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Episode Show Notes
Do engineers have empathy? Can they get into other people's heads? How do empathy and the arts relate to engineering education? We talk about this with today's guest, Rachel Fahrig, an educator with experience in high school science and engineering. We also preview our submissions to the SXSW conference, both related to integrating the arts with engineering. This episode was recorded in a market in Austin, TX, so there is some background noise.
Our theme music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze. Our other music today is from "William Henry Harrison High School Fight Song" by Steve Combs. All are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Subscribe and find more podcast information at k12engineering.net. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, or send one-time contributions by buying us coffee. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
[00:00 Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for August 22nd, 2016.
[00:11 Pius] Today my guest again is Rachel Fahrig, an educator with experience in high school science and engineering. We’re at a market in Austin, Texas, talking about empathy and the arts in engineering.
[00:30 Pius] Hi, Rachel.
[Rachel Fahrig] Hi, Pius.
[Pius] Would you like to play a game?
[Rachel] I would love to play a game. What game are we going to play?
[Pius] It’s called Convergence.
[Rachel] Convergence? I love Convergence!
[Pius] OK. So how do we play? First, think of a word in your head. Don’t say it out loud.
[Pius] And I need to think of a word, too. My word is… OK. I’ve got my word.
[Rachel] OK. I have a word.
[Pius] All right.
[Rachel] All right.
[Pius] On the count of three.
[Pius] Let’s say it.
[Pius and Rachel] One, two, three –
[Pius] Banana! [Rachel] Shirt!
[Pius] You said shirt?
[Rachel] I said shirt. You said banana.
[Pius] I said banana. OK, so what word…
[Rachel] …Is in between…
[Pius] …would go in between…
[Rachel] …shirt and banana.
[Pius] But don’t say it.
[Rachel] OK, I got it. I have it.
[Pius] I think I have a word.
[Rachel] I think I have a word.
[Pius] All right, on the count of three.
[Pius and Rachel] One, two, three-
[Rachel] Skin! [Pius] Yellow!
[Pius] All right, wait, wait. I’ve got my word.
[Rachel] No, no. I don’t.
[Rachel] You said yellow and I said skin.
[Pius] There’s only one answer here.
[Rachel] [laughs] No. There are several answers…
[Pius] OK, you’re right.
[Rachel] …One of which is absolutely not politically correct.
[Pius] Oh! Oh! That’s the one. Wait. All right. One…
[Rachel] I don’t know if I can be recorded saying this.
[Pius] You can.
[Rachel] OK. All right then, I have a word.
[Pius and Rachel] One, two, three, Asian!
[Pius] You read my mind. I go politically incorrect.
[Rachel] Or you read my mind.
[02:07 Pius] Today we’re recording from Hana World Market in Austin, which happens to be an Asian American market. So we didn’t plan that. That was interesting.
[Rachel] No, it was.
[Pius] Rachel, did you think that you knew what I was thinking when we played that game?
[Rachel] You know, it’s interesting. So we should state here that Pius is actually the one who taught me how to play Convergence, and we have played – gosh, I don’t know, probably hundreds of times in all the time that we’ve been working together and presenting at conference and things like that. The very first time we played together, we found Convergence within I think three steps.
[Pius] Just like now, apparently.
[Rachel] Just like now.
[Pius] Wasn’t always like that.
[Rachel] Often, though. It’s so interesting, because we would actually have this conversation about – Do our brains kind of function the same way? Do we have enough similar experiences that we have common – what’s the word I’m looking for? Common lifestyles, and common background.
[Rachel] That we would be drawing from similar sources.
[Pius] Common reactions to a prompt, like a word.
[Rachel] Yes, exactly.
[Pius] Because some people don’t react the same way when I hear shirt and banana, but like --
[Rachel] Or yellow.
[Pius] Yeah, some people might not have said Asian, if they weren’t comfortable with that.
[Pius] I would have, because, hey --
[Rachel] You are Asian.
