the importance of incorporating designer empathy in senior ... engineers designing inappropriate and
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The Importance of Incorporating Designer Empathy in Senior Capstone De- sign Courses
Elizabeth Schmitt, Florida Institute of Technology
Elizabeth Schmitt is a graduate student pursuing her M.S. Degree in Mechanical Engineering at Florida In- stitute of Technology under the advisement of Dr. Beshoy Morkos. She completed her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Florida Institute of Technology in 2015. Her research thrusts lie within engineering design education, specifically: designer empathy, designing for handicapped/disabled users, and user centered design.
Elisabeth Kames, Florida Institute of Technology
Elisabeth Kames is a graduate student pursuing her M.S. in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Dynamic Systems- Robotics and Controls. She graduated with her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in May 2015. Her research is focused in the field of Automotive Engineering under the advisement of Dr. Beshoy Morkos.
Dr. Beshoy Morkos, Florida Institute of Technology
Beshoy Morkos is an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology where he directs the STRIDE Lab (SysTems Research on Intelligent Design and Engineering). His engineering design research focuses on developing computational represen- tation and reasoning support for managing complex system design. The goal of Dr. Morkos’ research is to fundamentally reframe our understanding and utilization of system representations and computational reasoning capabilities to support the development of system models which help engineers and project planners intelligently make informed decisions at earlier stages of engineering design. On the engineer- ing education front, Dr. Morkos’ research explores means to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship in engineering education through entrepreneurially-minded learning, improve persistence in engineering, address challenges in senior design education, and promote engineering education in international teams and settings. Dr. Morkos’ research is currently supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN), and NASA JPL. Dr. Morkos received his Ph.D. from Clemson University in the Clemson Engineering Design and Applications Research (CEDAR) lab under Dr. Joshua Summers. In 2014, he was awarded the ASME CIE Dissertation of the year award for his doctoral research. He graduated with his B.S. and M.S in Mechanical Engineering in 2006 and 2008 from Clemson University and has worked on multiple sponsored projects funded by partners such as NASA, Michelin, and BMW. His past work experience include working at the BMW Information Technology Research Center (ITRC) as a Research Associate and Robert Bosch Corporation as a Manufacturing En- gineer. Dr. Morkos was a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Engineering & Science Education at Clemson University performing NSF funded research on engineering student motivation and its ef- fects on persistence and the use of advanced technology in engineering classroom environments. Dr. Morkos’ research thrust include: design automation, design representations, computational reasoning, systems modeling, engineering education, design education, collaborative design, and data/knowledge management.
Dr. Ted A. Conway, Florida Institute of Technology
Department Head and Professor of Biomedical Engineering
c©American Society for Engineering Education, 2016
The Importance of Incorporating Designer Empathy in Senior
Capstone Design Courses
This paper will detail the challenges two groups of students, at two varying universities working
on two separate senior capstone design projects, experienced when designing for target users
they lack empathy for. The projects presented in this paper support handicapped and/or disabled
individuals. As many engineers will gain employment in a healthcare related field, it is
important that they are able to empathize with the target user – often handicapped and/or elderly
individuals. This is further exacerbated by the increase in the number of handicapped and
elderly individuals in the United States as medical care improves and life expectancy continues
to increase. Students are not formally educated on the disparity between products/users they
design for and products/users they are familiar with. If not addressed, this could lead to
engineers designing inappropriate and unsuccessful products.
The major contribution of this paper is beyond that of the design and build of assistive
technology, rather it is the experience students gained by designing a system for users that they
lack empathy for (though they possess sympathy for). This is of particular importance here
because senior capstone design, an experience meant to prepare students for “real world”
engineering, must integrate many engineering and societal elements beyond that of building a
technical system. Specifically, students were expected to integrate the physical, physiological,
and psychological components of the end user into their design – soft content not formally taught
Additionally, this paper will detail the unanticipated, yet beneficial experiences students gained
beyond engineering design through this project, as well as the challenges involved in
incorporating the physical, physiological, and psychological aspects of the end user, and how
students were able to overcome this challenge and deliver a successful design. Further, this
paper will provide recommendations for how to formally integrate educational elements that help
students learn these critical skills to prepare them for industry – where often times the
engineer/designer lacks empathy for the end user.
Engineering Design Education, Design Methods, Empathetic Design, User Centered
Design, Assistive Technology
Engineering is a continuously growing field with the advent of new technologies and increasing
need for products. The field of biomedical engineering, which encompasses multiple
engineering disciplines, is growing at a faster rate than most other STEM disciplines, and thus its
education is demanding greater attention 1. As most engineers in the biomedical field will gain
employment in a healthcare related field, it is important that they are able to empathize with their
target user – often handicapped and/or elderly individuals. This is further exacerbated by the
increase in the number of handicapped and elderly individuals in the United States as medical
care improves and life expectancy continues to increase 2. Students are not formally educated on
the disparity between products/users they design for and products/users they are familiar with 3.
There is a growing body of research suggesting a gap in the educational preparation of engineers
as it pertains to the “real-world” application of solutions. While the level of training in math and
science is sufficient, there is no formal training to prepare them for adjusting design features for
the physiological, psychological, and societal needs of handicapped target users and/or stake-
holders 4,5. This can often result in inefficient design processes and sometimes an inappropriate
solution, which may be technically suitable but lack the features necessary for people with
disabilities to use.
Engineering students are educated to approach each problem in a purely technical manner.
However, in many instances, design requirements include both technical and human-centered
constraints. Specifically, due to the vast range of potential target users of products that engineers
design for, it is imperative to incorporate the needs, emotions, challenges, restrictions, etc. of
such users into the design process. The ability to empathize is a particularly important
requirement when designing assistive technology for handicapped persons. Yet, when empathy
education is incorporated, it is typically toward liberal arts education, such as social sciences.
Empathy is rarely included in higher education, especially in STEM-related programs 6,7.
Nonetheless, the soft skills necessary to succeed in engineering are highlighted in accrediting
agencies such as ABET 8,9
To mitigate the lack of empathy, employers will often hire engineers who share empathy with the
product’s target user. For example, the automotive industry has recognized that while females
buy 52% and have a significant influence on 85% of all car purchasing decisions, less than 20%
of the automotive workforce is comprised of females 10. To address this disparity, the
automotive industry is actively seeking means to increase female employees within various
automotive sectors. Likewise, it is important that engineering careers that design for
handicapped or elderly target users attract handicapped engineers in the workforce. However,
with as little as 11% of undergraduate students in the fields of science and engineering report
having disabilities in the United States 11, there is an evident gap between the designer and target
Unlike healthcare education, engineering education rarely provides students with opportunities to
go into the field to i