Humans before Heat Transfer

After attending Collegium, I thought for a long time about how I might help my engineering students with character formation, particularly building empathy and compassion as a habit. I implemented many different practices in my classes, but the most successful habit was one I developed for my heat transfer class. Throughout the semester, the prompt "Humans >> Heat Transfer" is embedded in course work, exams, and projects as a reminder that humans are more important than heat transfer. I think this message is absorbed by the students in different ways. It communicates to students that I value them as individuals and prompts them to think deeply about the relationship between engineering knowledge and human flourishing. 

The module could be adapted for any STEM class, but I have most often used it with juniors in mechanical engineering. The discussion prompts were used as part of the lecture, about once per week for about 5 minutes. I write the discussion prompt on the board while I pass back exams, homework, or worksheets. Some of the prompts were given before exams to help students think about external things, a technique that has been shown to support underrepresented student groups with stereotype threat1. Pedagogically the discussion prompts are mostly used in a “think-pair-share” format. The opportunity for conversations with peers helped students to become more comfortable discussing mental health and empathy as the course progressed. 

In the beginning, discussion prompts focus on the humans in close proximity with instructions like "check in with the people near you to confirm they are well today." As the course progresses, the prompts transition to focus on humans far away impacted by the design project. 

The following is a list of sample prompts for Humans >> Heat Transfer: 

  • Do a one-minute wellness check with your neighbor. 
  • How might you enhance the learning environment of other people in this class this week? (this prompt was designed to help diffuse some challenging classroom dynamics that started to emerge) 
  • You are each more important than the heat equation. So are the people who use the devices you design. Discuss why this is true in your groups.
  • What ethical implications for stakeholders does your project criteria include?
  • Consider the people that have helped you on your academic journey. Working alone, make a short list, then discuss with your neighbors. (prompt before an exam)
  • How will the thermal devices you design impact the environment? Which stakeholders will be most impacted by your design decisions? 
  • Ponder how many things you have learned this term, including your personal and professional growth. Make a list in your small groups. 


My students reported that the project significantly enhanced the classroom environment, often commenting on it in the course evaluations. Students wrote the following reflections about the project: 

  • "It was nice to know that coursework was important, but not as important as our well being." 
  • "Because we took the time to talk with classmates before doing the exercise, it was nice to have a bit of time to relax before doing work. It also helped because we would talk about difficulties in the work (heat transfer as well as other classes). For me, it helped me know that I wasn’t the only one struggling in class." 

Perhaps the most important feedback has come from the students that use the phrase informally in conversations with me, a part of the cultural language. Recently I spoke with a student that graduated several years ago and is now a working engineer. He was explaining why he was working very late on a weeknight as he had a colleague who had a family issue and asked him to help with a project. I asked if it was part of his job for him to help so much with other people’s projects and he explained that he made it a habit to assist others whenever possible, adding succinctly, “Humans before Heat Transfer Dr. Dillon!”

  • 1. Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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