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Exploring the Role of Empathy in Engineering Communication through a Transdisciplinary Dialogue

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Creative and Cross-disciplinary Methods Part II

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.622.1 - 25.622.11



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Paper Authors


Joachim Walther University of Georgia

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Joachim Walther is an Assistant Professor of engineering education research at the University of Georgia (UGA). He is Co-director of the Collaborative Lounge for Understanding Society and Technology through Educational Research (CLUSTER), an interdisciplinary research group with members from engineering, art, educational psychology, and social work. His research interests span the formation of students' professional identity, the role of reflection in engineering learning, and interpretive research methods in engineering education.
He was the first international recipient of the ASEE Educational Research Methods Division's "Apprentice Faculty Award," was selected as a 2010 Frontiers in Education "New Faculty Fellow," and is currently a UGA "Lilly Teaching Fellow." His teaching focuses on innovative approaches to introducing systems thinking and creativity into the environmental engineering program. In this context, he is involved in the development and implementation of the Synthesis and Design Studio series at UGA.

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Shari E. Miller University of Georgia

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Shari Miller is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Georgia. She teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs with an emphasis on theory, reflective practice, social work and social welfare history, and service-learning. Her research interests are guided by two overarching themes, social work education and the culture of the profession, and generally fall within three domains: professional socialization, educational innovations, and educational outcomes. Some specific projects in which she’s currently engaged explore questions of professional socialization; professional self-care; critical thinking as a process and outcome; social work’s environmental paradigm; and trans-disciplinary educational approaches. She’s currently collaborating with colleagues from engineering to develop trans-disciplinary approaches to education for reflective practice in a global society, and with colleagues from multiple disciplines to develop an after-school garden, service learning initiative in local public schools to address issues of food insecurity, family well-being, community organizing, and sustainability.

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Nadia N. Kellam University of Georgia

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Nadia Kellam is an Assistant Professor and engineering educational researcher in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of Georgia. She is Co-director of the CLUSTER research group with faculty members from engineering, art, and educational psychology. Her research interests include interdisciplinarity, creativity, identity formation, and the role of emotion in cognition.

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Exploring the role of empathy in engineering communication through a transdisciplinary dialogueBackgroundThis paper explores the role of empathy as a core aspect of engineering communication whichserves to integrate multifaceted information about, and make sense of, complex socio-technicalcontexts.We argue that empathy, which we understand to entail both the intuitive emotional, as well as,cognitive aspect of “perspective taking”, enables engineering students to develop a nuanced,critical understanding of the multiple perspectives which characterize contemporary engineeringproblems. More specifically, this notion allows us to extend our understanding of studentlearning outcomes concerned with, for example, the “appreciation of the social and ethicalimplications of engineering work” beyond the purely intellectual analysis of these perspectives,or the narrow application of formalized standards of ethical conduct.What was done?This project draws on a collaboration between faculty from engineering and social work todevelop a series of course modules to infuse communication empathy into an undergraduateenvironmental engineering course. The development of the instructional modules builds onresearch from the field of social work education which conceptualizes various ways of engagingstudent in authentic personal interactions. More specifically, the modules incorporate elements ofgroup reflection, role play, and authentic stakeholder scenarios that are commonly employed insocial work education. In this project, these methods are adapted to contemporary engineeringperspectives around issues of sustainability, social justice and critical engagement with powerrelationships in engineering contexts.ResultsThis paper presents the design of the course modules with reference to the theoreticalfoundations from the field of social work and a particular focus on issues concerned with thetransfers of these concepts to an engineering context. This includes the discussion of lessonslearned from the transdisciplinary dialogue. More specifically, these insights provide a newperspective on engineering communication on a conceptual as well as instructional level.Conclusion and significanceEmpathy is increasingly recognized as a key element of communication in various professionalfields. We contend that empathy is of similar importance to the context of engineering, but thereare currently no conceptual frameworks or instructional strategies available to infuse theseaspects into students’ educational experience. This paper reports insights from a transdisciplinarydialogue between engineering and social work that offers a contextual perspective on empathy inthe engineering context while drawing on fundamental theory from the field of social work.Based on these perspectives, we discuss the potential of this approach to address some of thehard-to-get-a-handle-on learning outcomes concerned with students’ understanding of the social,ethical and cultural aspects of contemporary engineering problems.

Walther, J., & Miller, S. E., & Kellam, N. N. (2012, June), Exploring the Role of Empathy in Engineering Communication through a Transdisciplinary Dialogue Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21379

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