[Pius] I’m Asian, in case you didn’t realize.
[Pius] So the reason why I wanted to play that game is: We have talked about how it can be a springboard to talking about empathy.
[Rachel] Yes. It’s a study in empathy, I think.
[Pius] And obviously it’s a very superficial study, because that doesn’t get deep into our emotions. I mean, what is empathy to you?
[Rachel] So empathy is really not just being able to recognize how someone feels or where they’re coming from, but actually being able to put yourself in that place, and truly understanding how a person reacts or why they do certain things, or why their behavior is exhibiting itself a certain way. Understanding and knowing, and actually being able to identify with that on a personal, deeply fundamental level, is empathy.
[Pius] And don’t’ you think that engineers should have that?
[Rachel] Oh my gosh, yes, they had better. And some of the examples that I can think of are, so for example, I drive a Jeep Cherokee. And I’m also not very tall. And it sometimes makes me wonder who exactly is designing the positionable seats in those sort of crossover SUV vehicles. It’s not a gigantic car, but I shouldn’t need to be a gigantic person to drive it. I don’t know that the designer has a lot of empathy for small people.
[Rachel] I’m just saying.
[Pius] If empathy is super important for engineers, people who design things…
[Pius] If they don’t have empathy, if it’s hard for someone to get – to put themselves into someone else’s shoes, how can you develop that?
[Rachel] I think there are a lot of different ways to do that. First of all, anytime that you can generate or create an authentic interaction between the engineer and the intended customer. For example, interviews or focus groups. Those seem to be really effective.
[Pius] There’s definitely research out there that I know of that says, yes, you make better products when you talk to your customers, instead of just living in an island. If you’re designing for, you know, elderly people, then you probably should talk to them.
[Pius] Or observe them, or read what they’ve written.
[Rachel] Or even, you know, personally work with them.
[Pius] Yeah. Yes.
[Rachel] Go be with them. See what they need.
[Pius] There’s a UT researcher, in the mechanical engineering department, Professor Seepersad. She does some research on something called empathic lead user analysis. If you look at the research studies, that’s what it’s called, but it basically means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Like if I were designing that car for the elderly, maybe you’d try to – I think in their studies what they did was they put on weights on different parts of their body. The researchers put on weights to simulate the amount of effort that sometimes elderly people feel to move around.
[Pius] And they learned a whole lot about their designs, what might work, and what might work not so well about opening up a car door and whatnot. I don’t know how you would have – how you would do empathic lead user analysis to see what it’s like to be short, but it’s just another technique for designing.
[Rachel] Sure. I don’t know. You could design something that, even if a tall person sat in it, they still can’t reach certain things, so a higher seat back, where their head isn’t touching the right --
[Pius] [laughs] I’m imagining…
[Rachel] They have to build gigantic chairs.
[Pius] Yes. That Lily Tomlin sketch?
[Rachel] Yes, exactly. [laughs]
[Pius] If you’ve seen that, where she’s sitting in this giant --
[Rachel] In this gigantic rocking chair.
[Pius] Oh my gosh, that’d be interesting. So if adults are designing for kids, even, you could make a giant house, and a giant room to see what it’s like. That’s kind of fun. And creepy, but, just an idea. We’re not saying that’s the absolute best thing to do.
[Pius] So those are researched techniques for designing better, and what’s funny is that game that we played isn’t as far as I know – that’s not a researched technique for building empathy for your teammates.
[Rachel] No, but maybe it should be.
[Pius] Maybe it should be. So any researchers who are interested, grad students, do some research on that. We would love to hear the results. What that makes me think of, though, is that game comes from – as far as I learned it – it comes from theater. It comes from improv. It comes from theater, and, because actors, they have to be able to respond to the people in the room, the people they’re playing with, and be on the same wavelength, so to speak, with their team or their troupe.
[Rachel] Absolutely. You need to anticipate what’s coming your way and be ready to react.
