ASU students explore mental health in engineering education

May 16, 2023

According to a study, half of all undergraduate engineering students in the United States screen positive for a major mental health condition or significant distress. The rates can be even higher among high-achieving students and populations underrepresented in engineering fields.

“Most people I know in engineering either suffered from anxiety or depression, or saw their peers suffer from it,” said Daniella Pautz, who graduated in May with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. ASU biomedical engineering students Ruhi Dharan, Daniella Pautz and Maxwell Johnson write on a dry erase board. Arizona State University biomedical engineering students (left to right) Ruhi Dharan, Daniella Pautz and Maxwell Johnson are studying the effects of teaching methods on engineering students’ well-being as well as faculty mental health. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

“Especially because we completed half of our degree online through COVID, loneliness and stress levels were higher than ever,” she said. “College is difficult enough, but seeing my friends suffer the way they did made me realize a change was needed.”

This desire to help led Pautz to set a new course of student-led research at ASU alongside Claire Honeycutt, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and undergraduate biomedical engineering students Ruhi Dharan and Maxwell Johnson to explore mental health in engineering higher education.

An opportunity to make a difference

Pautz has always loved math and science and wanted to become an engineer. She also gained a passion for teaching in high school by tutoring her peers.

As an undergraduate student at ASU, Pautz found Honeycutt to be a particularly effective and inspiring teacher after taking one of her classes and working in her lab. As an honors student in Barrett, The Honors College, Pautz needed to complete a thesis research project, and she chose Honeycutt as her advisor.

Honeycutt’s research typically focuses on clinical biomechanics, motor control, stroke, falls and orthotics. However, the timing of Pautz’s honors thesis work lined up with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a unique opportunity to explore Pautz’s interest in education.

“I had been increasingly interested in psychology-based techniques to increase student outcomes such as grades, well-being and community,” Honeycutt said. “I had been using these techniques in my classroom for several years and wanted to quantify their success. As my lab was shut down, COVID allowed us the opportunity to do just that.”

Honeycutt and Pautz specifically looked into Robert B. Cialdini’s six methods of persuasion: liking, reciprocation, consistency, scarcity, social proof and authority. He defined these methods without education in mind. However, they can be used to help build relationships, manage decisions and increase motivation, which are also important in the classroom.

In her honors thesis, Pautz investigated how ASU engineering professors’ use of these persuasion methods in their teaching affected students’ stress and performance.

“The data from her honors thesis was preliminary, but something quite striking came out of it,” Honeycutt said. “I thought that these psychological principles would influence grades, but her work suggested that it might do something much more significant than that. They might decrease anxiety and improve mental health in the classroom.”

Honeycutt said Pautz was a pioneer in the lab for this type of research. To help realize its potential, Honeycutt helped Pautz further refine the project for her master’s degree thesis and recruited Dharan and Johnson to contribute to further research. In addition to Honeycutt’s mentorship, their work was supported by the Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative, or FURI, and Master’s Opportunity for Research in Engineering, or MORE, programs.

A closer look at student mental health

Pautz’s next phase of research for her master's degree thesis focused more closely on how inclusive versus authoritarian persuasion methods affect mental health in addition to stress and academic outcomes.

She developed a survey, taken by more than 300 engineering and technology students at ASU, to evaluate students’ perceptions of their professors’ use of persuasion techniques. The surveyed students also rated their own academic and mental health outcomes.

Pautz’s research concluded that professors who use persuasion methods that focus on enhancing community, relationship building and improving students’ sense of belonging were perceived as the most effective teachers.

“Their students have better mental health, decreased stress and better grades,” Pautz said.

Conversely, professors who used rules and punishments — such as requiring class attendance and restricting computer or smartphone use — had a negative impact on students, including increased stress, worse grades and worse mental health.

Pautz’s work was supplemented by Dharan’s research to screen students for mental health conditions and analyze whether certain persuasion techniques are more or less effective for students who screened positive.

“I hope to help professors understand what their students are going through and how their tactics affect their students' health,” Dharan said.

Dharan found her sophomore year to be particularly difficult. The course load of her engineering degree and the difficulty of finding internships have at times caused her to want to change majors. She said she has noticed many of her peers share her experiences.

