July 26, 2021
July 26, 2021
July 19, 2022
Pre-College Engineering Education
Background: Recent research and policy shifts in engineering education have argued that empathy is a core skill that engineering students must cultivate in order to identify, understand, and scope complex problems with social and ethical implications (Walther et al., 2020; Hynes & Swenson, 2013). Reframing engineering education to emphasize empathy can also offer more inclusive introductions into the field for girls, who remain underrepresented and are more engaged in the engineering design process when solving problems to help others (Capobianco & Yu, 2014). Yet, few studies have examined the role that empathy plays in supporting girls’ engagement with the engineering design process at the pre-college level. In this study, we drew on research in psychology and neuroscience, which defines empathy as a multifaceted process that includes emotional, cognitive, and prosocial responses (Decety & Jackson, 2000), to develop methods for observing empathy and its relations to engineering practices among girls ages 7-14.
Research approach: This design-based research project involved testing six engineering activities that used narratives to evoke learners’ empathy for the users of their designs (e.g., designing something to care for a pet, help a grandparent, or protect an astronaut landing on a planet). Participants included 245 girls (ages 7-14) who participated in the activities in a science center in the US. We used open-coding of field notes from the first three activities to determine how facets of empathy identified in the literature (emotional, cognitive, and prosocial) were expressed in girls’ verbal and nonverbal behaviors, and how these behaviors related to specific engineering practices (e.g., problem scoping, ideation, testing, iteration) (Moore et al., 2014). We then iteratively revised this set of indicators by using them to guide observations and interviews in subsequent activities, refining definitions as needed to obtain interobserver agreement, and discussing emerging findings with researchers, advisors, and activity developers. The final set of indicators was then used to recode the entire dataset (obtaining interrater reliability of over 85%), and to guide an external summative evaluation.
Results: Empathy indicators developed through this process included: emotional expressions of compassion and concern for the users of one’s designs; cognitive perspective-taking, evidenced by imagining how someone might use one’s designs; prosocial responses, evidenced by verbally expressing a desire to help others or taking action to ensure others’ comfort or safety through their design decisions; and calling upon familiar experiences to understand the problems others were facing or solutions that would help. Both our analyses and the summative evaluation showed that expressing these empathy indicators deepened girls’ engagement in engineering practices, particularly problem scoping and iteration, by promoting user-centered thinking (Authors, under review).
Implications: This research bridges disciplines to understand how 7-14-year-old girls express empathy within the engineering design process. By providing tools for capturing both empathy and engineering practices in this age group, this work could allow educators and researchers to design interventions that are targeted toward the intersections between these two processes, resulting in more inclusive approaches to engineering education that invite girls to tackle socially relevant problems.
Letourneau, S. M., & Bennett, D., & Liu, C. J., & Argudo, Y., & Peppler, K., & Keune, A., & Dahn, M., & Culp, K. M. (2021, July), Observing Empathy in Informal Engineering Activities with Girls Ages 7-14 (RTP, Diversity) Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. https://peer.asee.org/37531
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