T9-AD3-1 - How Do I Understand Them? Integrating Empathy into Course Design through Personas

Panels / Special Sessions
Ruth Wertz1 , Nick Fila2
1 Valparaiso University
2 Iowa State University


In recent years, scholars and practitioners have paid increased attention to the role of empathy in engineering. While some of this focus has been on the expanding role empathy plays among both students and professionals when engaging in engineering practice [1]-[5], others suggest a more deeply seeded empathic lens that educators and students might bring to the engineering education system [6]-[8]. Empathizing with users is an important, carefully integrated aspect of many design processes [9]-[12], but one that might be overlooked when designing engineering courses [13]. Many educators may instinctively think about their audience and characteristics of their students but may not consider the unique needs of groups to which they do not belong and are not connected [13]. Such empathic oversights or lapses can lead to marginalization of specific groups within a learning environment or course. This workshop will provide a systematic framework--leveraging insights from psychology, empathic design, and engineering education research--to integrate empathy into course design that can support a more inclusive and effective learning environment for everyone.

Workshop Facilitators

Ruth Wertz is an Assistant Professor at Valparaiso University in the College of Engineering.  Dr. Wertz is currently a Co-Principal Investigator on an NSF grant to investigate misconceptions and difficult concepts in the emerging data science field.  Her scholarly interests focus on exploring classroom applications of research-based pedagogical frameworks, teaching methods for difficult concepts, assessment methods of student learning, and overall program/classroom effectiveness.

Nick Fila is a postdoctoral research associate in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Industrial Design at Iowa State University. He earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and a M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. His current research interests include innovation, empathy, engineering design, course design heuristics.

Workshop Contributors

Ruth A. Streveler is a Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Dr. Streveler has been the Principal Investigator or Co-Principal Investigator of ten grants funded by the US National Science Foundation. 

Karl A. Smith is Cooperative Learning Professor of Engineering Education, School of Engineering Education, at Purdue University. He is also Morse-Alumni Distinguished University Teaching Professor and Emeritus Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering at the University of Minnesota. 

Workshop Goals

Participants who engage in this workshop will broaden their toolbox of empathic course design techniques, discuss the applications of these tools in the overall course development process, develop a deeper awareness of the role and importance of mindset in course design, and develop an implementation plan to apply to their own courses. 

During the workshop, participants will co-construct the following:

  1. an empathy map contextualized for the kinds of students they typically work with (e.g., first-year, graduate students, adult learners, distance learners, etc.), 
  2. personas that thematically emerge from their empathy map, and 
  3. discussion of how empathic design practices can be integrated into classroom teaching and student mentoring
Workshop Format

Part 1 [10 Minutes] - The workshop will begin with an orientation of a systematic design approach that mirrors familiar engineering design processes. This orientation will feature an overview of the construct of empathy and how it is enacted in design contexts at both the procedural and mindset levels. We will also discuss several concrete tools and strategies for enacting empathic procedures and mindsets, which will be learned experiential during the remainder of the workshop.

Icebreaker [10 Minutes] - Participants will then engage in an icebreaker activity to prepare them for the collaborative experience and help organize groups around common interests. Participants will be asked to briefly reflect on their students, especially those they have had trouble connecting with or are interested in empathizing with, and then share those reflections with the larger group. We will form emergent groups around themes in participant responses and participants will self-select a group to join for the remainder of the session.

Part 2 [20 Minutes] - In small groups, participants will generate empathy maps (one per group/table) related to the students group(s) they have selected. An empathy map asks designers to compile their observations and information about users on a simple, four-quadrant visualization. This visualization asks designers to separate things they’ve seen users do, heard users say, experienced users think, and observed users feel. By separating these aspects and then connecting across them, designers develop a more nuanced awareness of user experiences in the design context.

Transition [5 Minutes] -  Brief report out and instructions for next portion 

Part 3 [25 Minutes] - The small groups will next use their empathy maps as the basis for student personas. Personas represent composite users that can be used throughout the design process to orient designers based on key features of their users and users’ experiences. First, participants will identify themes across the sections of their empathy maps. These themes will be used to generate statements of user needs and then developed into more complete personas. Each table will complete 2-3 personas (in pairs if possible). 

Part 4 [10 Minutes] - The session will close with a discussion of connections between personas to teaching methodologies and/or interventions. The session moderators will share their experiences and insights (and potential next steps) and encourage participants to consider and share how they might utilize personas and empathy maps in their own teaching/course design. 

Intended Audience

This session will be ideal for instructors and students at all levels. The session will provide a structured approach to empathic design that can be applied to any course. We encourage instructors from a broad range of institutions and backgrounds to investigate a new tool for integrating empathy and more deeply understand the students they teach. Undergraduate and graduate students can apply the objectives of this workshop to their work in teams, mentoring in professional societies, etc., and may appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their own learning experiences.

Equipment and Materials Requested

References Provided Upon Request.