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NEW RESEARCH: How to add empathy and humility to the engineering syllabus

A study led by Concordia professor Matthew Harsh bridges the 'engagement gap' in development
March 20, 2018
By J. Latimer

Construction of a community centre in Althoura Shemal in El Fasher, North Darfur. Construction of a community centre in Althoura Shemal in El Fasher, North Darfur. Photo by UNAID (Flickr).

Today’s big challenges — climate change, food justice, access to clean drinking water — call for engineers to engage with communities to come up with innovative solutions. 

“Yet, there’s an ‘engagement gap’ in engineering education,” says Matthew Harsh, associate professor with the Centre for Engineering in Society at Concordia.

“We want young engineers to go out into disadvantaged communities and developing countries to solve problems, but they’re often unprepared for this task. In order to solve problems, you first need to define them. In order to do that, you need to be a good listener, among other things.”

In a recent study published in the European Journal of Engineering Education, an international team of researchers led by Harsh explores ways to bridge that engagement gap with a tested two-day workshop.

Extracurricular empathy

The course load for engineering degrees is famously challenging, so Harsh and his team factored in the need for a short, stand-alone module that could fit into a conventional curriculum.

“We demonstrate that it’s possible to find creative ways to bridge the engagement gap using eight to 10 activities spread over a two-day session focused on interpersonal or complementary skills,” Harsh says.

But please don’t call them soft skills, he adds.

“I hate that term. It implies that they’re easier to teach than technical skills, which is untrue.”

Harsh has run the workshop five times at five different schools, including a session in October 2014 at Concordia and, most recently, last year at Clemson State University in South Carolina.

The workshop: games, role playing and case studies

The sessions bring together about 14 early-career engineers and graduate students. They take part in activities tied to three learning outcomes: looking beyond the technology; listening to and learning from people; and empowering communities.

Take, for example, the light switch game. It encourages engineers to look beyond the technology to recognize broader support networks. Participants are asked to draw a diagram together that answers the question, “What happens when the light goes out?”

“If you're an engineer, your diagram starts with the switch and a circuit, then maybe Hydro Quebec,” says Harsh.

“But at some point, people come into the picture — government workers, construction crews, the city, banks who set rates... The lights only work because they're part of other systems. Often those systems are invisible to us unless they're not working — like when the lights go out.”

The workshop also uses role playing and case studies to reveal power dynamics and how local customs and history impact communication around innovation. Participants do exercises to improve their listening skills, as well as their ability to ask questions with humility and empathy.

“When you're working in development, you need these skills because you're working with emotional content, not just technical content,” says Harsh.

“It’s about matters of the heart, not necessarily matters of the mind. It's emotional. Traditionally, there hasn't been a lot of room for emotion in engineering education.”

The workshop outcomes were encouraging, with participants learning how to look beyond the technology to tackle a development problem. Harsh evaluates the workshop’s success using a questionnaire and a concept map to capture participants’ “mental model” of social and material systems.

“We want engagement to enable more inclusivity,” he says.

“Historically, poorer and disadvantaged communities have not had their interests represented in technological development. Whether it's Indigenous communities here in Montreal, or black South Africans, these are the folks who have been left out of innovation.” 


Read the cited study, Preparing Engineers for the Challenges of Community Engagement.

Learn more about the Centre for Engineering in Society.


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