[Pius] So even beyond designing for customers, engineers can use empathy to interact with their teammates or collaborate better with their teammates, just like people do in a play or in a show, just like actors do.
[Pius] And it reminds me that people always say STEAM is a big deal now. We should integrate arts with science, technology, engineering, and math, and theater is an art.
[Rachel] Yes, it is.
[Pius] And maybe, in schools, you can integrate theater into engineering education somehow.
[Rachel] STEM education with theater.
[Pius] What do you think about that? Is that weird?
[Rachel] STTEAM, with two T’s.
[Pius] It sounds weird sometimes. Yeah. Like why would an engineer who’s good at math and science supposedly, it’s like why would theater help them out? I can hear some people – like one part of me is going, oh, that’s so useless! And the high schooler in me is like, oh, why am I learning to play these stupid games? Everything sucks, I’m a teenager. So what would you say to someone like that?
[Rachel] Oh, well, it’s interesting. So even though I’m a STEM educator, I also have a background in theater and music. I had a vocal performance major in college, as well. So on a personal level, I would just advocate for it because it’s fun, and you learn greater collaboration skills. You learn a lot about organization and planning and development an design.
[Pius] Design, even. Wow.
[Rachel] Yeah, set design, costume design. You have to design the physical motions of the actors during the play. None of that can be done just off the cuff.
[Rachel] There’s a huge amount of planning that goes into any sort of theatrical production, and I think about the megaproductions, like Disney productions that require so much integration of lighting and technology and sound and audio and visual and special effects. Yes, there are special effects onstage. And understanding how all of that technology works together with people, and how the people enhanve the technology as well – I think, first of all, it’s a valid career path. So – and it pays bank. Who doesn’t want to, you know, make – I have no idea how much money they make. Probably at least $80 or $90 thousand dollars a year to run a set on a Disney production on Broadway, because you have an engineering degree. Wouldn’t that be fun?
[Pius] That’d be awesome. What do you think about the parallels between creativity and those more traditionally artistic fields, versus the creativity in engineering? Is it the same?
[Rachel] It is the same, because you’re still designing for a customer. You’re designing an entertainment experience. You’re designing a feeling, almost. You’re designing something that is going to reach so many people on multiple levels.
[Pius] You’ve got customers, or an audience. Similar thing.
[Rachel] You do. Even in – So let’s think about a Disney production, for example. You have your audience, who is probably the end user, really. But then you also have multiple levels of other people interacting with whatever it is you’re designing. So there’s a user interact – a hands-on user interaction, as well. So for example, if you’re the lighting designer, and I’m the actor, I have to interact with whatever it is you’re doing, so that the end user sitting in the audience takes away a feeling or an understanding or an experience.
[Pius] Still designing toward a goal. You have a specification in some sense. That’s what I hear. And I’m sure your techniques for coming up with these final products…
[Pius] …that they might have some parallels. I bet there is brainstorming to create the product.
[Rachel] Oh I’m sure. And storyboarding.
[Pius] Sure. That happens in engineering design firms all the time, too.
[Rachel] And none of this is occurring – You don’t have one lighting designer who is making all the decisions. These decisions are all made in teams.
[Pius] So the collaborative nature of it all is similar, as well.
[Rachel] Absolutely. And probably some convergence. You have to come together for an ultimate, you know, one common experience.
[Pius] It’s funny, because hopefully they’ll converge without just winging it like what we do in this game.
[Pius] But if nothing else, that game is a nice little icebreaker.
[Rachel] It’s fun.
[Pius] Yeah. So that’s cool. It sounds like the arts, whether theater or more broadly, has applications to engineering in the classroom and out in industry.
[Pius] So that’s awesome. You are an advocate for STEAM.
[Rachel] I am a STEAM advocate.
[Pius] Are you an advocate for the acronym STEAM, S-T-E-A-M.
[Rachel] Science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. I think…
[Rachel] …it’s overplayed.
