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Engineering Empathy

By Melanie Holland, CEI Intern.

Educators at every level of schooling’”from Pre-K to Higher Education’”benefit from including lessons that either incorporate or revolve around the concept and practice of empathy. Empathy is frequently posited as one step ‘past’ sympathy’”you not only can acknowledge the emotions of another person, but you can step into their shoes to the degree that you can feel the emotions they are feeling.

David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder and chairman of IDEO, a global design firm that takes a human-centered approach, as well as the founder of Stanford’s His advice to Dartmouth graduates stems both from his work experiences, as well as the results of a recent study out of Rice University that analyzed empathy and emotions in engineering graduates. The survey of more than 300 students’”at the beginning of their program, and then 18 months after they graduated’”showed that engineering majors actually become less empathetic over the course of their studies. Kelley believes that the ‘culture of disengagement’ that grows hand in hand with an engineering education hinders technological advancements.


Almost no engineering schools incorporate or consider empathizing behaviors, and many believe the lack of empathy deters females from seeking an engineering career. In 2012, women accounted for only 18.9% of given bachelor’s degrees in engineering. In general, men show greater systemizing behavior: the drive to analyze a system and understand its behavior. Women show greater empathizing behavior: the capacity to predict people’s behavior by inferring their mental states. Of course, these are only general psychological standards. But, shifting the culture of engineering to incorporate empathy will not only make room for more human-centered designs, but could also attract more women to the field of engineering.

If you are a K-12 educator interested in more consciously incorporating Empathy into your classroom, Ashoka, a nonprofit that focuses on social innovation, initiated a Start Empathy initiative that provides a ‘road map’ that will be a great starting point for this goal.

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