Empathy, Engineering and Girls (Fundamental)
Women’s participation in engineering remains consistently underrepresented. Mechanical engineering, the discipline with the highest percentage of engineering graduates, has approximately 25,000 graduates per year, with only 10.9% of all mechanical engineering employment engaged by women; Civil Engineering and Electrical Engineering, which holds approximately the second and third most Bachelors of engineering degrees, with approximately 12,500 graduates per year each, has 14.8% and 9.4% of all employment apportioned to women (Roy; Bureau of Labor Statistics). The need for establishing a critical mass of women and the need to evolve engineering cultural norms are consistently reported as an antidote to the low participation of women in the engineering workforce (Greed; Seymour & Hewitt). This case study investigates a potential mechanism for shifting engineering cultural norms with the integration of empathy in engineering; this may also be a springboard for cultural change and the development of a critical mass of women in an engineering. This study employs a well-established informal engineering education program which has educated over 4000 young women over a continuous 20-year period. Program curriculum developers focus on methods which guide students to learn more about engineering, to creatively solve engineering design problems, to connect their personal interests to engineering and to guide learners to envision the potential that these skills have in their future careers. This study spotlights how the engineering experience is markedly different for these young women when empathy is the unifying cornerstone from which all engineering design experiences flow.
Recent research findings on empathy and engineering points to the necessity of pairing empathy with engineering, including empathy needed for emotional intelligence in engineering design, the necessity of empathy for product design and the need for empathy as an essential skill in engineering project management. Additionally, the use of empathy in the school years is well established for success in multiple modes, including in an inclusive learning culture and as a basis for teamwork. Yet under explored is how different populations of students may more fully embrace engineering design as a problem solving strategy and engineering as a potential career path when empathy and engineering are paired.
The research questions this study address are twofold: to what extent does building empathy influence student internal motivation to appreciate engineering and to what extent may appreciation be deep enough to orient career ambitions towards engineering? The research methodology is mixed methods and employs triangulation of data collection with pre and post survey data, observations and interviews. Data from this study points to the strong disposition towards empathy that participants hold. And qualitative thematic analysis is consistent across observations and interviews. Fully explored within the study is the degree to which empathy influenced learners’ motivation in employing engineering design, learning more about engineering and potentially pursuing engineering. Additionally, innovations developed in this low stakes environment may lead to teaching tools which may transfer into traditional classroom settings.
Bureau of Labor Statics. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population. Downloaded from https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm on September 1, 2019.
Greed, C. (2000). Women in the construction professions: Achieving critical mass. Gender,
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Roy, J. (2019) Engineering by the Numbers. Profiles of Engineering & Engineering Technology.
Washington D.C. American Society for Engineering Education.
Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the
sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
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