Using narratives to evoke empathy and support girls’ engagement in engineering
Reframing engineering activities to emphasize the needs of others has the potential to strengthen engineering practices like problem scoping, while also providing more inclusive and socially relevant entry points into engineering problems. In a three-year design-based research project, we developed novel strategies for adding narratives to engineering activities to deepen girls’ engagement in engineering practices by evoking empathy for the users of their designs. In this article, we describe a set of hands-on engineering activities developed through iterative development and testing with 190 girls (ages 7-14) at the New York Hall of Science. Findings show how elements of narrative (like characters and settings) evoked learners’ empathy, and how learners’ expressions of empathy related to practices like problem scoping and iteration. A set of design principles summarizes critical features of the narrative activities for evoking empathy and supporting the engineering design process. Finally, we offer recommendations for practitioners who would like to use narratives to engage learners in approaching engineering problems from a user-centered perspective. This work has implications for the development of inclusive and engaging engineering activities that appeal to elementary and middle school learners in a wide range of settings.