Project Profile

Empathy-Driven Engineering Internships for Teens: Connecting Technical Work to Social Needs


This project responds to the persistent patterns of underrepresentation of women, African American and Latinx people in engineering. Many youth continue to have a limited, and at times inaccurate, understanding of what engineering is and what engineers do. Often, these limited perceptions of engineering do not align with youths’ interests and strengths. Both in-school and out-of-school time experiences can provide powerful opportunities for young people to become familiar with engineering and engineering career pathways, develop engineering-related knowledge and skills, and begin to develop an interest in engineering. However, these experiences are often short-term, which can limit the extent that youth are able to: recognize how engineering can align with their interests, begin to see themselves as engineers, and experience an authentic, iterative engineering design process. This project addresses this limitation by engaging 120 youth in multi-month engineering internships at five sites across the country: Colorado, California, Alabama, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. The project also addresses an additional challenge: the traditional focus of many pre-college engineering experiences on technology and technical solutions can limit youths’ opportunities to develop skills needed for sociotechnical problem solving and limit opportunities for youth to see how their interests align with engineering. Youth participants in the Build a Better Book internship will spend three to four months engaging in iterative engineering design processes and practices as they design and fabricate books and other products for children who are blind or low vision. This opportunity will enable youth to develop technical skills, including work with technologies like laser cutters and 3D printers, while also including a focus on how engineering work can benefit people. Youth-created designs of accessible books, games, and other products will be shared on the project website so they can be shared with and reproduced by others. The research objective of this project is to study the influences of a long-term, professionally- structured, empathy-driven engineering internship on teens’ perceptions of engineering, identities, and transferrable STEM skills. The research seeks to understand how an intervention can develop a more inclusive and human-centered engineering identity by integrating the People Part of Engineering framework with the principles of persistence of interest theory. Researchers and educators from the University of Colorado Boulder, Heart of LA (HOLA), Mountain Lakes Library, Trussville City Schools, Washington Leadership Academy Charter School, and J. Sickler Consulting will collaborate on design-based case study research to examine the internship model in five diverse formal and informal education settings to address three questions: (1) To what extent, and in what ways, does the empathy-driven engineering internship model impact teen interns’ perceptions of engineering, personal engineering identities, transferrable STEM workforce skills, and vision of their career trajectory? (2) Which elements of empathy-driven engineering internships are most critical to teens’ cognitive and social-emotional gains, regardless of context? (3) In what ways do different contexts require distinct variations in implementation to effectively engage and activate persistence of interest in teens? To investigate these questions the investigators will use a comparative, multiple-case study design, with data collected through: pre/post questionnaires, video reflections, focus groups, and student artifacts. The investigators will also collect survey responses from a comparison group and from program alumni. Data analysis plans include descriptive and inferential statistics, non-parametric comparisons, and qualitative coding using a deductive framework. The investigators will synthesize findings specific to each site to create case descriptions which will also be analyzed for explore similarities and differences across the different sites.  The project will share research findings broadly, with both researchers and practitioners, to advance the field’s understanding of the critical factors and practices that positively influence (or limit) teens’ motivation to pursue engineering and their persistence in the field. This project is funded by the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, which supports projects that build understandings of practices, program elements, contexts and processes contributing to increasing students' knowledge and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and information and communication technology (ICT) careers. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.



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Co-Principal Investigator(s)


Award Number
Project Duration
2021 - 2025
University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO
Project Status