My VR training epiphany

Last week I was down at Bridgwater and Taunton College to check out the tools Stefan Cecchini and his colleagues are going to be using to deliver a revolutionary new engineering degree curriculum that aims to be entirely inquiry-led. There for the first time I tried out a virtual reality (VR) training environment. I put on the VR headset and gloves, and this is what happened (that’s Stefan, by the way wearing the VR gear).

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Being Bazalgette – a new work experience idea

Joseph Bazalgette by ICE Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.Based on a work at
Creative Commons License
Joseph Bazalgette by ICE Archive is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Today at Think Up, Ed McCann and I had lunch with Mike Chrimes from the Institution of Civil Engineers. The main topic on the menu was how to articulate the value to practising engineers of a knowledge of engineering history. Earlier in the day the two of us were talking about how tech could be used to create engaging simulations of work experience for use in schools.

And then as the main courses arrived the light bulb lit up above my head: why not create a mini module for schools that allows students to take on the role of a famous engineer say for a week. For example, students could spend a week being Bazalgette, chewing over the task of how to transfer vast quantities of poo across London. It would be a fun, playful exercise, but which could be used to develop a range of workplace skills as well as hopefully getting students thinking about what engineers did and do now. There’s more to come on this, but I need to sleep on it…

Learning emergency first aid

6 resuscitation dolls lined up on the floor ready for CPR training

6 resuscitation dolls lined up on the floor ready for CPR training
Resuci-Annie catastrophe

Yesterday I went on the excellent St John’s Ambulance 1-day emergency first aid at work course. It was a real eye-opener: it made me realise just how many of the voluntary and fun activities that I go to are made possible by having first-aiders on site.

I was of course also interested in the way it was taught. This is not meant to be the land ambiguity; little room here for interpretation. This training gives clear procedures to help save people’s lives. Any crudeness or bluntness to the rules is offset by the huge potential benefit of saving someone’s life.

The thing I found particularly difficult was doing the treatment with the hands at the same time as doing the patter. One for the science communicators!

The course relies heavily on acronyms to help you remember procedures, and I admit that despite very clear instruction I was on acronym overload by lunchtime. The course has summative assessments built in throughout so that by the end you have an assessment-based qualification. I am however curious about the drop-off rate in retention of that knowledge. For example, I am certain that many people will remember the DR ABC stuff, but other points will drop away.

Obviously some retention is better than nothing, and these courses are clearly doing a great deal to save people’s lives, but I wonder if some delayed assessment, say a week later, using a mobile phone app would be a better basis for the qualification?

That said, St John Ambulance have released an app that gives you back up information, and you do get a pocket reference card – but do you really want to be referring to those in an accident?

I for one know that I will forget much of the content unless I practise, so those of you that know me don’t be surprised if I ask you to lay down and pretend to be unconscious!

The Beginning of Engineering Knowledge Club

Engineering Knowledge Club logo

Engineering Knowledge Club logo
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Engineering Knowledge Club Logo by Think Up is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Almost nine months since we were awarded funding from UCL’s Teaching Innovation fund, Paul Greening and I kicked off ‘Engineering Knowledge Club‘. The idea is to encourage students to develop for themselves the engineering knowledge they need in order to be successful in the field of engineering they want to go into. We have set up a dedicated blog for Engineering Knowledge Club, which describes our aims for the project, so I won’t repeat them here.

But what I will say here is how excited I am about this project. The timing is particularly appropriate as I have been spending most of November co-writing a guide for the Royal Academy of Engineering on experience-led learning in engineering. Many of the ideas discussed in that report we can put in practice in Engineering Knowledge Club, for example:

Student–led learning – so much of the learning that I see happening in civil engineering courses seems to be motivated by grades, which probably stifles curiosity, intrinsic motivation and independence. I strongly believe that if learners were learning about what they were interested in, then they’d be self-motivated, perhaps work harder, and learn more effectively. Engineering knowledge club is about giving students the chance to define and drive their own learning.

Learning based on real-world stimuli – civil engineering is a subject that surrounds us, and so lends itself well to learning by observation. And yet, so much civil engineering education is based on text books, lecture notes and websites. Engineering knowledge club will encourage students to be inspired by, be curious about and learn from the environment which surrounds them.

