Engineering with Heart

By Dr. Ann P. McMahon, Vice President of Science and Education
Pacific Science Center

No matter who or how old you are, we all have three core emotional needs: to be loved and valued, to belong, and to have power over our circumstances. At Converge@Seattle, I talked about how engineering can meet all these needs, and in so doing, appeal to girls and others who may never have imagined themselves in the profession. In the United States, we’re concerned about a shortage of engineers in tomorrow’s workforce, so we’ve added engineering to the national science standards for kindergarten through high school. This means we have an unprecedented opportunity to foster in students not only engineering habits of mind, but empathic habits of hearthabits that lead to deep satisfaction in work and relationshipsfor girls as well as for all learners.

There’s a fundamental difference between science and engineering. Science deals with objects and phenomena that exist. Engineering deals with objects, phenomena or processes that do not yet exist. This is an important distinction. Engineering is a process that results in something new, even if the process begins with something that already exists. Scientists create new science knowledge to explain why existing objects and phenomena are the way they are. Science practices are question-driven, while engineering practices are need- or problem-driven. In other words, scientists explain. Engineers create.

The problem-based nature of engineering challenges requires students to think differently and to think collaboratively. Social and emotional aspects of this kind of learning complement and enhance the cognitive ones. Meaningful engineering design challenges give students a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging to a group that’s focused on meeting a challenge. While engineering solutions, they’re also building empathy skills. If the group works well together and capitalizes on the talents of each member, each member can feel a sense of mastery and autonomy as well as power over her contribution to the solution. Ergo, through engineering, students fulfill the three core emotional needs: They develop empathy with the end users of their solutions and members of their team; their capacity to create and problem solve gives them power over circumstances; they feel valued and “loved” by peers for their unique talents and abilities.

My elementary teacher friends remind me that expecting such collaborative behaviors from children is asking a lot. It’s even asking a lot of many adults. That’s only because traditional school accountability culture values and tests cognitive learning as an individual activity and not a social one. Updated guidelines for social and emotional learning emphasize empathy and collaboration beginning in preschool, identifying more advanced empathic and collaborative behaviors as children grow. Engineering is an ideal way to do that. The social and empathic aspects of problem solving through engineering practices appeal especially to girls, who do not typically associate social and empathic experiences with engineering. Fostering problem-solving skills and empathy through engineering experiences benefits all learners.

I was introduced to collaborative learning and project work in engineering school. Until then, my success in school was measured by my ability to learn on my own and show my knowledge on the kinds of tests and measures that led to my admission to a highly competitive university. My experience in engineering school was a mixture of learning on my own, learning in social groups outside of class, and learning collaboratively in small groups within a course. I earned grades for my individual work in some courses and I earned shared grades with my partners for our group work in other courses. My social learning was the most fun, though. There were very few women in my engineering program, so we formed a study group soon after meeting. We supported each other, did well as a result, and we remain friends to this day. Back then, we created a shared sense of purpose around mastering engineering knowledge and skills well enough to succeed on our own in industry. In that process, we grew to value each other’s unique contributions to the success of our group as students as well as friends.

Professional engineers and scientists rarely work alone. They must work with others near them in their physical workplace as well as in global, virtual workplaces created by technology. The ability to collaborate and solve problems with others is not only a core professional skill, but a core life skill. Each of us learns to collaborate and solve problems by engaging in relationshipsthrough social and emotional learning. Our patterns for relating to others get established very early in life. Children need continuous practice relating to others to expand their repertoire of relationship skills. In the process, they can meet their three core emotional needs and feel motivated to win the future through engineering experiences that inspire them to innovate and create.

We at Pacific Science Center are leading the way in empathic engineering education on several fronts. Washington State LASER, our professional development program for teachers, reaches more than 5,000 teachers in 290 school districts in the state with cutting edge practices in K-12 engineering education that leverage the cognitive aspects of engineering with the social and emotional strengths of diverse learners. Our Portal to the Public Fellows program prepares practicing scientists and engineers to communicate what they do to the general public in engaging and exciting ways so that our youth, especially girls and underrepresented populations, can see themselves in these professions. Our Discovery Corps youth development program for teens teaches job and life skills while inspiring lifelong interest in STEM. Our summer and after-school programs immerse students in topics that have engaged humankind for centuries. We take science and engineering on the road to communities far beyond Seattle with our Science on Wheels program. And our Polliwog Preschool and Proton Preschool nurture the natural engineering gifts in our youngest learners so they gain confidence and competence as problem solvers and innovators in our world.

Through my work at Pacific Science Center, it is my pleasure and privilege to encourage and welcome innovators of all genders, races, and backgrounds into the engineering profession that has provided me great satisfaction in work and relationships, and formed the world in which we live. 

Dr. Ann P. McMahon, December 2014