A reminder about the imminent climate catastrophe and how we should educate engineers to prepare for it

[The following text is adapted from the after-dinner speech I gave at the University of Edinburgh Engineering Faculty’s away day. It was originally titled ‘How problem-based learning can save the world and make you happy too’. But I have renamed it ‘A reminder about the imminent climate catastrophe and how we should educate engineers to prepare for it’]

Tonight’s engagement is my first since I took a summer sabbatical, which I planned to use to work on a book. Those plans changed in my first week away when I got involved in the Extinction Rebellion summer uprising in Bristol. That experience of direct action and the reaction it caused prompted me to read much more about climate breakdown, models for political change, the implications of societal collapse, the role of engineers to help minimise impacts and deal with upheaval in our own communities and the role of the people that teach engineers.

Continue reading “A reminder about the imminent climate catastrophe and how we should educate engineers to prepare for it”

Secretly teaching design – notes from our curriculum planning day at Imperial

I am just back from taking part in a Design Thread workshop at Imperial College, the aim of which was to co-ordinate activity between the various design-relevant courses on the undergraduate civil engineering course at Imperial. Here are some reflective notes as I whiz home, during the writing of which I came up with the notion of ‘secretly teaching design‘. Continue reading “Secretly teaching design – notes from our curriculum planning day at Imperial”

Alt peer-to-peer feedback

Pear-to-pear (it was better than the images I got for peer-to-peer).

As part of my Visiting Professorship at Imperial College I have been asked to think about how peer-to-peer assessment works in group works. Here are my thoughts.

One of the common features of the group-work-based learning experiences that I have been involved with is the need for the participants to be able to give each other feedback. Often in an undergraduate setting there is an emphasis on giving anonymous feedback. I have seen many colleagues cook up clever ways of gathering this anonymous feedback – I’ve conceived a few such systems myself – and processing this feedback in order to find out what is going on in student groups and to enable the teacher to be the arbiter of fairness. Managing such systems of peer-to-peer feedback can quickly become burdensome, and I am never really sure whether you really know what is going in the group or if the students are rigging the system.

As I become more and more involved in problem-based learning, I realise that this approach – anonymity and delegation of confrontation to the teacher – misses the point. If students feel that their peers aren’t pulling their weight in a teaching scenario, then they should be trained in how to confront these issues in themselves. And taking a more positive spin, students should also learn how to give positive feedback too.

I think it should be possible to give students the tools to handle these sorts of interactions themselves, and then for the teaching staff to coach students through the process where difficult situations arise. These are tools that my collaborator Nick Zienau uses in his ‘Leading and Influencing‘ course. The following is how I envisage this could work:

How it would work

The context is an extended student group design session in which a group of six to ten students spend a number of weeks collaborating to deliver a shared group output.

Skills development day: trust, confrontation and non-judgemental feedback.

I envisage a day-long training day for student groups. This would involve a series of group work exercises punctuated with whole-class briefing and feedback sessions.

Contracting – this is the process by which students agree with each other what they can each contribute to the team, what they want from the others, and how through their own actions they might jeopardise the group’s success. Students develop contracts for themselves, present them to one-another, and then agree a contract for the group.

The creation of contracts is a trust-building activity, and it creates a visible set of expectations by which the students can hold each-other to account.

Confrontation – in this session we provide a quick formula for confronting challenges. It involves naming a behaviour that they have seen and saying how it contravenes their individual or group contract. The reference to the contracts makes the terms of engagement very clear. Practising a formula for engagement makes the process something that people are familiar with.

Non-judgemental feedback – we walk students through process where they give each non-judgemental feedback, much of which comes down to language. We show students how to stick to facts, like ‘I have seen you do this’ or ‘when you do that it makes me feel like this’, rather than ‘what you have done is bad, or wrong’.

At the end of the training day, students have contracts for themselves and the group, a language for direct, open and kind confrontation and a mechanism for giving non-judgemental feedback.