Similar to other published research about engineering students’ mental health, Dharan’s survey results indicated that 47% of the ASU engineering and technology students who responded screened positive for mental health conditions. The survey included assessments used in clinical diagnoses of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and asked if students had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

However, Dharan’s findings related to persuasion methods were less clear. In her research so far, none of the persuasion techniques showed a significant difference in effectiveness for students who screened positive or negative for mental health conditions.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing,” Dharan said. “It could just mean both groups have the same feelings for their professors regardless of their mental state. I am planning to dive deeper into analysis to see if I can find anything that will be significantly impactful for students in the long run.”

How are the professors feeling?

When biomedical engineering junior Maxwell Johnson learned about Pautz’s research from Honeycutt, he started thinking about the faculty side of the equation.

“The main motivation for my research was the apparent necessity of investigating faculty mental health,” Johnson said. “No statistics are known about the mental health rates of professors in higher education. Since the metric for student rates of depression and anxiety is shockingly one in every two students over a four-year degree duration, I wanted to peel back the cover on what these numbers looked like for teachers and see how they compared.”

Johnson’s research assessed the prevalence of mental health disorders in ASU engineering and technology faculty members and how that affected the professors’ teaching styles, student outcomes, job satisfaction and other factors.

He found that more than a third of faculty members surveyed experienced symptoms of one or more mental health conditions, which included depression, anxiety and PTSD. Johnson also found a correlation between screening positive for mental health disorders and a lower sense of professional satisfaction, working longer hours, feeling less supported and not using resources available to help them.

However, he found that faculty members’ mental health did not seem to impact the teaching and persuasive techniques they use, how effective they thought they were at teaching or their students' grades or attendance.

“One thing I think students forget is that teachers are people, too, and face the same issues and struggles as everyone else,” Johnson said. “This data advocates for better support for mental health, especially in schools with STEM connections.”

Actionable results and future work

Pautz’s research efforts have uncovered new ways that professors can help improve the performance and mental health of students pursuing careers in engineering and technology.

“Many of the principles that Daniella is evaluating have the potential to be added to the classroom with low faculty effort, such as five- to 10-minute exercises, or policy-level changes like flexible deadlines,” Honeycutt said. “Our goal is to provide a list of evidence-based techniques to assist our students with mental health disorders.”

Pautz’s work has also inspired her collaborators to continue to look for ways to address this important issue in higher education. Dharan plans to continue investigating this topic and publish the findings in a research journal to inspire educators to implement positive techniques in their classrooms.

“The data collected through this project will inform not only ASU but could be expanded to inform any higher education institution,” Honeycutt said.

Johnson has been working closely with the Fulton Schools Learning and Teaching Hub during the design and execution of his experiment. The hub was created in 2021 to provide faculty with professional development opportunities, teaching strategy resources and tools for effective education. He is also sharing his findings with them to provide a clearer picture of faculty resource needs.

Kristen Peña, program manager for the hub, said she and her colleagues learned valuable information from Johnson’s work about how the faculty used or didn’t use the resources they provide.

“We want to raise awareness of the many resources and services available to faculty and to also think holistically about how to embed those resources in our professional development offerings,” Peña said.

The hub is developing quick reference guides and asynchronous learning materials for faculty to learn the techniques that Honeycutt and Pautz found increased student motivation and performance.

“Our goal in embedding these topics is so that it doesn’t feel like there is a barrier to access or confusion navigating what’s out there,” Peña said.

Peña said hub staff is also thinking about how they can help create safe spaces for faculty members to share their struggles.

Johnson plans to expand his research with Honeycutt to explore faculty mental health in a larger population, including faculty members at other universities, and start a new project to generate specific recommendations for university administrators based on his results.

With a fresh degree in hand, Pautz is beginning a systems engineering position at Sandia National Laboratories. One day, she wants to be a teacher or professor, and she can draw upon her research findings and her own experiences with different teaching methods throughout her education.

“Engineering is a difficult major, and the effectiveness of a professor has a huge impact on your success,” Pautz said. “It doesn’t matter how much knowledge a professor has if they can’t keep their students motivated, build a relationship with them and help them learn.”

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


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Practicing mindfulness can help climate scientists

May 16, 2023

Paper from ASU faculty illustrates how mindfulness can relieve anxiety, stress, despair

Imagine being a scientist working on climate change.

The problems in front of you are enormous. Solutions seem inadequate and, perhaps, too late.

To make matters worse, the politicization of climate change has made you a target — on talk shows, in newspapers and across social media.

How do you cope?

