Exploring Social Justice, Empathy and Engineering Pedagogy (March 2021)
How can best practices in community engagement improve engineering, and what does engineering have to do with justice? Engineering professor David Delaine and the Inclusive Community-Based Learning lab (iCBL) at The Ohio State University (OSU) is exploring these questions in a reciprocal partnership with community member Paula Nabrit and her family at the Charles Madison Nabrit Community Garden in Columbus, Ohio.
“The partnership is pursuing social justice outcomes for a local, predominantly Black community by providing access to healthy food in a food insecure neighborhood and by creating opportunities for neighborhood youth to be exposed to STEM education,” Delaine said. “The partnership also supports University outcomes by providing the context for a service-learning based course, supported by an OSU partner in this work, Dr. Chris Ratcliff, and serving as a platform for data collection and research.”
The iCBL defines a reciprocal partnership as one where the parties benefit mutually from the needs addressed and actions taken within service learning. Delaine hopes that research and theory can better inform how to develop and maintain reciprocal partnerships in engineering in the context of community-based learning. The goal is to promote understanding of how engineering and injustice intersect on an everyday level and as a pedagogy for cultivating empathy in engineering students.
“I recognized that education, and perhaps especially higher education, has a duty to more broadly disseminate and share what it does, the resources that it has, and the ways it can promote better lives for people through education,” Delaine said. “But often when institutions leave their walls, they do so, intentionally or unintentionally, in ways that maintain their authority. There are new models that promote more equitable ways of doing this, mostly coming out of the community engagement literature.”
In addition to developing more reciprocal and equitable partnerships, Delaine is also interested in building on others’ research on empathy in engineering to explore whether empathy could be explicitly taught in community-based learning.
“The assets that the pedagogy brings align well with the concept of what empathy is and how it is valuable in engineering,” Delaine said. “Our quantitative results indicate that community-based learning is a valuable platform for developing skills in empathy.” They found that service learning, naturally an effective way to develop empathy, was even more effective when empathy was taught directly in context.
In addition to the community garden, the iCBL has partnered and conducted research in an international service-learning project, efforts with the OSU Humanitarian Engineering Scholars Program, a K-12 outreach program with the OSU chapters of the National Society of Black Engineersand Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and through the Toy Adaptation Program in the College of Engineering at OSU. By looking at curricular, co-curricular, and volunteer initiatives, the lab is assessing learning outcomes and effectiveness in a variety of contexts. A common thread in the iCBL work is helping engineering students develop a professional identity with a sense of meaning that is geared toward good work.
“I don’t believe that anything is 100% technical. We are humans. As engineers we do things that are relevant towards society. Even the most technical-seeming task will have ramifications and implications on all of us,” Delaine said. “We live in a world where equity has always been a challenge. Equity has often been foregone for capital gains and the gains of a few. Without centering elements of justice, without teaching engineers and all professions the ways in which their work intersects with considerations of justice and equity, we are leaving blind spots with respect to the to the potential good and the harm embedded within our work.”
Interested in learning more? Watch this video presentation by David Delaine on the work of the iCBL.
Moral Moments in Medicine (February 2021)
This year, a group of 40 students and 16 faculty in the Schools of Medicine and Nursing at Duke are participating in Moral Moments in Medicine: Pandemics, Race, Social Justice, a new course hosted by the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine in collaboration with The Purpose Project at Duke, the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and the Center for Interprofessional Education and Care. Over eight months, healthcare trainees and clinicians from the School of Medicine’s Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), and Physician Assistant (PA) programs and the School of Nursing’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program are bringing the resources of medical humanities and ethics to bear on how they navigate the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism.
“The pandemic has revealed massive fissures in our current society, and also gives us an opportunity to re-examine the status quo with new eyes,” says Sneha Mantri, MD, MS, who co-directs the course with Trent Center Director, Jeff Baker, MD, PhD.
Participants engage in one of six different monthly small groups organized around themes such as “Voices in Pandemic: Stories of Resistance and Social Justice,” “Epidemics, Disparities, and History,” and “Artistic Connections in Times of Trial.” Each group is co-led by two or more faculty. Students also participate in medical humanities lectures, narrative exercises, book clubs, and film discussions related to the course themes.
In January, one book club spent an evening in conversation with Duke physician Damon Tweedy, exploring the issues raised by his award-winning memoir Black Man in a White Coat.
For Baker, who is a pediatrician and medical historian, this kind of deep engagement demonstrates what the humanities can bring to conversations about race and social justice.
“Students rightly want to ‘do something,’” he says. “Yet when I speak to community members, they always tell me we need to listen before we act.”