Self-regulation during group work

After the initial training day students get on with their group work as normal. They are asked to have a quick daily group feedback session, where they appreciate each other’s efforts and identify any emerging issues. They are also expected to have a weekly structured feedback session, where they tell each other where they are contributing most to the group, and how they could contribute more.

Through the group work, it is expected that the contracts remain in view. They are intended to be a visual reminder to individuals of what they should be doing themselves, and also a way for people to understand other people’s behaviour.

Instructor Intervention

The course instructor makes themselves available say once a week to deal with any issues that students feel they can’t deal with in their own groups. The consultation happens with the whole group and the instructor will ask to see evidence that the teams have been meeting to review their contracts regularly and have been giving each other constructive feedback along the way.

Overall, I believe this approach would empower the students, give them useful life skills and improve the quality of their learning.

My thanks to Nick Zienau and Søren Willert who have significantly advanced my thinking on this topic.

Pear‘ by Augustus Binu, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Problem-based learning – action learning from around Europe

Today I have been reviewing the action learning diaries that half a dozen people have sent me from Greece and Cyprus. They are getting ready for training in problem-based learning that I will be co-leading here in London at Think Up with Prof Søren Willert from the University of Aalborg (see picture) as part of the EU ErasmusPlus-funded Enginite programme, and we have set them some problem-based learning of their own to do before they arrive.

The idea behind problem-based learning is that the student should own the problem and own the process of finding the solution. This approach is diamertrically opposed to the traditional direction of travel for learning. The aim of our approach is to get the participants to experience this problem-based approach for themselves before they start designing such experiences for their students.

The first set of reflective diaries that I have read reveal very different ways of working in our cohort. Some are applying problem-based learning with their students; others, who don’t teach, are adopting this approach with colleagues in their companies, and it is this latter group which is perhaps the most fascinating – because is in fact the sort of environment for which we are eventually preparing students.

At the moment problem-based learning feels like very rich territory to be farming in. The approach itself is a powerful philisophy that has many daily applications, and coaching other people in its use is gives me the chance to witness the daily strategies for sucess that other people use.

One of things that I really enjoy about this project is that is it is open – you can join in yourself if you follow the instructions below – and everyone is learning as they go. For my part I am learning what other people understand problem-based learning to be and become ever more aware of its applications. It is also terrific to be working with Søren, I feel like I learn so much from each of our interactions. Today it has been really interesting to see how he characterises the different types of PBL as described in the reflective diaries. To his words, it is enabling me to notice ‘exemplarities’ that I can look for in other people’s work.

To find out more about this project and get involved visit ‘Getting Started with Problem-based learning‘ on the Think Up website.

Choppin’, loppin’, circus and swing – notes from Hazel Hill Autumn Conservation weekend 2015

Last weekend 38 people came down to Hazel Hill for our annual Autumn Conservation weekend for two days of woodland conservation and human restoration. We design the weekend to be a mixture of invigorating outdoor conservation work and relaxation in the woods, with a dose of entertainment thrown in too.

Building on what we learnt from last year, we began the conservation work on the Saturday with a series of activities that would make an immediate and visible difference in the woods. An on-going conservation priority at Hazel Hill is the creation of butterfly rides, which serve two purposes. The first is to create the sort of wide path through the woods that enable the many rare species of butterflies that inhabit the surrounding fields to pass freely through the foerst. The second is to allow light in to the lower levels of the wood in order to increase the biodiversity.

Widened butterfly ride leading to the Forest Ark

This year we began our work by significantly widening the ride that runs from the forest ark to the southern cross, which had become significantly encroached upon by regenerating hornbeam. In the process we uncovered and liberated around twenty-five broadleaf trees in tubes that had previously been planted and which were being smothered by the hornbeam. I remember planting some of these trees myself on my first conservation weekend six years ago, and so I am pleased to see them being rescued. Any of this weekend’s participants returning to this spot in the wood in ten years time are now much more likely to find ash, oak and hazel trees maturing, thanks largely to their work this weekend.

