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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.


The inclusion of empathy in education is infrequent, and when it is included, it is targeted to liberal arts subjects like history or social sciences. Empathy is almost never incorporated into STEM-related programs or career paths, especially in higher education. With this in mind, the advice given by David Kelley to the 2014 Class of Engineering at Dartmouth at their graduation ceremony seemed to come from left field’…’Empathize.’

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 d.school. 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.


Kelley provides the example of Doug Dietz, a designer for GE whom developed numerous technologically successful MRI and CT machines. After taking a design course through Kelley’s d.school program, Doug went to a hospital to observe his machine in progress. Much to his surprise (but not to any of us who have been in these machines as children or young people), children were terrified of the machines to the point that nurses had to sedate many young patients just to get them into the machines. Doug then decided to redesign his machines with an “adventure series” that turned scary machines into submarines, tents, and pirate ships. This design allows children relax and take an adventure during an otherwise stressful experience.

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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