Cristi Bell-Huff, right, works with a student during class. Bell-Huff wants to understand how engineering educators can foster empathy in their students and is taking the first steps through a National Science Foundation-sponsored research project examining learning activities in five core classes in the Coulter Department. (Photo: Walter Rich)
Empathy is at the foundation of the engineering design process. Before they can create solutions, engineers must assess the needs of the people they’re trying to help. That requires an understanding of the experiences and perspectives of others.
A few years ago, Cristi Bell-Huff was teaching sophomore design at Lawrence Technological University and asking her students to create assistive technologies for people with disabilities. It struck her how important empathy was for the students to really be effective, so she created exercises to help foster empathy skills.
Ever since, she’s been thinking about engineers and empathy — engineering students are taught how to collect customer or user perspectives to inform their designs, but that seemed somehow incomplete.
“Once I started digging into it, research shows there are multiple dimensions to empathy. Perspective-taking is one of those dimensions, but there's also this idea of experience sharing — sharing people's emotions — and there's another piece about caring, being moved to act to help someone,” Bell-Huff said. “If all we're doing is engaging in the cognitive perspective-taking piece of it, we're doing a disservice to our students, because we need our engineers to be moved to action.”
Bell-Huff wants to understand how engineering educators can foster all three of those dimensions of empathy in their students so they’re ready to tackle the global grand challenges and complex health problems they will encounter. She’s taking the first steps this year in a National Science Foundation-supported project examining learning activities in five core classes in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, where Bell-Huff is a lecturer and director of faculty and student training.
The idea is to talk to faculty members, collect pre- and post-course surveys from students, look at the projects students complete, and talk to students about their work, Bell-Huff said.
“We really want to understand which learning activities foster empathy,” she said, “and if they do foster empathy, what construct of empathy — is it mostly just about perspective-taking or are we getting into some emotion sharing?”
Bell-Huff said that students no doubt have knowledge about empathy — even if it’s not explicitly called that — but the key is converting that knowledge into action. That’s where she thinks the Department’s story-driven learning initiatives will be particularly effective.
“My thought is that story-driven learning is going to be the kind of thing that could foster that whole construct of empathy: You hear somebody's story, you share in their emotions, you feel the urge to comfort them or encourage them. You feel moved to act,” Bell-Huff said. “So, I want to compare all of our learning activities to that of story-driven learning as well and see.”
Teaching empathy to engineering students is more than design thinking, too. It’s a skill essential to working in teams, collaborating with others, and exercising leadership — experiences common across engineering curriculum and practice.
What’s more, it’s a skill on the decline. A University of Michigan study found students in the early 2000s had 40% less empathy than students in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“That's alarming for engineers,” Bell-Huff said. “Our profession is supposed to be technical excellence and service to society. You solve problems to help people. If we're losing empathy levels, we're losing that part of the profession, that service to society.”