Continue reading “Choppin’, loppin’, circus and swing – notes from Hazel Hill Autumn Conservation weekend 2015”

Reflections on video selfie training

Think Up Selfie Movie Training

Yesterday at Think Up I ran a workshop training engineers in how to use selfie movies to tell communicate to people about engineering. The aim of the workshop was to inspire and give the participants the skills to use video as a medium to share interesting engineering stories. The attendees were a group of engineering students from UCL and Imperial and a couple of graduate engineers from Expedition Engineering.

The content I had to deliver was in two parts: the technical skills – talking to camera, framing the shot, etc; and storytelling – figuring out what to say.

In my experience people are nervous to talk to camera, so I kicked off the workshop with asking people to film a selfie introducing themselves and sharing two surprising facts about themselves. It turned out to be a great way to kick off the exercise. I think it worked because people had to confront their fears straight away. We used these examples as a context for talking about what makes a good selfie. I then showed them a selfie I had made that morning, and asked them what was good and bad about it (below).

We then moved on to storytelling. I had thought that the participants would find the storytelling easier than the technical material, but it was the contrary. I asked individuals to think of a subject that they are passionate about, and to find one particular intriguing aspect of that subject that could form the kernel of their story. That bit was mostly easy, the challenge was finding the language that helped weave a compelling yarn. In the end the way round this was for me to suggest linking phrases or expressions and to show them how they could be used, and then for the individuals to weave those phrases into their stories.

The impact was stark: once they had a compelling story to tell, and they knew how to say it, even the least confident sounded a lot more confident on camera.

In the end I saw some really quite moving videos being produced. As homework I asked the participants to polish their performances and upload a video to the Think Up Facebook page. I’ll have more to write on this depending on whether they do or don’t post anything!

There are some important things that I take away from delivering this workshop:-

  • This is another reminder that there is no substitute in learning for getting people to do. Forcing the participants to make a film straightaway was probably scary for most, but once they were ‘doing’ it was easier to talk about how to do it better. I had a similar experience in a communications workshop I ran last week on difficult conversations in engineering projects. We talked about the ideas, but it was only when I forced participants to role-play the scenarios (which they seemed reluctant to do at first) that the learning really seemed to sink in.
  • I haven’t previously appreciated the value of good storytelling, though many of the people I work with do. Perhaps because it is something I think I’m good at, I don’t recognise how other people find it a challenge. This is a theme that I would like to develop in more training for engineers.
  • This event was about confidence building, and I used a lot of the confidence building techniques I know from swing dance teaching – lots of applause for one-another’s efforts; keeping the momentum up and the tone positive – and it seemed to pay off.

Notes on ‘Teaching Design in the first years of a traditional mechanical engineering degree: methods, issues and future perspectives’

Constructionarium offers students the chance to build real civil engineeirng structures
Constructionarium offers students the chance to build real civil engineeirng structures

