Abstract

Empathy plays an important role in designers’ ability to relate to problems faced by others. Several researchers have studied empathy development in engineering design education; however, a majority of this work has focused on teaching designers to empathize with primary users. Little attention in empathy development research is given to empathizing with those affected in a secondary and tertiary capacity. Moreover, little research has investigated the role of students’ empathy in influencing their emphasis on sustainability, especially in the concept evaluation stage. Our aim in this paper is to explore this research gap through an experimental study with engineering students. Specifically, we introduced first-year engineering students at a large public university in the northeastern United States to a short workshop on sustainable design. We compared changes in their trait empathy and attitudes towards sustainability from before to after participating in the workshop. We also compared the relationship between students’ trait empathy, attitudes towards sustainability, and the self-perceived sustainability of their solutions in a design task. From our results, we see that students reported an increase in their beliefs and intentions towards sustainability and a decrease in their personal distress from before to after participating in the workshop. Furthermore, students’ trait empathy correlated negatively with the self-perceived sustainability of their solutions. These findings highlight the need for future work studying the role of empathy in encouraging a sustainable design mindset among designers.

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