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Hannah Nolte, CMU’s Chris McComb, and other collaborators at Penn State’s School of Engineering found that mindfulness-based interventions (MBI), such as guided meditation and breathing exercises, had an impact on students in an introductory engineering design course. Students practicing MBIs were more aware of their stress, allowing them to create higher quality designs on average for their final project deliverables. The interventions did not affect students’ overall stress levels; however, they did report a more positive experience.

Nolte, a former graduate student at Penn State’s College of Engineering advised by McComb, said that her favorite part of the research was seeing how engaged students were with starting mindfulness practices, especially as college student stress levels rise nationally.

“Research shows that engineering students are at a higher risk of adverse health conditions due to stress than most disciplines,” Nolte said. “As many amazing things as engineers are doing for the world, we really do have to watch out and make sure that they are taking care of themselves.”

McComb, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, discussed that finding an optimal stress level can be beneficial for engineering students.

“Essentially in psychology we know that low stress might feel comfortable, but you’re not being pushed to perform, whereas with too much stress you crumble under the pressure,” McComb said. “So stress isn’t necessarily something that we want to minimize, but it’s something that we need to regulate and control. And this is especially true in engineering, and maybe especially true at CMU.”

Students in the introductory engineering course practiced short MBI exercises, from the Healthy Minds app within their class, and their stress levels were recorded in self-reported surveys and post-study interviews. The creativity and quality of their final class projects were also taken into account. Students in the MBI group reported having a better overall experience in the class than the control group of students, even if their quality of work did not differ drastically. Nolte attributes this to the students’ ability to better handle their stress levels.

“We saw an increase in reported relaxation after doing mindfulness,” Nolte said. “They’re able to focus on the present moment, and everything doesn’t stack up on their mental to-do list in the same way.”

Stress isn’t necessarily something that we want to minimize, but it’s something that we need to regulate and control.

Chris McComb, Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering

McComb echoed that sentiment, saying that students became more aware of their difficulties with stress levels.

“This gets into the challenge of measuring mindfulness and stress. I think it’s the case that this mindfulness practice helped people not just to minimize their stress, but to become more aware and to manage their stress more effectively,” McComb said. 

McComb recommends that anyone interested in mindfulness simply try it out for themselves, and see if mindfulness can help them reduce or better regulate stress levels in their lives. He also is considering adding mindfulness practices into some of his engineering courses.

“I think everybody inside of engineering and inside of CMU could benefit from a little more mindfulness and a little more attention to our emotional states,” McComb said.

Nolte emphasized that all people should learn how to properly manage stress, whether affiliated with the engineering field or not.

“Chronic stress is not good for you—it affects your mental and physical state,” Nolte said. “As humans, it’s important to monitor how much stress you’re taking on over periods of time and to make sure that you are making time to take care of yourself.” 

This research was published in Design Science in July 2023. Elizabeth Starkey and Nicolas Soria Zurita, assistant teaching professors in the College of Engineering at Penn State University, also contributed to this research.