From the latest edition of the European Journal of Engineering Education (Vol 40 (1)) I have just read the very interesting paper ‘Teaching Design  in the first years of a traditional mechanical engineering degree: methods, issues and future perspectives’ by Silva, Fontul and Henriques. This blog is to capture my thoughts.
I am conscious that while I and my colleagues at Think Up have been involved for many years now in changing the way design is taught in civil engineering degree courses, we have written relatively little on what we have been up to. This paper is a good introduction to some the issues associated with integrating design teaching into the first year of mechanical engineering degree courses. It offers some parallels to civil engineering teaching (I will look in due course for papers directly related to civil engineering)
The authors describe how mechanical engineering is traditionally taught through a series of separate courses with little cross-over and little opportunity for interdisciplinary design and open-ended problem solving. They describe a pilot project in which a design project is spread across three early modules in the course. Briefly, during two modules on technical drawing students design a simple innovative product, and create a prototype; and then in a subsequent course on materials they have to choose a material to manufacture it from. Some of the benefits are that learning is massively enhanced because students have to build something. Students learnt that iteration is a necessary and valuable process and not an admission of failure. And interestingly, students become aware of what they don’t know, which motivates them to learn in later courses. One of the challenges that this form of teaching throws up is that it takes much longer to facilitate.
Reflections on relevance to civil engineering teaching
  • I haven’t yet seen a survey on how design is taught on civil engineering courses, but I have a reasonable idea. For the last ten years or so design has become a feature of most courses; however it seems often to exist as a stand-alone module at the end of the year, or a task within a module, tackled from the perspective of that course only. The innovation here is that one design project is taken as the common thread across three separate courses. During each course that design project is tackled from the perspective of that course but due attention needs to be given to the perspectives adopted by the other disciplines of the other courses. A parallel in civil engineering would be for instances to spread a hydroelectric dam design project across a geomatics, fluid mechanics and geotechnics course.
  • The challenge with teaching design in civil engineering is that it is difficult to build what students design at a meaningful scale. I haven’t yet found the answer to this, but it regularly occupies my thoughts. It is possible at an elemental scale, for instance Ahmer Wadee’s plate girder make and break course at Imperial College; but harder at a greater scale. The Constructionarium is an example of a place where students get to build civil engineering structures at a meaningful scale, but students don’t get the chance to design what they are building.
  • In the report which we wrote on experinece-led learning we strongly advocated taking an approach in which students try to define what knowledge they would need to know in order to become a professional engineer. As my experience with Engineering Knowledge Club has shown , the process needs a lot of facilitated discussion as students initially have very little idea of what information they need. Reading this paper it seems that setting a design project early in the course might be an alternative way of meeting this aim.
  • I have previously written that interdisciplinary working is a skill that supports sustainable design, and this paper reminds me that interdisciplinary working can of course be achieved by running an interdisciplinary design course.
  • The authors note that this type of project takes time. In my seminars with lecturers  in civil engineering departments this factor is a common complaint. My response is that we have to look at course content and evaluate what is more important, the ability to solve open-ended problems and design more effectively, the skill which industry is looking for, or the mastery of specific technical skills to a high level, often higher than what is needed for practice.
The paper also points to a number of other publications that I want to check out. In particular:
  • Dym et al (2005) Engineering Design Thinking, Teaching and Learning – Journal of Engineering Education – A summary of designing thinking, teaching and learning, including an analysis of first-year cornerstone design courses and curriculum dispersed design courses.
  • Marra, Palmer and Litzinger (2000) – The Effects of a First Year Engineering Design Course on Student Intellectual Development as Measured by the Perry Scheme – 2000 – Journal of Engineering Education.
  • Haungs et al – 2001 – “Improving Engineering Education through Creativity, Collaboration and Context in a First Year Course” – ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh PA  – Three major factors influencing negatively affecting creativity and retention rates in first year students:
    • 1) hard for students to see how course material relates to real-world applications
    • 2) students perceive engineering as an individual endeavour rather than an activity with peers
    • 3) engineering assignments are overly constrained
  • Bedard – 1999 – advocates a hands-onapproach to promote creativity in engineering education despite the risk of developing a reflex that trial and error can solve most problems and reduce student respect for the analytical component of engineering.
  • “Enhancing Student Creativity and Respect for the Linkages between analysis and design in a first year engineering course.
  • Hargreaves (2008) – Inherent balance between exposing students to challenge, and thus risk, and current higher education models of quality assurance that are risk-averse and thus potentially limit the scope of creative learning and teaching strategies.
  • Meinel and Leifer 2011 – “Design Thinking: Understand – Improve – Apply. Berlin: Springer.-  report on the HPI-Stanford Design Thinking Research Programme where students are taught the basic rules of design.
  • Hirsch et al (2001) – “Engineering Design and Communication – the case for interdisciplinary collaboration” – International Journal of Engineering Education 2001 – How teaching design and communication at the same can enhance the students’ ability to tackle future engineering courses and career.

