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In Their Shoes: Student Perspectives on the Connection between Empathy and Engineering

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Research on Diversification, Inclusion, and Empathy II

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Nicholas D. Fila Purdue University

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Nicholas D. Fila is a Ph.D. candidate 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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Justin L Hess Indiana University - Purdue University, Indianapolis Orcid 16x16

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Justin L. Hess received his PhD from Purdue University's School of Engineering Education along with his Master's of Science and Bachelor of Science from Purdue's School of Civil Engineering. Justin is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher in the STEM Education Research Institute at IUPUI. Justin's research interests include developing pedagogical strategies to improve STEM students' ethical reasoning skills; exploring the role of empathy within design, innovation and sustainability; synthesizing the influence of societal and individual worldviews on decision-making; assessing STEM students' learning in the spaces of design, ethics, and sustainability; and exploring the impact of pre-engineering curriculum on students' abilities and career trajectories.

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An emerging body of literature highlights the importance of empathy within engineering work and explores how engineering students develop empathic tendencies and utilize empathy during design. Still, more work needs to be done to better understand how engineering students conceptualize empathy and view its role in engineering practice. In this study, we explored the ways that engineering students described empathy and its application in their engineering work. Eight engineering students, from seven different majors, ranging from juniors to doctoral students, participated semi-structured interviews focused on the empathy in engineering. Using thematic analysis we uncovered three themes revealing engineering students’ experiences with empathy (understanding others’ feelings, important in everyday life, generally outside the scope of engineering) and four themes revealing potential uses for empathy in engineering work (team settings, problem contextualization, human-centered design, individual inspiration). These findings highlight existing gaps between students’ perceptions of empathy as compared to scholarly literature on the role of empathy in engineering and perceptions from engineering faculty and practicing engineers. For example, the themes demonstrate that students are often generally aware of certain potential uses of empathy, but have not necessarily experienced those uses in their own work. In the paper, we discuss how alignments or discrepancies between student and expert perceptions both extend our notions of the role of empathy in engineering and identify areas that can be better supported through engineering instruction.

Fila, N. D., & Hess, J. L. (2016, June), In Their Shoes: Student Perspectives on the Connection between Empathy and Engineering Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25640

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