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APSU professors receive NSF grant for engineering empathy research

By: Spencer Castleberry August 24, 2023

Dr. Emmabeth Vaughn and Dr. Bobette Bouton.
Dr. Emmabeth Vaughn and Dr. Bobette Bouton.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Austin Peay State University (APSU) professors Dr. Emmabeth Vaughn of the Department of Physics, Engineering and Astronomy and Dr. Bobette Bouton of the Department of Teaching and Learning recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to research empathy in the field of engineering.

One of the duo’s main research goals is to create an empathy scale so professional engineers and engineering students can track their empathy progression, and the two combined their knowledge to flesh out ideas for the project. Vaughn used her experience in the physics and engineering world to provide a foundation for the research, and Bouton has studied empathy for years in education.

“[Engineers] do work for the betterment or the benefit of society,” Vaughn said. “I say engineers are societal caregivers. That's why we need to integrate empathy into our profession because we act as societal caregivers.”

Vaughn said an empathy scale using engineering-specific scenarios does not currently exist, but she and Bouton aim to change that.

“We're going to create it, but the goal is to give you an indication of where you currently sit regarding the three constructs of empathy: your cognitive, affective and behavioral aspects,” Vaughn said. “We hope to be able to identify each of those constructs and give you your current sitting. I think Bobbette and I both believe that empathy is something that can be worked on and enhanced. So, we don't want to determine how empathetic you are. It's more along the lines of us wanting to give the current state of your empathy. So that you can see areas where you might want to land in the future.”

The duo submitted their 15-page research paper to the NSF in November 2022, and before their research was accepted, it had to go through peer reviews. Anonymous engineering educators reviewed the research and developed questions or concerns, which Vaughn and Bouton were able to address.

“The program officer sends you the reviews, and then you can respond to them,” Dr. Bouton said. “Then, about a month after that, we were finally informed. It was very exciting when we finally got the news because [it was a] very long process to get to that point.”

Vaughn said receiving the grant had extra significance because the NSF’s funding rate for the engineering directorate in 2022 was 24%. This is also her first time handling a grant because she is a new faculty member at APSU, and she hopes that it contributes to her personal development and helps her gain new practical skills.

Bouton has handled several grants before, so she has played the role of mentor for Vaughn throughout the process. Both professors are excited to integrate empathy into the engineering profession and hope their research will showcase its importance.