SEL and Empathy through Engineering

As we work to support students with their social and emotional learning (SEL) at all grade levels, we need to find ways to make this learning accessible and relevant, in the same ways that we work to personalize other learning experiences. When we ask students to problem solve, are we helping them to see themselves as engineers?

Engineering instruction presents an underutilized opportunity for supporting SEL. Empathy is at the root of all engineering. The empathy component of engineering might not be obvious from reading the Merriam-Webster definition, but the acts of identifying a problem to solve, designing solutions, and optimizing those solutions require the engineer to have a level of empathy for the people (or other organisms) involved in the problem. When we ask students to be engineers, are we being transparent enough about the need for empathy?

Particularly in the early grades, students need help sorting out big problems from small problems in their interactions with others. Identification and classification of problems is a key component of the engineering design process. By making the connection between students’ work with social problems (i.e. Kelso’s Choice) and engineering, teachers can help to encourage all students to see themselves as both engineers and problem solvers.

Engineering in the classroom provides students with opportunities to fail safely and try again. This process of iteration is a great way for students to build their persistence and support a growth mindset. Students can also consider engineering (or design) in contexts outside of building. As we involve students in setting up flexible learning environments or establishing group norms, they can be engaged in a form of process engineering. A classroom culture is one example of a designed system; students can be made aware of this and take an active role in engineering the systems and processes in place at school.

Group collaboration is critical in professional engineering contexts: Engineering is a social activity. Group engineering tasks allow students to practice and develop their skills with collaborative relationships and positive social interactions. When a team goal is in place or a problem needs to be solved, many students are more engaged and collaboration occurs in more authentic ways.

Student decision-making and self-management skills can also be developed, refined, and assessed through engineering activities. Time management is almost always a factor in an engineering task – the problem needs to be solved in a reasonable time frame. As students consider the reasons why a design has failed or how to optimize a solution, they consider trade-offs and which solution is truly the best fit for the criteria. By providing authentic experiences for students to practice these skills in a way that teachers can assess and provide feedback.

Intentionally linking SEL and engineering instruction is efficient and will increase student access to critical life and academic skills. Here are a few resources for you to consider digging into that help connect engineering with concepts in SEL:

  • Teaching Empathy Through Design Thinking – a fantastic Edutopia post by Rusul Alrubail
  • An Introduction to Design Thinking – this look at Stanford’s process guide begins with empathy
  • Ann McMahon’s TEDx talks in 2012 and 2015 – these videos provide a great look at the role of empathy in engineering from the perspective of an aerospace engineer and educator
  • STEM Teaching Tools #7, #36, and #39 – these tools offer ideas and insight into helping to engage students in relevant design and engineering processes that can help support a variety of SEL goals
  • TeachEngineering – as the name suggests, this site offers a variety of engineering lessons and units aligned to a variety of standards for every grade level

3 thoughts on “SEL and Empathy through Engineering

  1. A good read. I had not made a connection between social/emotional learning, empathy, and engineering practices. And it is interesting to see the Stanford guide to approaching design challenges begins right there.


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