This spring, if pandemic infection rates and protocols allow, the group plans to take “walks through social history” around Durham to see and hear how health disparities have manifested at the local level.
History and the humanities, according to Baker, help form us into better listeners. By becoming the sorts of people capable of listening in these ways, health professionals and trainees can discover deeper purpose in their daily work and so contribute both to the practice of healthcare and to our common life together.
Baker, Mantri, and others in the Trent Center are working to create an ecology of educational opportunities designed to form health professionals and trainees in the habits of listening well to long-silenced individuals and communities. The collaborative approach of Moral Moments in Medicine will be a cornerstone of this work as it expands into a longitudinal curriculum bridging the Schools of Medicine and Nursing. In this way, the course has been a catalyst for foregrounding questions of character and purpose in professional formation.
An Engineering Prototype for Life (January 2021)
This spring, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California is offering two new courses to help engineering students apply their technical skills toward thinking about issues of purpose, vocation and the sort of lives they want to live.
Sophomores in the new “Prototyping Your Mudd” course will use the engineering design process to map out a plan for the rest of their college experience, and explore topics such as the purpose of college and how to tailor the engineering major.
Seniors in the “Prototyping Your Future Self” course will use the same process to design their lives and careers. The course is loosely based on Stanford University’s popular “Designing Your Life” course, but is customized for Harvey Mudd Engineering seniors. Topics include the integration of a student’s worldview and philosophy of work as well as how to approach the planning process. By the end of the course, seniors will have developed and prototyped several potential life plans for the 3-5 years following graduation and will be equipped to navigate their career and life, including the changes and challenges that will inevitably present themselves.
“We want to connect with students on the design process,” said Harvey Mudd Professor of Engineering Nancy Lape. “The focus is not just on the academic or careers. We ask students to write about what they want and why as they develop a few ‘design alternatives’ for their life.”
Both the sophomore and senior courses allow students to prototype professional and personal activities to determine which potential pathways best align with their personal philosophy and interests. The courses incorporate small group discussion, in-class activities, guest speakers, discussions with alumni, personal reflection, and individual coaching.
“You only get a few summers to try things out while you’re in college,” Lape said. “We want to help students think of other, lower stakes ways to try things they might be interested in as they explore where they want to invest more time.”
The idea for this course emerged during a workshop at Olin College several years ago, when participants in a small group brainstormed about education. Nancy Lape and Harvey Mudd Engineering Department Chair Liz Orwin took those ideas to a workshop offered by the Stanford Life Design Lab, and began developing the courses for Harvey Mudd students.
“At Olin we had a brainstorming session where we started talking about students creating their own experiences,” Lape said. “At the time, our ideas were vague and wild, but that’s how the best ideas start. We followed the advice of taking the most delightful part of an idea and harnessing that into a more realistic idea.”
Whether in designing a course or the next few years of her life, Lape is convinced that the same skills that make her a good engineer can help her become a better educator and person. This semester, her students will help her test that delightful idea.
Examining Honesty (December 2020)
Wake Forest University recently launched a 3-year initiative called the Honesty Project to explore what honesty is and how it affects relationships, groups, and institutions. Funded by a $4.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the project will support many studies across fields including psychology, business, economics, and political science, as well as a number of projects on the philosophy of honesty.
“We tend to think of ourselves as honest people. But, for surprising reasons, we will sometimes lie, cheat or steal. Honesty comes up all the time in daily interactions. There are opportunities to be honest or fail to be honest, both in the very minor things, like white lies, or in major things. We hope the Honesty Project will help us better understand this crucial but surprisingly neglected virtue,” said Wake Forest University A.C. Reid Professor of Philosophy Christian B. Miller, Director of the Honesty Project, author of The Character Gap and co-editor of the 2020 book Integrity, Honesty and Truth Seeking.
Miller and team are collaborating with Taya Cohen, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Cohen is researching honesty between colleagues and between mentors and mentees as they share critical but difficult feedback. She hopes to find barriers to honesty and to develop strategies to help people be kind and honest in their communication.
Other research within the project will look into questions such as how to encourage honesty and if there are times when dishonesty is justified.
In conjunction with this project, Miller recently published an Op-Ed in The New York Times entitled “Just How Dishonest are Most Students?” in which he explored honesty and cheating among college students and discussed the efficacy of honor codes and what makes them effective. The entire Honesty Project seeks not only to study and measure honesty, but also to identify the most effective ways to cultivate the virtue.
“We want our children to grow up to be honest, we want politicians and other leaders to be honest, we value honesty in society and in the workplace. And yet, we have so much more to learn about honesty,” Miller said.
What Does Empathy Have To Do With Engineering? (November 2020)
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 projec“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.”