Reflective learning – people tend to learn better when they think about how they are learning. Over the last two years I’ve experimented at UCL with Paul Greening and at Queens Belfast with Siobhan Cox on using private student blogs for reflective learning. While this has had some success, what’s been missing is students being able to learn from each others’ blog posts. Engineering Knowledge Club will give me the chance to experiment with using a public class blog. This will hopefully help to build a sense of community among the students, and should serve to demonstrate the concept to anyone interested.

Building a community of learning – I don’t feel that students are encouraged enough to support each other in their learning. I believe that a student cohort in which everyone is looking out for each other would be one that learns more. We hope to build a sense of community in Engineering Knowledge Club and be able to see its impact on learning.

We shall see!

Day 4 at the RDI Summer School

Please mind your head at the RDI Summer School

Please mind your head at the RDI Summer School

This Day 4 post is written somewhat after the fact, and that’s a good thing. An immediate post might have captured all the logistical comings and goings without capturing anything about what was special.

I am not sure who first used these words, but in the concluding session, Michael Wolff quoted the following,

“People will forget what you said, and they will forget what you did, but they will always remember how they made you feel.”

The handful of attendees I have spoken to in recent days have shared a similar sentiment: that after five weeks back at our desks, the Summer School feels like a long time ago; the details are dim, but there is a feeling that they can start to make sense of what was felt – what was revealed about ourselves and each other – in the context of their day to day lives. It is as if the Summer School is one of those glorious trees at Dartington Hall, basking – photo-synthesising. The leaves are what we said and did; buffeted by the arrival of autumn they quickly fall, but the energy of the summer, the coding and nutrients – in other words how it made us feel – are preserved in the seeds.

Oak Tree Dartington Hall
Oak tree at Dartington Hall

Fergus Fielden gave me the the seed metaphor. He used a sweet chestnut seed from the grounds at Dartington represent his wish on the wish sculpture that we built on day two. In his words (see video snippet here),

“It symbolises growth…and investing in a sustainable future, but it’s a long game so it is about getting people to be more hands-on about sustainability and awareness. And you have to have faith. You have to invest early on.”

Planting seeds is the most illustrative description I can find for what the summer school did. Some will germinate next season; others will come to life in later years; some may not survive. Once it emerges, the sapling may take many years to thrive. And it is hard to know from the seed what form the eventual tree will take. Sometimes it is hard to remember what seeds you have planted. Fortunately I have two hours’ footage of video interviews to give me some clues about what sort of seeds were planted.

Seven Seeds of the Summer School

  • Seed One – The courage to believe in your own convictions and abilities
  • Seed Two – The removal of the mundane to gain sight of what you want to do.
  • Seed Three – The re-ignition and validation of personal passions.
  • Seed Four – The foundation of new friendships and alliances
  • Seed Five – The identification of new personal objectives
  • Seed Six – The nature of working with strangers and how to collaborate.
  • Seed Seven – The knowledge that our greatest adversary in life may be ourselves.

As we were leaving the summer school, I asked (somewhat metaphorically) designer Syd Hausman, if she’d found what she was looking for:

“Sounds like a U2 song… I wouldn’t say I’ve found what I am looking for, but the start of many things I will probably find”

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From concrete courtyard to blooming garden – the story of the Big Dig


In December last year I wrote about day one of the Big Dig, M and my plan to transform our barren concrete courtyard into a thriving patch of urban greenery. Today we celebrated the completion of that grand plan with a garden party – a harvest festival no less! – for everyone who helped us along the way. Here’s a little movie slide show of what we achieved.

Seeing all the insects buzzing between the flowers in the beds it is hard to remember that this was an apparently lifeless little corner of London (no doubt kept lifeless with ample weed killer). And in January, when we were standing in knee-deep holes in the ground digging in compost, it was hard to believe that it would turn into the lush environment that it is now.


By the time spring arrived we were putting in the new ground covering: a mixture of turf and gravel, beds and raised beds. The trees and most of the plants went in by early April. I remember thinking that they were quite spread out – just as well given how much they grew. In the summer we turned our hands to plant vegetables – too late in hindsight, but we are still figuring this stuff out.

