002 and 2008, respectively.

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Johannes Strobel Texas A&M University

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Dr. Johannes Strobel is Director, Educational Outreach Programs and Associate Professor, Engineering & Education at Texas A&M, College Station. He received his M.Ed. and Ph.D. in Information Science & Learning Technologies from the University of Missouri. His research/teaching focuses on engineering as an innovation in pK-12 education, policy of STEM education, how to support teachers and students' academic achievements through engineering, engineering "habits of mind" and empathy and care in engineering. He has published more than 140 journal articles and proceedings papers in engineering education and educational technology and is the inaugural editor of the Journal of Pre-College Engineering Education Research.

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Exploring the Relationship between Empathy and Innovation within Engineering Within engineering education research there seems to be a consensus that innovation isan important and even essential component of succeeding as a practicing engineer. Innovationmay be described as the creative act of generating novel concepts, processes, or designs. It maybe described as incremental, leading to small changes, or radical, leading to a completerethinking of existing practices or designs or entirely new concepts altogether. Further,innovation may be broken up of its constituent components by identifying what skills or traits arenecessary for being innovative. The Innovator’s DNA, for example, identified questioning, ideanetworking, experimenting, and observation as the key traits exemplified by innovativeexecutives. The Innovator’s DNA has even developed a self-report instrument to measure eachof these behaviors (see attachment). This paper explores whether another specific trait may be connected to innovation:empathy. Using a model developed out of social psychology, we define empathy as a multi-faceted phenomenon built upon four distinct sub-constructs; (a) fantasy or the tendency toimagine yourself in another person’s situation, (b) perspective-taking or the tendency to thinkabout how others are thinking or feeling, (c) empathic concern or the tendency to demonstratecare and concern for others, and (d) personal distress or the tendency to become anxious in tensesituations. What we put into question is whether any or all of these components of empathy arerelated to any or all of the components of innovation depicted by the Innovator’s DNA. Our guiding research question for this study is, “From the perspective of engineeringstudents, what is the relationship between empathy and innovation?” As a data collectionstrategy, we invited students at a large Mid-Western University to complete each of the twosurveys. Upon completion of the surveys students had the opportunity to volunteer in a follow-upinterview. More than one-hundred survey responses were collected along with nine semi-structured interviews ranging from one hour to one and a half hours in length. The data wasanalyzed using two distinct phases of research analysis. In the first research phase, wequantitatively explore whether the four distinct sub-constructs of empathy (perspective-taking,empathic concern, personal distress, and fantasy) have a correlated relationship to these fourinnovative behavior traits (questioning, idea networking, experimenting, or observation). Second,we qualitatively explore the same nine students’ perceptions of the correlations reported betweenthe empathy and innovation scales. Results from this study will inform the body of engineering education knowledge bygenerating the first concerted discourse around empathy, innovation, and engineering. Namely,this study will indicate whether specific components of empathy catalyze or inhibit innovativeengineering, and in turn, which components engineering educators should focus on whenteaching for innovation.Innovator’s DNA Survey Items (Labeled Constructs) Dimension # Survey Item Questioning – Asking 1 I often ask questions that challenge the status quo. questions in order to challenge I am constantly asking questions to understand why products and 7 projects underperform. inherent assumptions and 10 I am constantly asking questions to get at the root of the problem. increase understanding of a 13 I am always asking questions. topic or context. 14 Others are frustrated by the frequency of my questions. I regularly ask questions that challenge others’ fundamental 19 assumptions. Networking – Interacting with I have a large network of contacts with whom I frequently interact to 6 get ideas for new products and services. people from diverse I initiate meetings with people outside of my industry to spark ideas backgrounds to gain new 8 for a new product, service, or customer base. perspectives and develop, I have a network of individuals whom I trust to bring a new 9 perspective and refine new ideas. refine, and test ideas. I attend many diverse professional and/or academic conferences 15 outside of my academic discipline/profession. Experimenting – Seeking and 2 I am adventurous, always looking for new experiences. exploring new experiences 3 I have a history of taking things apart. and surroundings to expand 4 I frequently experiment to create new ways of doing things. knowledge and testing new I love to experiment to understand how things work and to create 17 new ways of doing things. ideas mentally or physically. 1 I actively search for new ideas through experimenting. Observing – Carefully and I have a continuous flow of new ideas that comes through 5 observing the world. critically examining the 11 By paying attention to everyday experiences, I often get new ideas. everyday world to understand New ideas often come to me when directly observing how people how objects and systems 12 interact with products and services. function and are used. I regularly observe peoples’ use of products and services to get 16 new ideas.

Hess, J. L., & Fila, N. D., & Purzer, S., & Strobel, J. (2015, June), Exploring the Relationship between Empathy and Innovation among Engineering Students Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24077

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