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Acknowledging the Gap in Higher Education: The Importance of Empathy in Engineering Majors



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In the context of a political environment in which many citizens believe that their concerns are not being considered nor understood by their elected representatives, the presence or lack of empathy among those leaders is frequently questioned.  Empathy, which refers to the ability to experience the values, feelings and perceptions of another, is needed to engage with the subtle complexities of current issues of social responsibility regarding sustainability and global affairs (Stover, 2005). However, despite the importance of this capacity, current educators and education practices do a poor job of encouraging the development of empathy in college students. This essay acknowledges and explores that gap in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines particularly.

The need to instill empathy, a foundational antecedent to developing a sense of social responsibility regarding sustainability and global affairs in college students, does not change during a student’s (typical) four years of undergraduate higher education. Nonetheless, students often evidence a decline in their sense of social responsibility with decreases in their volunteering and community engagement activities as their college years unfold (Bielefeldt and Canney, 2016). Furthermore, while STEM degrees have become incrementally more common for both men and women during the last decade (U.S. News, 2018), when assessing levels of empathy among college students as measured by the four subscales of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index—perspective taking, fantasy, empathic distress and empathic concern—students pursuing degrees in these fields demonstrate lower levels of empathy than their peers completing majors in other disciplines such as health care, social sciences or the humanities (Rasoal, Danielsson, and Jungert, 2012).

In any case and paradoxically, engineering majors are asked to empathize more and more in their daily professional activities, in both technical and social tasks (National Academy of Engineering, 2013). Engineers routinely engage with multiple stakeholders, design for future users, develop plans for sustainable projects, review the work of colleagues, report technical and administrative tasks to their superiors and inform the general population of their actions and findings, among other tasks. To tackle these challenges, engineers require social capacities beyond their technical expertise, including empathy, communication skills and comfort with interdisciplinary teamwork (Walther, Miller and Sochacka, 2017).

However, while recent years have seen publication of a range of research articles and books addressing empathy, there is still little research concerning the connections between engineering, and education to and for empathy (Strobel, Hess, Pan, and Wachter Morris, 2013). The need to explore this relationship has nonetheless been highlighted by a number of studies. For example, the National Research Council considered the concern in its influential report, Educating the Engineer 2020, in which it argued that engineering education programs needed to move towards more holistic pedagogical approaches, including ensuring that students work more directly on issues of contextual design, securing multiple stakeholder engagement, practicing interdisciplinary communications and considering social sustainability issues, among other concerns (Vest, 2005).

An analysis published in the Journal of Engineering Studies found that participating engineers agreed that empathy is a needed skill in their daily jobs, while faculty members interviewed for the same study could not agree whether empathy should be an add-on to their current educational efforts or instead was an inherent and necessary characteristic of the discipline and profession, thereby not requiring changes in existing curricula (Strobel et al., 2013). While the authors of this analysis described this tension, they also emphasized that their respondents shared the view that empathy was essential for engineering education and practice.

The ability to understand another person’s perspective, that is, to empathize, is critical to the development of stronger ties and understanding among individuals. Empathy is therefore, unlike in the United States, a core value in the United Kingdom’s guiding principles for teaching in engineering (Joint Board of Moderators, 2013). Faculty in Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands also have highlighted empathy as a desired characteristic for working in the design industry and in public administration (Segalas, Ferrer-Balas and Mulder, 2008). Empathy can help individuals understand others more deeply, to become more aware of the broader impacts of their statements and actions, build more trusting relationships, improve teamwork and, more generally, encourage more robust and successful communication and interaction (Hess, Strobel and Pan, 2016). Indeed, analysts have measured all of these attributes or capabilities by means of  the leading rating system for sustainable infrastructure in the United States, called Envision (“EnvisionTM Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System,” 2012).

Efforts to integrate empathy purposefully into pedagogies for STEM majors continue to grow (Rasoal et al., 2012). Studies have attributed multiple positive outcomes resulting from such initiatives including,  ensuring improved understanding of others, deepening awareness of broader project impacts, encouraging open-mindedness, building relationships, improving teamwork, securing more effective communication and interaction, improved design value and heightened awareness of contextual impacts (Hess et al., 2016). These findings have prompted a growing shift in current STEM field pedagogical practices away from more pedantic teaching methods to more student-centered and experiential learning strategies.

Faculty members educating STEM majors are increasingly adopting the view that helping students develop empathetic imagination is vitally important to their personal and professional development. However, despite the benefits of empathy and of student-centered pedagogical approaches that encourage it, research in this area remains largely undeveloped (Walther et al., 2017). Past analyses have found that engineering students evidence lower levels of empathy than other college students (Rasoal et al., 2012). Meanwhile, the National Research Council has, for more than a decade, stressed the need for more holistic education for STEM majors, including engineers. The Council has argued that  providing opportunities for such students to work directly on issues of contextual design, efforts to secure community engagement, to develop interdisciplinary communication capacities and to consider the challenge of social sustainability are critical to their development as competent professionals (Vest, 2005). Although, as noted above, voluntary community engagement among engineering students in college has declined in recent years, past analyses have found that engaging with residents concerning project design and implementation can lead to improved ability to empathize with others (Bielefeldt and Canney, 2016).

