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How Role-Playing Builds Empathy and Concern for Social Justice


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This paper describes an experimental first-year, two-term course designed by an interdisciplinary team of faculty from engineering, humanities, social science, and entrepreneurship and innovation. The first term of our course, “Humanitarian Engineering Past & Present: Worcester, 1885,” puts students in the roles of actual people living in a turn-of-the-century industrial city in central Massachusetts. While immersing themselves in the roles of engineers, industrialists, elected officials, workers, scientists, public health officials, inventors, and city residents, students learn and practice engineering concepts (engineering design, stakeholder analysis, mass balance, sewage treatment, material properties and selection, sewage properties and conveyance, statics and stress, filtration and chemical precipitation, and so on). These engineering concepts, though, are not abstracted from social, political, and economic considerations. Rather, engineering is imbued with social context. Through class events like town hall meetings, debates, and stakeholder analyses, students in character, are exposed to different perspectives, values, priorities, and constraints. Additional out-of-class work such as individual reflective essays and team-based projects also engaged them in ethical reasoning and complex cognitive tasks related to empathy, ethics, and social justice. In the follow-on course, students transitioned from their characters to address similar technical and social issues relevant to sanitation in the developing world. Looking forward to its third iteration, this course offers students opportunities to reflect on social justice and ethical issues while developing the qualities of compassion and empathy. This paper discusses our classroom activities and the ethical learning outcomes they produce. Course assessments employed a mixed-methods, triangulated approach that addressed several learning outcomes, including those related to ethics and social justice. Indirect instruments included standardized university course evaluations and a pre/post open prompt survey. Direct methods included student course work samples (a variety of written work, posters, presentations and final projects), a pre/post analysis of a scenario involving a hazardous chemical and a video-recorded session of teams analyzing an ambiguous scene indirectly related to course content.

Date created
  • 6/24/17
Resource type
  • 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition
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Last modified
  • 2020-09-28



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