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Teaching Freshmen Empathy through a Health Inequity Design Challenge

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Middle Atlantic ASEE Section Spring 2021 Conference



Publication Date

April 9, 2021

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April 9, 2021

End Date

April 10, 2021

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Eileen Haase PhD The Johns Hopkins University

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BS ESM Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
MS EE Johns Hopkins University
PhD Biomedical Engineering, Johns Hopkins University

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“Health inequities are differences in health status or in the distribution of health resources between different population groups, arising from the social conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. Health inequities are unfair and could be reduced by the right mix of government policies” (1). Freshmen (n=111) in a two-credit biomedical engineering course were given this WHO definition their very first day of class and told to research five examples of health inequity, citing their sources. Guided by an upper classmen lab manager, freshmen worked together in teams of five on a semester-long Health Inequity Design Challenge. Throughout the semester, students heard lectures from guest speakers and clinicians on a variety of topics relating to health inequity and/or the design process including: Health Inequity in the Emergency Room, the Design Process, Empathy in Design, Ethics in Engineering Design, Ensuring Diversity in Clinical Trials, Social Justice, and Entrepreneurship. Freshmen had periodic individual and team deliverables, finishing with a prototype and oral presentation. Students were also required to read two case studies in ethics and prepare for an hour-long discussion with a faculty mentor (2,3). Anonymous end-of-semester surveys (with IRB approval) indicate that 98% of students strongly agree (60%) or agree (38%) that: “The Health Inequity project helped me to understand both an injustice within our society and how to apply the design process to solve a need. The deliverables for the Health Inequity project (elevator pitch, design criteria, final presentation, etc.) required both teamwork and professional skills.” Many of the final projects were phone-based apps, due, in part, to the pandemic, but also to the nature of the problems. Students also used their send-home Arduino kits to develop prototypes and/or took advantage of their own 3-D printers to build and test their initial device. Our results, both survey data and students’ comments, indicate that the course raised students’ consciousness of the issue of health inequity. Teams were provided infrastructure and guidance through a series of guest speakers, individual assignments, and a team design challenge. The team aspect of the project, especially in an online freshmen class taught during a pandemic, made students feel engaged with their classmates by discussing and developing solutions for an issue they felt passionate about improving. Emphasizing the importance of ethics in an introductory freshmen engineering course provides a foundation for designing with empathy.

(1) World Health Organization ( (2) AMA Journal of Ethics, January 2020 on “Culture, Context, and Epidemic Containment” (3) National Institute of Health Annual Review of Ethics (Case Studies)

Haase, E. (2021, April), Teaching Freshmen Empathy through a Health Inequity Design Challenge Paper presented at Middle Atlantic ASEE Section Spring 2021 Conference, Virtual . 10.18260/1-2--36322

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