Introducing Contemplative Practices in Engineering Courses

By Phoebe Szarek

In engineering and related disciplines (e.g. STEM), there is a certain level of objectivity that is expected and even required. We are taught to make the best decision based on current technology, objectives, constraints, and foundational math and science. There is very little space for “I feel” in most of these situations. In guiding students to seek an objectively superior solution, we may not be encouraging students to listen to their highly individualistic inner voice and find personal meaning in their actions which can lead to undermotivated students and, ultimately, professionals.

photo of author Phoebe Szarek
Phoebe Szarek is a PhD candidate in the Biomedical Engineering program with a research focus in the mechanics of soft tissues from a multiscale perspective. She is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in College Instruction, preparing to use innovative methods in teaching engineering in a higher-education setting.

I believe we need to incorporate opportunities for students to reflect on their thoughts, feelings, and goals in engineering courses.

Merging STEM instruction with contemplative methods can bring student-centered reflection into the classroom, effectively creating a space of “the cognitive and critical in tension with the affective and appreciative” (Sadd, 2018). Contemplative practices are “practical, radical, and transformative” actions that “develop capacities for deep concentration and quieting the mind that “aid in exploration of meaning, purpose and values” (The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society). Despite the skepticism associated with such practices, there is now a solid research base on their psychological and health benefits.

Many instructors in my own engineering education have taken time to present the ultimate purpose of the work in a given field (I appreciate you!), but sometimes these can seem too far off; how does sitting through this lecture or doing this assignment help future me solve this grand problem facing our society? As an instructor, you could attempt to outline how every single activity connects to the course, department, and university objectives, but that might take a significant amount of time from instruction. Additionally, the personal goals of your students may be very different within a class.

Leading students to reflect on how their academic choices relate to their own goals and the rest of society can allow students to individually make personalized connections with the course content and to appreciate the value of the knowledge they are gaining.

I would be foolish not to mention other reported benefits of contemplative practices in the classroom. Contemplative pedagogies have been shown to reduce students’ anxiety and increase students’ attention, empathy and cognitive flexibility, all things our classrooms could certainly use (Rosenzweig, 2003; Cho et al.; 2016, Moore, 2009). Probably my favorite support for contemplative pedagogies are studies that show that focused attention (focusing on one thing) and open monitoring (experiencing moments) meditation styles have been shown to increase neural material in emotion and attention center of the brain, possibly supporting long term benefits (Lutz et al., 2008).

I’ve put together a few ways to bring contemplative practices into your courses. I would encourage you to also explore some of the links within this post to look at other applications of mindfulness in higher education and to see if you can bring them into your discipline.

Ways to bring contemplative practices and mindfulness into engineering/STEM courses:

Written reflection:  Invite students to write weekly journal entries about their senior design process (or any design, internship, co-op, etc.). What have they learned? How has this experience shaped their outlook? Is this something they can see themselves doing? Do they feel fulfilled? If a student feels that the experience isn’t similar to their career goals, ask them how seeing this other perspective affects their understanding of collaboration between different professions working towards a common goal.

Visualization and appreciation: Ask student to imagine they are a user of the device/technology they are designing, tuning into their senses and emotional response to the product and to the engineer/designer. Are they easily able to use the device? How thankful are they that someone created this technology? Some students will appreciate the opportunity to reflect on how their work affects people, especially if at least part of their motivation is altruistic in nature.  

“Sustained contradictions” (Zajoric, 2013): Highlight to students that there is always some give and take with decisions in engineering; your product will be durable and last forever, but the material is pricy; the medical test uses the newest laboratory technologies, but it won’t be accessible in remote locations where testing may be needed the most. Allow students to feel the tension in these situations to help them connect with how they might feel in their future careers where they might face conflicting objectives. Guide students to also reflect on how their education is preparing them to make these sometimes hard decisions. 

Goal-motivated assignments: Include options in course assignments to account for the diversity in career goals of your students. For example, as a biomedical engineering professor, I may ask students to read an peer-reviewed article and offer them options to either develop an experiment to improve the work done (research/graduate school option), write out a medical recommendation based on the findings (pre-health option), or translate the article into a format accessible to the general public (industry/marketing/education option)…or any other ideas they can come up with! Even acknowledging that there are different ways to approach the material may help students realize that they can incorporate their personality and desires into their career. 

With all of these suggestions, written reflections may be helpful in getting to know how effective these practices are and how well they are being received (of course, you would need to determine if/how to grade these types of assignment). 

In my first semester of studying higher education instruction, I have noticed a strong focus on making our teaching student-centered. We are centering our instruction on students but are students given the chance to center their learning on themselves?

Center for Contemplative Mind in Society ( – take a look at the Tree of Contemplative Practices to generate other applications in your classroom; they also have a blank tree available for you to write out your own ideas for your course.