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Infusing Empathy Into Engineering Design: Supporting Under-represented Student Interest and Sense of Belongingness

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Action on Diversity - Disability Experiences & Empathy

Tagged Topics

Diversity and ASEE Diversity Committee

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Paper Authors


Henriette D Burns Washington State University, Vancouver

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Henriette is retired engineer and has worked at Johnson & Johnson, Abbott Labs, Baxter Labs, Tenneco, Monsanto, Frucon Construction, SC Johnson Wax and HP as a manufacturing engineer, a design engineer and a project manager. She holds an engineering degree from Northwestern University, an MBA from University of Oregon and a MiT from Washington State University where she is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Math/Science Education. Henriette’s research agenda is unveiling and understanding the identity of non-typical STEM bound students; especially girls in engineering, through interest, belongingness and recognition by promoting empathy-based projects in instruction and practice.

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Kristin Lesseig Washington State University Vancouver

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Kristin Lesseig is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education in the College of Education at Washington State University Vancouver. She earned her PhD at Oregon State University and currently teaches elementary and secondary mathematics content and methods courses as well as doctoral level courses focused on research in mathematics and science learning at WSUV. Kristin’s research focuses on mathematical knowledge for teaching proof and the design of professional learning experiences that can support teachers’ ability to promote mathematical reasoning in middle and high school classrooms. Kristin served as principal investigator on a 3-year Math Science Partnership grant designed to support middle grades teachers in implementing STEM Design Challenges aligned with CCSSM and NGSS content and practice standards and continues to collaborate on STEM-related projects.

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In our Work-In-Progress Study we explored the influence of empathy-based lessons on student interest and their sense of belongingness in an urban middle school that offered a mixed-gender after-school science club program. These are the preliminary results of that study. This is part of a larger mixed method study that utilized STEM interest surveys, observations, interviews, and focus groups. Girls, women and minorities remain under-represented among students and within the workforce of STEM. Numerous studies suggest affects, like identity, interest and belongingness, rather than ability, are responsible for the overall lack of diversity in advanced degrees or employment in STEM fields. Results from our previous study at an urban middle school indicated girls are interested in life sciences and other empathic, social topics rather than the more analytical areas like physics, computer and mechanical engineering. This is problematic since physics, for example, is considered a gateway to engineering. One method to improve the inclusion of affects in STEM is to fully utilize an engineering design process which begins with empathy. A focus on empathy may broaden the perspective of and more fully engage the designer with human aspects of the problem. So far, the study indicated empathy-based lessons influence both girls' and boys sense of belongingness and interest in STEM, especially in engineering. These findings may have implications for how to predict STEM interest, and improve persistence and self-efficacy in schools and in the workplace. We hope to offer the educator instructional methods to infuse empathy into engineering design lessons.This embrace of empathy in STEM education may validate the interests of diverse students and improve their sense of belongingness. A more socio-technical viewpoint in STEM education could provide diverse students an opportunity to showcase their unique funds of knowledge, improve their STEM agency and obtain a seat at the STEM table. It may also improve the reputation of STEM, especially engineering, as more approachable and caring professions.

Burns, H. D., & Lesseig, K. (2017, June), Infusing Empathy Into Engineering Design: Supporting Under-represented Student Interest and Sense of Belongingness Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28529

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