NSF EEC-RFE: The Empathy Project: An Interdisciplinary Research Effort to Develop a Transferable Theory of Empathy in Engineering (NSF #1463829)

Project’s NSF Page

NSF Project Outcomes Page

Investigators

Joachim Walther, Ph.D. - EETI Founding Director, Professor of Engineering Education
Nicola Sochacka, Ph.D. - EETI Associate Director for Research Initiation and Enablement

Shari Miller – Associate Professor in the School of Social Work, UGA

Grant Details

Funder: Division of Engineering Education and Centers, National Science Foundation
Amount:$339,746.00
Award number: 1463829
Start and End date:  August 2015 – July 2018

Abstract

The field of engineering will play a key role in addressing the complex, societal challenges of the 21st century that are characterized by technical aspects interwoven with social dimensions. In order for the profession to fully assume this expanding responsibility, universities and engineering educators are working towards transforming engineering programs so that they prepare students to effectively engage in these broad, multi-disciplinary challenges. This project contributes a crucial component to the social aspects of these qualifications through a focus on empathy that will allow future engineers to meaningfully consider social facets of engineering work, engage with a broad range of stakeholders, and understand the perspectives and needs of members of society. In this interdisciplinary educational research project, engineering education researchers are collaborating with social work education researchers. The field of social work contributes a longstanding history of purposefully developing empathy as part of students’ professional formation. The outcomes of this project will provide the evidence-base necessary to inform future efforts to broadly infuse empathy into engineering education.

Responding to a growing recognition of the socially situated nature of 21st century engineering challenges, scholars have begun to explore the role of empathy in preparing future engineers. However, the impact of these efforts is impeded by a lack of conceptual clarity and a dearth of evidence-based theory regarding the role of empathy in engineering. This project develops a transferable theory of empathy in engineering learning and professional formation. The inquiry leverages an interdisciplinary initiative that fosters an empathic orientation and skills in students as a window through which to investigate their broader experiences of empathy in engineering education contexts. The research builds on a prior pilot study and entails the collection of data in environmental and mechanical engineering design courses through classroom observations, focus groups, written reflections, and project artifacts. Narrative interviews are conducted to further explore students’ accounts as situated in their broader educational or life experiences. Data is analyzed using two complementary interpretive lenses. First, a constructivist grounded theory approach is used to develop a model of empathy formation in terms of its role in students’ overall educational experience and resultant impacts on their professional way of being. Second, a narrative analysis is used to contextualize these findings in students’ diverse lived experiences through the use of constructed narratives. In the long term, this project will enable the systemic, evidence-based integration of empathy into engineering programs – making the field accessible to a more diverse range of students and providing a more meaningful educational experience.

 

Publications

Sochacka, N. W., Walther, J., & Miller, S. E. & Youngblood, K. M. (2020). Facilitating Empathic Communication Modules in Undergraduate Engineering Education: A Handbook. Version 3, March 2020.

Sochacka, N. W., Youngblood, K. M., Walther, J., & Miller, S. E. (2020). A qualitative study of how mental models impact engineering students’ engagement with empathic communication exercises. Australasian Journal of Engineering Education, 1-12. doi:10.1080/22054952.2020.1832726

Sochacka, N. W., Delaine, D., Shepard, T., & Walther, J. (in press). Empathy Instruction through the Propagation Paradigm: A synthesis of developer and adopter accounts. Advances in Engineering Education.

Walther, J., Brewer, M. A., Sochacka, N. W., & Miller, S. E. (2020). Empathy and engineering formation. Journal of Engineering Education, 109(1), 11-33. doi:10.1002/jee.20301

Walther, J., Brewer, M. A., Sochacka, N. W., & Miller, S. E. (2020). Empathy and engineering formation. JOURNAL OF ENGINEERING EDUCATION, 109(1), 11-33. doi:10.1002/jee.20301

Youngblood, K. M., Sochacka, N. W., Walther, J., & Miller, S. E. (2019, December), How mental models impact students’ engagement with empathic communication exercises. Paper presented at 2019 AAEE Annual Conference, Brisbane, Queensland.

Sochacka, N. W., Walther, J., & Miller, S. E. (2018). Fostering Empathy in Engineering Education. Scientia, 119, 110-113.

Sochacka, N. W. & Walther, J. (2017). Educating empathic engineers. June 6, Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia.

Walther, J., Miller, S. E., & Sochacka, N. W. (2017). A model of empathy in engineering as a core skill, practice orientation, and professional way of being. Journal of Engineering Education, 106(1), 123-148.

Brewer, M. A., Sochacka, N. W., Walther, J., & Miller, S. E. (2017). How do students meaningfully interpret the role of empathy in engineering? A social phenomenological study. Paper presented at the Research in Engineering Education Symposium, Bogota, Columbia.

Walther, J., Sochacka, N. W., & Miller, S. E. (2017). Empathy in engineering: Why it’s important, and what we are doing about it. Paper presented at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Engineering Education and Centers (EEC) Grantees Conference, Washington D.C.

Walther, J., Sochacka, N. W., & Miller, S. E. (2017). Action on Diversity Webinar: Empathy in Engineering. American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Spring 2017 Webinar Series.

Walther, J., Miller, S. E., & Sochacka, N. W. (2016). Fostering empathy in an undergraduate mechanical engineering course. Proceedings of the 2016 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference and Exposition, New Orleans, LA.

Sochacka, N. W., Delaine, D., Shepard, T., & Walther, J. (under review). Empathy Instruction through the Propagation Paradigm: A synthesis of developer and adopter accounts. Advances in Engineering Education.

Sochacka, N. W., Youngblood, K. M., Walther, J., & Miller, S. E. (under review). A qualitative study of how mental models impact engineering students’ engagement with empathic communication exercises. The Australasian Journal of Engineering Education.




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