Assessing the development of empathy and innovation attitudes in a project-based engineering design course

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To develop innovative solutions that fit end-users, engineers must understand the end-users’ needs. This user-centered aspect of engineering innovation has been highlighted in recent design thinking literature, where the construct of empathy has received increasing attention. Anecdotal support has been found for the benefits of empathy in engineering, and many engineering design thinking courses today teach engineering students to empathize with end-users. However, transitioning from anecdotal to evidence-based education requires being able to measure and track the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that educators attempt to impart on students. Thus, this study measures the development of empathic tendencies and innovation attitudes in students, and explores correlations between the two.Data was collected by administering a self-report survey in January and June 2017 to 237 students participating in a global multidisciplinary design thinking course. The survey included subscales for empathic tendencies, innovation self-efficacy, and innovation interests. The responses were analyzed for differences in distribution between the two surveys, as well as for correlations between items. It was observed that the students’ empathic tendencies and confidence in experimenting and associative thinking grew (p < 0.03). Furthermore, the empathic tendency scores displayed weak but statistically significant correlation with interest towards planning and research activities (p < 0.05, τb > 0.2). This study is among the first to quantify the development of empathy and innovation attitudes in engineering education. The results indirectly repeat prior research on the development of innovation capabilities in the scope of individual engineering courses. However, there are some limitations regarding the applicability of the utilized survey instruments, thus requiring further research with larger amounts of data and a mixed-methods approach to generalize the results.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2018 ASEE annual conference & exposition proceedings
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jun 2018
MoE publication typeA4 Article in a conference publication
EventASEE Annual Conference - Salt Palace Convention Center, Salt Lake City, United States
Duration: 23 Jun 201827 Jun 2018

Publication series

NameASEE annual conference & exposition proceedings
PublisherAmerican Society for Engineering Education
ISSN (Print)2153-5965
ISSN (Electronic)2153-5868


ConferenceASEE Annual Conference
CountryUnited States
CitySalt Lake City
Internet address

    Research areas

  • empathy, perspective taking, engineering, innovation

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