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Increasing Student Empathy Through Immersive User Empathy Experiences in First-Year Design Education

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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

Student Empathy and Human-Centered Design

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Lexie Mitchell Colorado School of Mines

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Lexie Mitchell is the Assistant Director for both the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and the Cornerstone Design@Mines Program at the Colorado School of Mines. She also serves as the manager for media personality and professional golfer Paige Spiranac. Lexie graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in Communication (Media Studies), as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and a winner of the Stanford Award of Excellence. While at Stanford, she focused her studies on human computer interactions and the ways in which technological innovations are changing how we function in the world. Since graduation, she has founded her own business with her husband, helped to start the Diversity & Inclusion department at the U.S. Olympic Committee, and lead the offline member engagement strategy as the Director of Community & Events for Levo, a startup that provides professional resources to young women.

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Leslie Light Colorado School of Mines

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Leslie Light is an Associate Teaching Professor in the Engineering, Design, and Society Division at the Colorado School of Mines, and the Director of the Cornerstone Design@Mines program. She received a B.S. In General Engineering, Product Design from Stanford University and an MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in Entrepreneurial Management. Prior to joining Mines she spent 20 years as a designer, project manager, and portfolio manager in Fortune 500 companies and smaller firms in the Silicon Valley and abroad. She is passionate about bringing the user-centered design principles she learned at Stanford and in her career to Mines' open-ended problem solving program, and is working with others on campus to establish a broader integrated context for innovation and design.

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Developing user empathy is a key component in becoming both an innovative engineer, as well as an effective leader. However, students in project-based design courses do not typically have the opportunity to move past simply engaging with their user into actually developing user empathy: the deeper understanding of what it feels like to experience the problem natively. Providing opportunities for students to achieve this level of immersion can be difficult, especially in courses that deal with problems affecting those far outside the student’s’ own geographic area, socioeconomic standing, or physical abilities.

To overcome this barrier, in Spring 2015 the Colorado School of Mines began incorporating a unique “User Empathy Experience” into their first-year cornerstone design course, Introduction to Design. This activity was designed to physically immerse the students into the problem, versus simply showing them via observation (i.e. watching movies or video chatting with users). Prior to the implementation of the User Empathy Experience, students would rely on their imagination to gather the data needed for developing a solution. Now, these User Empathy Experiences can help to bridge the gap between imagining and feeling by having the students participate in fun, challenging, and unique activities designed to mimic what a user would experience in his or her own environment. Past experiences include becoming a wheelchair user in Africa, a bomb-diffusion team trekking across a landmine-ridden field in Cambodia, and an environmentalist attempting to remove vast amounts of debris from the ocean. Since inception, this exercise has morphed into a version in which students must go through the process of defining, creating, and executing their own experience.

This paper will detail the various approaches taken by, and research completed by, the Cornerstone program to implement User Empathy Experiences across a variety of first-year design course projects in order to increase the level of user empathy students achieve. In addition, the paper will also present strategies that other project-based design programs can use to create and implement their own User Empathy Experiences.

Mitchell, L., & Light, L. (2018, June), Increasing Student Empathy Through Immersive User Empathy Experiences in First-Year Design Education Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30651

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