Work Integrated Learning and Empathy among Engineering Students

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Empathy involves understanding and feeling the emotions of others. Empathy has been found to be important for engineering practice. However, empathy has not traditionally been explicitly taught in engineering. Recently, researchers in the USA have started to teach empathy in coursework.
Although work integrated learning is recognised as an opportunity to develop professional skills, the development of empathy in work integrated learning had not yet been investigated. In Australia, twelve weeks of engineering-related work experience has long been recommended by Engineers Australia as ideal, and has been required of students for graduation by many universities. Work experience gives students engagement with engineering practice and interactions with more diverse people than during coursework on campus. Therefore, work experience held promise as a curriculum element in which empathy development could be supported.

This study tested the hypothesis that engineering students who have completed at least 450 hours (equivalent to 12 weeks) of engineering-related work experience have higher empathic tendencies than other students.

Engineering students (N = 252) in three units at a research intensive university in Australia measured their empathic tendencies on the four subscales of an adapted Interpersonal Reactivity Index. Linear statistical models were fitted to each subscale.

Students who had completed more than 449 hours of work experience and were probably or definitely pursuing an engineering career had significantly higher perspective taking tendencies on average at the 5% level.

This is the first study to test the hypothesis that engineering-related work experience is associated with improved empathy. The result is consistent with a positive association between engineering-related work experience and tendency to spontaneously take the emotional perspective of another. We recommend further investigation of causation, explanation, assessment and how to improve development of empathy through work integrated learning.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings Australasian Association for Engineering Education Virtual Conference 2020
PublisherAustralasian Association for Engineering Education
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 2020
EventAustralasian Association for Engineering Education Virtual Conference 2020: Disrupting Business as Usual in Engineering Education - University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, Australia
Duration: 6 Dec 20209 Dec 2020
Conference number: 31st


ConferenceAustralasian Association for Engineering Education Virtual Conference 2020
Abbreviated titleAAEE2020
Internet address


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