One of the aims of the project was to use waste material wherever possible. We had had our collapsing garden fence replaced with a new one, but had asked to keep the old timber. This well weathered material we were able to put to good use, creating three raised beds, a cold frame, a bike shed and compost heap. And because the material all came from the same fence, all the structures we built have a unified look. Continuing on the re-use theme: half of the old back door became the lid for the cold frame; the dozens of bricks we found in the ground became the garden path; an old allotment shed door became the roof of the bike shed.


Two things have made this transformation possible. The first is the plan for the garden put together by our friend Amanda Dennis. From her beautiful pen and watercolour design, to the step-by-step project plan, she guided us through the whole process, and I think she is as pleased as we are with the result. The second is the tremendous help we have had from friends, family and neighbours – I count sixteen volunteers in total over the last nine months. People have lent us tools, sent us plants, driven cars to the dump, built sheds, looked after our baby and dedicated whole days to digging. It has been very heartwarming – and a lot of fun.

And so to the harvest. Roughly speaking: a punnet of raspberries, red currants, blueberries and a half one of strawberries; a few baby carrots; two plums; two courgettes; fist-fulls of herbs; a dozen ripe tomatoes – and two dozen green tomatoes still full of promise; and a gherkin. We wanted to feed our harvest festival guests the fruits of the labour, but since most of these fell earlier in the year, we had to be a bit creative with the menu: lavender cake; savoury vine leaf cake (delicious!) and herb bread topped with our one gherkin thinly sliced.

It would be easy to think now that the hard work is done – but now we have the not so small task of keeping it all alive. Watch this space.

Taking inspiration from the Transcontinental Railroad

Image, Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona, Sante Fe railway
A train pulls of the Santa Fe railway at Williams Arizona to join the Grand Canyon Railroad

As I tweeted earlier this morning, today at Think Up I have been working on Build Camp, a concept for a week-long hands-on learning event designed to encourage young people to take on a career in civil engineering. For some time now we have been proposing an event based around the idea of students designing and building their own railway in a week. Today we were looking at how to create a context for the event around which on-site role play activities can be built. Today’s idea was to use the construction of the first american transcontinental railroad as the context, for reasons explained in the following text, extracted from some my draft web copy for the soon-to-be-online Build Camp website.

Why the Pacific Railroad?
Learning about the construction of a railway line is an excellent introduction to the world of civil engineering because it embraces so many aspects of the discipline, including: planning and surveying: structural, geotechnical and fluid mechanics; construction management. This event is set in the context of the construction of the Pacific Railroad, the first railway to cross the United States. The construction of this pioneering railway line was led by a team of engineers operating at the railhead. Engineers were responsible for:

* Surveying and choose a route through the unknown territory ahead.
* Designing cuttings, embankments, bridges, dams, causeways and tunnels as needed;

* Sourcing local construction materials: fill for embankments; timber for sleepers; fuel for machinery;
* Overseeing construction works
* Organising the logistics of moving labour, materials and plant along the single-track line
* Establishing camps for workers, sourcing food, and paying wages.

These engineers were working in the unknown; it was 2000 miles back to headquarters, and so they had to rely on their own ingenuity and engineering judgement to solve the problems they encountered. By setting the role play for this event in the context of the Pacific Railroad we aim to harness that visionary and pioneering spirit, and demonstrates the potential engineers have to shape the world for the better. We are also providing a baseline against which the advances of modern railway construction can be illustrated.

At present we are hoping to run a pilot of Build Camp in October. Keep an eye out for updates on the Think Up website for more information.

Using construction site notebooks as a teaching tool

Today the Expedition-Imperial team met to plan their week at this year’s Constructionarium.

The learning experience is intense on site at the Constructionarium, with students on their feet all day for five days building their projects. Along the way there is lots of background knowledge they can pick up about construction techniques, but it is easy for these nuggets to get lost in the blur of the overall experience.

My suggestion was that this year we give all students a site notebook in which they can plan their activities, note useful info along the way and write up their daily activities. Of course, giving students a notebook doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll use it, so perhaps we can guide them by showing extracts from real site engineers’ notebooks. These could be shared as a teaching resource on Workshed.

Earlier this year we bid for some innovation grant funding to develop methods for students to develop their general engineering knowledge. One of the ideas I was interested in exploring was the use of a site diary to develop this knowledge. This year’s Constructionarium looks like a good opportunity to test this approach.