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Student Reflections on Sustainability and Empathy: The Outcomes of a Sustainability Workshop in First-year Design Courses

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Empathy and Human-centered Design 1

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Rohan Prabhu Pennsylvania State University Orcid 16x16

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Rohan Prabhu is a PhD Candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Penn State with a doctoral minor in Psychology. He holds a master's degree in Engineering Design and a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering. His research interests are to study designers' use of design for additive manufacturing in their creative problem-solving process. He is also studying the development of effective educational interventions on design for additive manufacturing to encourage student learning and use of these concepts in engineering design. More about Rohan's work is available at

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Elizabeth Marie Starkey Pennsylvania State University

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Elizabeth Starkey is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Penn State. Her research focuses on creativity during the design process and building tools to facilitate learning and creativity in engineering design education.

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Mohammad Alsager Alzayed Kuwait University

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Mohammad Alsager Alzayed is an Assistant Professor of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering at Kuwait University. He received his PhD in Industrial Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University in August 2020.. He received his M.S. in Industrial Engineering in 2017 and a B.S. in Industrial Engineering in 2017, all from the Pennsylvania State University. His research interests are in engineering education and human factors.

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Given the growing need for sustainability in engineering, there has been an increased emphasis on introducing sustainability in the engineering design curriculum. Towards this end, several researchers and educators have proposed educational initiatives for integrating sustainable design in the engineering design curriculum, as early as in the first year of study. However, these initiatives are only as successful as students’ ability to relate to the issues related to unsustainable behavior and take active measures towards these issues. Prior research has suggested the influence of empathy on designers’ ability to relate to the users’ needs. In the context of sustainable design, students must not only relate to the needs of the primary user but also empathize with those indirectly affected by their decisions. However, little research has explored the influence of students’ trait empathy on the outcomes of sustainable design education and we aim to explore this research gap. Specifically, we introduced first-year engineering students to a two-day workshop on sustainable design approximately three-quarters of the way through their semester-long design project. At the end of the semester, students were asked to reflect on the utility of the workshop towards both, empathizing with the user, and designing sustainable solutions, in their semester-long projects. From our results, we see an increase in students’ attitudes and intentions towards sustainability from before the workshop to the end of the semester. On the other hand, we see no differences in students’ trait empathy. A qualitative analysis of students’ reflections showed that students had a positive experience with the sustainability workshop and that they were more inclined to incorporate sustainable design practices into their project after participating in the workshop. These findings suggest the need for future work on the role of empathy development in encouraging a sustainable design mindset among engineering designers.

Prabhu, R., & Starkey, E. M., & Alsager Alzayed, M. (2021, July), Student Reflections on Sustainability and Empathy: The Outcomes of a Sustainability Workshop in First-year Design Courses Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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