Measuring the impact of an interdisciplinary learning project on nursing, architecture and landscape design students’ empathy

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Journal Article
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In Australia and internationally, domestic violence is a major cause of homelessness for women and children. When designing emergency accommodation, the concerns, preferences, and perspectives of individuals who access refuge services must be sought in order to create spaces that are conducive to the needs of this diverse and vulnerable group. An empathic ‘lens’ can provide meaningful insights that can inform the design of refuge services specifically targeted at addressing these needs. This paper describes an authentic interdisciplinary learning experience for nursing, architecture and landscape students’, and presents the results of a study designed to measure the impact of this initiative on participants’ empathy towards women and children who access refuge services as a result of homelessness and/or domestic violence. Empathy levels were measured using the Comprehensive State Empathy Scale. The learning experience consisted of collaborative meetings with stakeholders from the refuge sector, fieldwork, individual research, exchanging ideas and problem-solving in teams. Students then developed design guides for refuges that demonstrated their emerging understanding of the specific needs and perspectives of the issues faced by women and children who were homeless. A convenience sample of 48 students (nursing n = 22; architecture n = 11; and landscape n = 13) participated in the study. Participants were aged from 19 to 37 years with an average of 23.8 years (SD= 3.65). Pre-post Comprehensive State Empathy Scale results indicated that the empathy levels of nursing and landscape students increased and those of architecture students decreased, however, these results were not statistically significant. In Australia, one in six women have experienced domestic violence and domestic violence remains the single largest cause of homelessness for women. Yet reports suggest that these women frequently encounter discrimination, both in the community and when accessing services. As empathy is one of the strongest negative correlates of prejudice, authentic teaching and learning activities, such as the one described in this paper, have the potential to positively impact the lived experience of these women.
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