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Measuring and Promoting Empathic Formation in a Multidisciplinary Engineering Design Course

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

ERM: Design!

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Paper Authors


Justin Hess Purdue University at West Lafayette (COE)

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Dr. Justin L Hess is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. His vision is to inspire change in engineering culture to become more socially responsive, environmentally friendly, and inclusive, thereby providing opportunities for all current and prospective engineers to reach their maximum potential. Dr. Hess’s research focuses on empathy, equity, and ethics in engineering education. He received his PhD from Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education, as well as a Master of Science and Bachelor of Science from Purdue University’s School of Civil Engineering. He is the 2022 division chair for the ASEE Liberal Education/Engineering and Society division; deputy director of research for the National Institute of Engineering Ethics; and the editorial board chair for the Online Ethics Center.

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Elizabeth Sanders Purdue University at West Lafayette (COE)

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Elizabeth A. Sanders is an Engineering Education Ph.D. student at Purdue University. She holds a B.S. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 2018) and an M.A. in Higher Education (University of Michigan, 2020).

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Nicholas Fila Iowa State University of Science and Technology

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Empathy is an important skill and disposition in engineering education but measuring and assessing empathy in specific engineering contexts is a novel domain of research. In this study, we iterated on a measure of empathy in engineering design. In this refined instrument, we measured and compared responses to the same set of survey items in different configurations. In the first configuration, we measured Cognitive Empathy and Affective Empathy across three design phases. In the second configuration, we retained the focus on Cognitive Empathy and Affective Empathy and variation across three design phases, but we also differentiated between self- and other- orientated empathy. An example construct in this second configuration is Imagine-Other Cognitive Empathy in Needfinding. To provide evidence of the trustworthiness of constructs, we computed Cronbach’s alpha as a measure of internal consistency reliability and identified Spearman correlations with four extant empathy constructs as a means of external validity. All constructs in the first configuration were reliable but several constructs in the second configuration were unreliable. However, many constructs in both configurations exhibited moderate to large correlations with four existing constructs. We found students exhibited significant changes in Cognitive Empathy in Needfinding, but students did not exhibit changes in affective or cognitive empathy in other design phases. However, by employing the second configuration, we found that students demonstrated significant and positive changes in Imagine-Other Cognitive Empathy in two design phases (Concept Generation and Solution Evaluation) while exhibiting no changes in Imagine-Self Cognitive Empathy. We also analyzed students’ written responses to an open-ended question pre/post-course. This analysis revealed that, after participating in this course, students: (1) situated users as the primary rationale for design work, (2) understood addressing users’ needs as critical to design work, and (3) exhibited broadened definitions about who (or what) constitutes a user. This work provides instructors with a means to assess students’ empathy with and for users in design and to more purposefully target students’ empathic development whilst accounting for engineering design phases.

Hess, J., & Sanders, E., & Fila, N. (2022, August), Measuring and Promoting Empathic Formation in a Multidisciplinary Engineering Design Course Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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