[Pius] Is it cliché?
[Rachel] A little bit. But I get it. If more schools could pick up STEAM, as it were…
[Pius] Oh, people say that? I’ve never heard…
[Rachel] It’s a thing. It’s a thing. [laughs]
[Pius] I’ve never heard that. That was new to me.
[Rachel] But I think that there are so many other ways that you can examine STEAM. For example, when you think about music, there are physical and mathematical applications that could be studied. When you look at – again, let’s go back to lighting. There’s visual art involved in that, which again involves electronics and wavelengths, so again with the physics. So there are ways of integrating all of this, and I think that’s the important piece that often is missing.
[Pius] You know, in this discussion, it makes me realize that a good summary of how the arts are related to engineering is that, number one, there’s a lot of content in science and math and engineering that you can learn through the arts, which is important. But, number two, like we said earlier, the arts – I’ve heard other people tell me the arts help you understand other people, and yourself.
[Pius] The emotions, the experiences, the history. And that, itself, that empathy, is super important for doing engineering, as well.
[Rachel] Yes, absolutely.
[Pius] So the arts are important.
[Rachel] They are super important.
[Pius] I wish we could just fund everything, Rachel.
[Rachel] [laughs] That would be awesome.
[Pius] Yeah. So thank you for speaking to me about this.
[Rachel] Thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure.
[Pius] Do you want to play one more game with me?
[Rachel] Yes, let’s.
[Pius] Think about this real carefully. I’m going to think about it and make it harder.
[Pius] Just because I’m feeling weird.
[Rachel] All right. Let’s challenge ourselves. OK, I have a word.
[Pius] I don’t want to be cliché.
[Rachel] Yeah, I’m trying to get out of podcast mode.
[Pius] All right, I’ve got a word.
[Rachel] I have my word.
[Rachel and Pius] Three.
[Pius] Rutabega! [Rachel] Disk!
[15:53 Pius] If you like these discussions between Rachel and me, you can help us spread the word by voting for us to present at the upcoming South by Southwest 2017 conference in Austin. We proposed a workshop on improv for professional engineers and designers. That was for the South by Southwest Interactive conference. And we proposed another session on electronic quilts and e-textiles in the classroom. That was for South by Southwest EDU. You can go online to www.panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote and search for my first name, Pius, P-I-U-S, to find our sessions. Also, this podcast now has a website. It’s www.k12engineering.net. So if you share it with someone, you can just send them that link, and it’ll tell you where to find it on iTunes, Soundcloud, Facebook, and all that. Thanks for subscribing, reviewing, sharing, sending me feedback, and, of course, for listening.
[16:51 Rachel and Pius] One, two, three…
[Pius] Circle! [Rachel] Frisbee!
[Pius] Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.
[17:00 Pius] The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they’re not necessarily the opinions of any schools or other organizations with which we might be connected. Our theme music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze. Our opening and closing music today is from “William Henry Harrison High School Fight Song” by Steve Combs – that’s a long name – and both of those songs are used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
[Pius] Oh, oh, yes. Yes, I got my word.
[Rachel] Oh, I don’t.
[Pius] In between basketball and trampoline. What is common?
[Rachel] [laughs] Oh! Well, I don’t know. Maybe.
[Pius and Rachel] One, two, three…
[Pius] Jump! [Rachel] Harlem Globetrotters?
[Pius] Oh, they do – that’s actually a good one. Oh my gosh.
[Rachel] Yes, thank you. Thank you.
[Pius] My experience may be different.
[Rachel] Jump. Jump and Harlem Globetrotters.
[Pius] OK, I got it. Yeah. Yeah.
[Rachel] I have no idea. OK – no.
[Pius] Yeah? Yeah?
[Rachel] Well, maybe.
[Pius and Rachel] One, two, three…
[Pius] Dunk! [Rachel] Slam dunk!
[Rachel] There we go!
[Pius] Close enough.