Engineers are creative and empathetic

3 girls standing and observing a petri dish

Engineers are creative problem-solvers who apply their technical knowledge to develop innovative solutions. To do that, they need to tap into their empathy and creativity to consider the problem and its potential solutions from many different angles. 

Good engineers are empathetic

Good engineers have outstanding technical skills. 

Using their solid foundations in math and science, they come up with tangible solutions that improve our quality of life, from cycling infrastructure and clean energy production to medical devices and more powerful semiconductors. 

Good engineers are also empathetic. That’s because there is never just “one solution” to an engineering challenge. There are always multiple solutions, and figuring out the best approach requires taking the time to understand the complexities of a problem from numerous perspectives. 

Engineers solve problems for people, and that means they need to make sure their work meets both technical and non-technical requirements.

Why engineering is a versatile and future-proof degree

Learning to consider multiple perspectives 

In their foundation year, UBC Engineering students take two courses that introduce the design cycle and ask students to develop solutions to open-ended problems. 

For Dr. Ray Taheri, who teaches one of these courses to students at UBC Okanagan, the start of the design cycle is one of the most important steps. This is the stage where you study the problem by thinking about it from the viewpoint of all the stakeholders involved.

For me, the design cycle begins with empathy,” he says. “As engineers we use our empathy and imagination to think about problems and imagine that problem from multiple perspectives.

The projects he’s assigned vary with each year. But whether students are designing a product to help elderly adults with day-to-day life or coming up with a solution to help firefighters do their jobs more efficiently, it all begins with research. 

First-year students are designing solutions to real-world problems

You need to start by doing your research and talk with people to understand the issues they are facing,” he says. “That’s how you connect with the problem.

For Dr. Taheri, this is what makes engineering such a rewarding and fascinating profession. “You see the issue from your viewpoint, but you then have to imagine the issue from the perspectives of others, the people building it, using it and maintaining it – and even what happens to your solution at the end of its life-cycle.” 

The ability to imagine a problem from multiple perspectives is essential to good design. Let’s say you’re designing a new pedestrian bridge crossing a busy roadway. You need to think about that structure from the viewpoint of taxpayers who are ultimately paying to construct it, the people who will use that bridge and the workers who will build and maintain it over its lifespan (have you chosen parts susceptible to corrosion?).

Foundation year  Dr. Ray Taheri  UBC Okanagan

Dr. Taheri believes empathetic engineers are a force for positive change

Sustainable, useful solutions 

In our Research in Action series, UBC Engineering professors share insights about their work and its impact. 

One theme that runs through many of the articles is the importance of collaborating with end users and carefully considering the impact of any solutions on people, the environment and society. 

Dr. Antony Hodgson, for example, has developed many tools to support orthopaedic surgeons. Since he himself has never conducted orthopedic surgery, he needs to spend a lot of time talking with surgeons so he can understand the problem from their point of view. Being able to empathize with their challenges enables him to come up with better solutions.

My research involves a lot of work with surgeons – we observe surgical procedures, ask questions and brainstorm with surgeons about possible solutions,” he says. “We’ll then go through a process to design a potential solution and verify and validate it in the lab.” 

RiA article


Similarly, Dr. Patrick Kirchen, who is developing better sensors to monitor emissions, emphasizes that engineers need to be able to understand multiple perspectives when exploring design options. “This means looking at problems with a critical eye when determining potential solutions and ensuring that those solutions are appropriate on both a technical level and from a sustainability perspective. It also means that engineers need to continuously assess our solutions, as the “best” solution depends on many constantly changing factors.” 

RiA article


These UBC engineering profs and their colleagues are motivated by an empathetic desire to ensure their work is improving people’s lives, whether by contributing to the health of a person, community or the planet. 

Research in Action

An empathetic approach generates better solutions

At UBC Engineering, students learn both technical and soft skills. You’ll gain the fundamentals of science, math and coding you need to succeed as an engineer. As importantly, you’ll learn how to creatively and empathetically consider problems from multiple viewpoints.

This holistic approach is just one reason that UBC Engineering consistently stands out in national and international rankings. The achievements of our faculty, students and alumni show the incredible value that comes from using critical-thinking skills to solve problems that that put people first – and thereby have a positive impact on the well-being of people and the communities where we live and work.  

Skills you need to succeed as an engineer
An engineering student at the Design and Innovation day exhibit

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Design & Innovation Day, Kai Jacobson

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