In this time of aversion to diversity among a share of the nation’s population, educators should be the first to highlight the rich insights that can arise from seeking to understand others and from collaborating with others who may think or act differently as a result of specific cultural backgrounds. Teaching empathy and encouraging its integration into engineering and other STEM-related disciplines’ professional practice can surely make a difference over time in building more caring citizenries and nations.


Bielefeldt, A. R., and Canney, N. E. (2016). “Changes in the Social Responsibility Attitudes of Engineering Students Over Time.” Science and Engineering Ethics, 22(5), 1535–1551.

EnvisionTM Sustainable Infrastructure Rating System. (2012). Retrieved May 5, 2013, from

Frascara, J. (2003). Design and the Social Sciences: Making Connections. CRC Press.

Hess, J. L., Strobel, J., and Pan, R. (2016). “Voices from the workplace: Practitioners’ perspectives on the role of empathy and care within engineering.” Engineering Studies, 8(3), 212–242.

Joint Board of Moderators. (2013). “Degree Guidelines Annex C,” Sustainability. Retrieved from

National Academy of Engineering. (2013). NAE Grand Challenges For Engineering (p. 56). Retrieved from

Rasoal, C., Danielsson, H., and Jungert, T. (2012). “Empathy among students in engineering programmes.” European Journal of Engineering Education, 37(5), 427–435.

Segalas, J., Ferrer-Balas, D., and Mulder, K. F. (2008). “Conceptual maps: measuring learning processes of engineering students concerning sustainable development.” European Journal of Engineering Education, 33(3), 297–306.

Stover, W. J. (2005). “Teaching and learning empathy: An interactive, online diplomatic simulation of middle east conflict.” Journal of Political Science Education, 1(2), 207–219.

Strobel, J., Hess, J., Pan, R., and Wachter Morris, C. A. (2013). “Empathy and care within engineering: Qualitative perspectives from engineering faculty and practicing engineers.” Engineering Studies, 5(2), 137–159.

U.S. News (2018). “More Students Earning STEM Degrees.” Retrieved Nov 1, 2018, from

Vest, C. M. (2005). Educating engineers for 2020 and beyond. National Academy of Engineering. Retrieved from &dq=National+Research+Council+addresses+in+Educating+the+Engineer+2020&ots=oaXsJMvQqM&sig=4LHcYM9Xsi1ZAZaxUgkDkcugsns

Walther, J., Miller, S. E., and Sochacka, N. W. (2017). “A model of empathy in engineering as a core skill, practice orientation, and professional way of being.” Journal of Engineering Education, 106(1), 123–148.


MiguelAndres Guerra

MiguelAndrés is a doctoral candidate in Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech. His research interests include sustainable infrastructure design and planning, smart and resilient cities, and the development of engineers who not only have strong technical and practical knowledge but the social awareness and agency to address global humanitarian, environmental, and social justice challenges.

MiguelAndrés earned a Master of Science degree as a Fulbright scholar in civil engineering at Iowa State University. His undergraduate studies were in civil engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador. At USFQ he taught full-time, advised students, led thesis projects, and directed community involvement projects. He also worked in the construction industry for three years as the Director of the Planning, Design, and Construction Department of a land and infrastructure development company.

Currently, MiguelAndrés uses qualitative methods to understand risk aversion among civil engineers and explores a phenomenon of citizen-led urban prototyping to change risk perceptions. Furthermore, he is working on developing a decision support framework for disaster response, assessing engineering students’ agency to address climate change, and teaching empathy studies in engineering and higher education. For him, social justice is a concept that should always be involved in discussions on infrastructure.


Vanessa Guerra

Vanessa Guerra is a PhD candidate in Environmental Design and Planning at the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Researcher at the Global Forum for Urban Regional Resilience (GFURR) and DE Lab Decision Engineering for Sustainable Infrastructure. Her work focus on urban interventions as potential contributions to poverty reduction and sustainable development. Her research interests include informal urbanism, sustainable transport, spatial justice and urban inequality. She has presented her work in several conferences across the United States, the United Kingdom and South America, and has spoken at a TEDx event in Quito-Ecuador and at Cityworks (Xpo) in Roanoke. Prior to Virginia Tech, Vanessa worked as a project architect, participated with the University of Melbourne-Australia in the project “How Sustainable Transport Networks Build Great Cities” at Munich and Zurich, and taught at USFQ University in Quito-Ecuador, where she also coordinated the seminar “Ecuador towards Habitat III.”

Publication Date

November 16, 2018