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, ASU News talked to Zachary Reeves-Blurton, assistant director of the Arizona State University Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience.

Reeves-Blurton co-authored a paper in the Society for Conservation Biology titled “Practicing Mindfulness in Addressing the Biodiversity Crisis.”

The paper was also co-authored by Leah Gerber, a professor of conservation science in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes; Nika Gueci, the inaugural executive director of the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience; Gwen Iacona, program lead for conservation investment in the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, part of Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation; Jessica Beaudette, a research associate at the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes; and Teri Pipe, the founding director of the Center of Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience.

Here, Reeves-Blurton talks about the results of the study, and how these practices can help anyone dealing with these feelings.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: What prompted you and your co-authors to write the article?

Answer: Here at the Center for Mindfulness, we were approached by the faculty at the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. They noted that climate scientists, conservationists, sustainability scientists, etc., were facing a lot of burnout, workplace fatigue and morale issues. We wanted to kind of dig into not only why this is happening but look at practices that these scientists can use to re-energize and be able to refocus on the work that they’re doing.

Q: Is this stress, anxiety and despair a recent phenomenon?

A: It’s not. Climate scientists have known for decades that there are systemic challenges that our world is facing without simple answers. But I think what has changed over the past decade or so is we’ve seen an increased politicization of climate science and global warming. Between that and the advent of social media, the 24/7 news cycle and the polarization of issues like this, we’re really seeing climate scientists who went into this for the sake of helping humanity and helping the planet suddenly, to some people, they’re the opponent. That’s what we’re really seeing taking a toll right now.

Q: I want to get back to that politicization in a minute, but given the scope of the problem, is there a sense of hopelessness among these scientists?

A: That really seems to be what we’re seeing right now. These scientists come into the field wanting to do good, wanting to make a difference, and it’s a form of grief that they are suffering. There’s a sense of ineffectiveness of the work at times. Sometimes, scientists are ill-equipped to deal with what they’re getting as far as pushback.

Q: Do they feel like they’re under attack?

A: Many climate scientists do feel that not only are they maybe under attack as field, but there’s push to misconstrue the work or to disguise the level of trouble, that is to minimize the nature of the problem itself.

Q: Can you elaborate on some the ways these scientists – or anyone – can practice mindfulness?

A: Some of them simply come back to what they call the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness. For instance, the ability to be patient not only with the arc of history and sometimes the slow sense of progress that we’re seeing, but also patience with themselves, understanding that they are doing what they can. We also talk a great deal in the article about rediscovering and/or reconnecting with their passion and their motivation for doing the work, and a sense of really refining that wonder of, “Wow, this is what we’re fighting for. This is what we’re trying to preserve or change.”

Q: What else can they do?

A: Within mindfulness there are a variety of practices, whether they’re simple things, like sitting and breathing, taking a few moments to be reflective and really examining what we’re feeling in the moment. That’s really one of the tenets of mindfulness. It allows us to really take a close examination of, “OK, I’m feeling anxiety, I’m feeling frustration. What is the source of that? What can I do with it?”

It’s so easy for all of us right now to be in this generalized sense of ongoing anxiety. And in our fast-paced world, we just have to push through anxiety and issue after issue without really taking the time to pause, breathe and say, “OK, so what is bothering me right now?” It’s just a constant focus on the present moment.

You can do mediation, you can do a reflective writing exercise, you can simply breathe. Anything that allows you to really be conscious about what you’re doing, what your movement is, how your body and mind are relating. Anything that brings your mind just to the task at hand has a biochemical effect on our brains, bodies and nervous system. That really calms the nervous system itself and allows us to regain the capacity for critical thinking and reasoning.

Q: This has to be a continual practice, right?

A: Absolutely. We look at mindfulness like any other exercise. If you do it once, if you and I were to sit down and say, “OK, we’re going to do a focused breathing exercise for three minutes” – and we see this in our workshops all the time – people will immediately say, “Oh yeah, I feel really calm right now. I feel really relaxed.” Five minutes later into their day, that’s all gone.

The more we exercise that mindfulness muscle, just like any other system of the body, not only does that allow us with time to reach a deeper level of that mental or that emotional equanimity and calm, but it allows that feeling to linger longer. It has to become a lifetime practice. The more we do it and the more we weave it into our everyday lives, the better the results for us are.

Top photo courtesy Shutterstock.

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News