Nicola Sochacka and colleagues at the University of Georgia began teaching empathic communication within core engineering courses more than 5 years ago. As the team has researched the theory, pedagogy, and effectiveness of this work, they have become convinced that empathy is an important skill for engineers.
“Empathy helps us build better relationships and better relationships equal better outcomes,” Sochacka said. “We see empathy as one of the skills that is necessary to identify the different features of a complex problem.”
Sochacka and colleagues developed four 75-minute communication modules and incorporated them into a mandatory mechanical engineering course called “Engineered Systems in Society.” They then practiced applying the principles from the modules in work on case studies
For instance, in a case study on the Dakota Access Pipeline, students were assigned specific stakeholders and asked to learn about their viewpoints through research and interviews with at least two members of the group. Stakeholders included oil companies, Native Americans, the Army Corps of Engineers, environmental conservation groups, and others. When students presented their findings in class, 8 of the 9 groups fully supported their stakeholders’ perspectives.
“Students empathized strongly with their stakeholder groups,” Sochacka said. “That was an indication of the power of empathy. When you dig into someone’s perspective, you can really understand them.”
The class then worked together, bringing all perspectives to bear, and reached consensus on what they thought would have been the best resolution to the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
“As an engineer, you need to have good relationships with your clients, with other stakeholders – what’s referred to as ‘the public’ in the code of ethics for engineers. I also think it is important to have a good relationship with the natural environment,” Sochacka said.
Sochacka and her colleagues have developed a resource for faculty called Facilitating Empathetic Communication Modules in Undergraduate Engineering Education: A Handbook.
“At the moment we are working on propagating these modules to other universities across the country, and by propagating I don’t mean ‘take this and do exactly this’ – I mean we work closely with people to build a shared understanding of the underlying theory and learning outcomes but what is actually done in class might look very different,” she said. She gave an example of helping a professor at another university adapt the modules for a fluid mechanics class.
Sochacka hopes to see a greater emphasis on empathic communication in schools of engineering. “Yes, solving problems and collecting data is important, but there are other ways to communicate and one of those ways is empathically.”