Stressed by stressed ribbons – teaching notes from Southampton

St Paul's in the distance viewed via the long axis of the Millennium Bridge

St Paul's in the distance viewed via the long axis of the Millennium Bridge
Long axis of the Millennium Bridge by Oliver Broadbent is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

One of the groups of students that Ben Godber and I teach at the University of Southampton is designing a stressed ribbon footbridge as their entry for a design competition we’ve set them. A stressed ribbon is bridge is like a very shallow suspension bridge, the difference is that once the deck units are attached, the tension in the cables is ratcheted up, squashing the deck units together. The benefit of this post-tensioning is that it can greatly reduce the sag in the bridge, creating a much flatter bridge.

The students’ proposal is an elegant response to the site, but they have come up against the problem that they don’t know how to calculate the forces in the cables and so they can’t design the bridge. I was talking to my colleague Chris Wise about this problem of students not being able to design what they draw (a common student response apparently is that because they have seen a similar design online, they know it can be done: job done). But what Chris tells me he tells his students is that they should be able to justify every line that they draw. To help them, he provides students with an engineer’s toolbox, a handout full of rules of thumb that allow student engineers to draw engineering structures in roughly the right dimensions the first time around.

Returning to the case of our student’s stressed ribbon bridge, the bit of mechanics they need to understand is the equation that links the sag in a catenary cable with the horizontal force at the supports. For a static load on a single span bridge, this is easy to calculate, and is given by the equation Fh = wL^2/8s (where ‘w’ is the line load; ‘L’ is the length of the span; and ’s’ is the sag in the cable). Plugging the numbers into this equation gives what the horizontal pull of the cables at either end. The picture is however complicated when there are there are three unequal spans with the cables running continuously over the two supports in the river. If the cable is continuous, the tension in the cable must be equal either side of the support. If that is the case, then for a fixed load on the bridge, the sag in the spans needs to be adjusted to ensure the horizontal forces in the cables at the point where they go over the supports is equal on either side.

Were you to create a physical model of this scenario in which two people hold a chain that is draped across a pair of stools, the chain would adjust it’s own position until it finds its own equilibrium. To find this equilibrium in the design process, engineers do what’s called form-finding, an iterative process in which the parameters of the design are adjusted until all the forces are in equilibrium. For the purposes of a student project, a good-enough result can be obtained by setting up a spreadsheet to do the horizontal force calculations, and to iteratively adjust the sag in the cables until the forces balance.

There’s one final catch though. The process I’ve just described assumes the load on the bridge is constant; however, loads on a bridge change according to how people are using it. Engineers look for worse-case scenarios: the pattern of loading that would create the most difficult load for the bridge to carry. For instance, one worse-case scenario for a footbridge might be all the users standing against one edge watching a boat race, and then all at once, running to the other edge as the boats pass underneath. In the students’ scenario, the students need to think about how they will accommodate any difference in loading between the spans. If they were to leave the cables to free slide back and forth over the central supports, then as the loading changes the sags in the bridge spans would increase or decrease, which would be quite uncomfortable for the user! The alternative is to clamp the cables down on the tops of the supports. Any difference in the tension between the two spans due to unequal loading will then cause the column to be pulled sideways one way or another. The columns can be designed to resist these overturning forces. The challenge for the students is to work out what worse-case scenarios would exist to cause this unbalance in the cable forces.

Of course, everything above is greatly simplified. I don’t pretend to know the details of how to design a stressed ribbon bridge and I am grateful to my colleague Andrew Weir who helped me understand the mechanics of the problem in such a way that I can easily explain it to my students. The point is to illustrate what I think is one of the most important things that students can learn from design projects at university, and that is the ability to use their knowledge of mechanics and their experience of the world to develop a plausible response to a project. It is also one the areas of teaching that I enjoy the most because it best illustrates what an engineer can do: combining their own experience with an understanding of how things work to shape the world around them.