Empathy is the new black

Current education practices face a challenge when it comes to teach college students in the 21st century. Education is becoming more about excelling in a job rather than forming contributing agents of this world.  In fact, the evolution of social sustainability and responsibility in college students—empathy—does not change during students’ four years of college experience. Students often show a decrement on the social responsibility area by a decrease in the volunteering and community engagement activities in which students participate during college (Bielefeldt & Canney, 2016). Furthermore, when measuring levels of empathy among college students as measured by the four subscales of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index—perspective taking, fantasy, empathic distress, and empathic concern—engineering students show lower levels of empathy than other college students from other majors such as health care, social sciences, or humanities (Rasoal, Danielsson, & Jungert, 2012).

Different pedagogic approaches can help to teach students about empathy and community thinking. For example, role-playing community members during a mock city meeting, or asking students to interview those stakeholders that may be impacted by our work and write a reflection. When students shared their reflections with classmates can help them recognize multiple stakeholders needs (both direct and indirect) and empathize with stakeholder groups as part of their daily tasks. The 21st century brings many challenges, and moving towards collectivistic values, empathizing with others, will give strong resources to face them.



  • Bielefeldt, A. R., & Canney, N. E. (2016). Changes in the Social Responsibility Attitudes of Engineering Students Over Time. Science and Engineering Ethics, 22(5), 1535–1551.
  • Rasoal, C., Danielsson, H., & Jungert, T. (2012). Empathy among students in engineering programmes. European Journal of Engineering Education, 37(5), 427–435.


6 Replies to “Empathy is the new black”

  1. I’ll have to look more closely about the statistic that engineering students have the lowest levels of empathy. It’s definitely alarming, but I am not surprised either. For a profession that has to deal with many different stakeholders, and where communication is so important, one would think empathy holds a higher place in education. Instead, anything remotely bordering on “feelings” is not discussed. (See Ethan’s post on GE complaining to RPI about the quality of “human beings” graduating from engineering.) I think there is a need for engineering education to emphasize communication, and not only “engineering communication.”

  2. I tried a role playing activity in my class two weeks ago. I was really nervous about doing it because of the unwritten rule that says science has no place for emotions. The students participated but I don’t know how much they really took it to heart and how much of a difference it made. I didn’t want to collect their worksheet for that day because I wanted them to have the freedom to write and think about whatever they wanted.

    Maybe one of the problems is that our college education never leaves the building, literally. I had a class where I was learned about many new perspectives that were different from my own, but I learned about them by visiting people and talking, eating and living with them for several days. I could empathize with them because I had a personal connection with them. Not every class has the time and money to take a week long field trip around the world or across the state, but I know that with today’s technology there are ways for us to take ourselves and our students outside of the classroom and the world they know.

  3. Thank you for your post. Have you heard of P.E.A.S education model? It aims to cover all areas of development in a child but it is being carried out in one small affluent district in Long Island. When I come across things like this, I am frustrated with the fact that someone in some corner of the country or world developed something that we know works and yet we don’t adopt it because change is SO difficult and yet the ONLY thing that is inevitable…what is it going to take for people to see that in the educational system?!
    I have often said that people should be taught counseling and communication skills all through their education, things like mindfulness and meditation incorporated into education have shown their benefits.

  4. In order to advance the conversation about empathy, we have to interrogate what empathy really means. It’s already become a buzzword, and I worry that it will be easily co-opted by the same forces that are corporatizing higher education.
    This isn’t a critique of your post; it’s a challenge to dig deeper.
    Meanwhile, the concept of an “Interpersonal Reactivity Index,” while perhaps filling the need to standardize and thus create usable data for assessing empathy levels, also sounds like an Orwellian reduction of a very complicated human faculty. Maybe engineering majors have less empathy in general, but if we used the same test without including academic major as a variable, just human by human, a more nuanced picture would emerge. If empathy is something we can transform into datafied metrics like that, it will also be just another platitude to be swallowed up by corporatized higher education.

  5. In the 21st century, the educator is not only the primary role in class, the interactive of students of students and the discussion in groups are also a significant section in classes. Sometimes, students would try to control the course; the educator guides the narrative of class. It is what I imagine the course looks like in future.

  6. Thank you for this post. Including empathy in educational systems is such an interesting concept. I like the idea of promoting collectivistic values, but I struggle to find a strategy to apply in in a class whit diverse values and political beliefs. Have you applied this concept in any of your previous classes?

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