Observing Empathy in Informal Engineering Activities with Girls Ages 7–14
Empathy is a critical part of the engineering design process. It allows engineers to more deeply understand their clients’ perspectives and design solutions that meet the needs of diverse stakeholders. Studies also show that reframing engineering education to prioritize empathy for others can counteract stereotypes of engineering as impersonal and invite a wider range of identities into the field. This approach can help to address persistent gender disparities in engineering, which reflect a need for engineering education to increase its efforts to include girls’ perspectives. Informal learning environments have developed strategies for framing engineering problems in human-centered ways, but more evidence is needed about how children express empathy during engineering design tasks and how expressions of empathy intersect with and support specific engineering design practices in these settings.
The present study involved the development of observational methods for documenting empathy within museum-based engineering activities among girls ages 7–14. Engineering activities used elements of narratives (characters, settings, and problem frames) to prompt learners to think about who they were designing for and why. Data included observations and interviews with 245 girls, and iterative cycles of coding and qualitative analyses to develop a set of observable indicators of empathy and engineering design practices. Indicators defined how multiple facets of empathy were expressed (affective, cognitive, and prosocial, as well as connections to familiar personal experiences) based on theoretical understandings of empathy and its development. Final coding of the dataset with these indicators showed that girls’ expressions of empathy supported multiple engineering design practices as learners defined problems to solve, and as they generated and iterated solutions with the needs of others in mind. We describe connections between individual facets of empathy and specific engineering practices and discuss implications for practice within formal and informal settings.
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