Student Empathy Engagement in Engineering through Community-based Learning

Linjue Wang
Graduate Research Associate
The Ohio State University


Community-based Learning (CBL) in engineering exposes students to authentic learning activities through interacting with community partners and supporting the community-oriented outcomes, e.g., service-learning, outreach, and volunteerism. To enhance positive partnership and genuine relationships between students and communities in CBL, engaging students with empathy as an interpersonal skill can be a beneficial learning outcome. However, how CBL supports students to develop empathy and how educators can explicitly teach empathy in CBL contexts remain unknown. This study selected six CBL contexts in a mid-western university to explore how engineering students develop empathy when engaging in community projects. •Guiding QuestionRQ1. To what extent and in what ways do undergraduate engineering students engage with empathy in CBL? RQ2. By understanding engineering students’ lived experiences in CBL, explicit empathy instructions can enhance student engagement with empathy? RQ3. To what extent and in what ways do undergraduate engineering students engage with empathy in CBL with explicit empathy instructions?


To explore how undergraduate engineering students engage with empathy in CBL contexts, we identified three opportunities for engineering educators: structural, social, and interpretative. Structural opportunity points to the design of the CBL as the underlying platform for students to engage with empathy. Social opportunity highlights that interpersonal and social interactions during CBL can support student engagement with empathy. Interpretative opportunity requires CBL to involve approaches for students to develop the sense of self and the sense of others to internalize empathy. To explore the extent to which CBL can be the platform for students to develop empathy, we concluded that students exhibit positive empathy growth through CBL and explicit empathy instructions. This outcome shows that CBL, as a learning platform, supports students’ empathy growth, which can be enhanced by explicit empathy instructions.

Broader Impacts

CBL in engineering is a promising platform to teach students empathy. In our research, we obtained an empirical understanding of the ways and the extent that engineering students can engage with empathy in CBL contexts. Although empathy engagement can happen naturally in CBL, we can scaffold and teach empathy explicitly for students to enhance their learning. The three opportunities (structural, social, and interpretative) provide a starting point for scholars and instructors in engineering and other disciplines to position empathy as a student learning outcome in CBL contexts. Furthermore, we see the need to shift the focus from student-centered teaching to equity, social justice, and reciprocity in CBL to achieve community-oriented engineering outcomes. In other words, the purpose of using CBL to support engineering students to thrive needs to be balanced with the positive experiences and outcomes from the community’s perspectives.


Linjue (Jade) Wang, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH; Nia Johnson, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH; Dr. David A. Delaine, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH; Joachim Walther, University of Georgia, Athens, GA