Parenting x inspecting hydraulic structures in the Frome Valley

[Written in May, posted today] Saturday was the chance for my one of my favourite kinds of parenting: the kind where I can go on a journey with my daughter at her pace, stop and look at various bits of engineering infrastructure along the way, and then move on when we are ready.

This weekend’s excursion was along the Frome Valley in East Bristol. Near where we live the river cuts a steep gorge through the limestone landscape that forms a lush green necklace that weaves its way through our neighbourhood. It is an excellent off-road route for cycling.

Continue reading “Parenting x inspecting hydraulic structures in the Frome Valley”

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”

Defending New York with Oyters

I really enjoyed listening to this 99 Percent Invisible podcast called ‘Oyster-tecture‘, which explains how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the city is developing artificial reefs on which oysters will be seeded. The oyster beds will defend the city from storm swell and large waves. As the podcast explains, 200 years ago, the southern end of Manhatten Island was one of the greatest sources of oysters in the world, and these oyster beds woudl have defended the coastline from storms. The oyster beds disappeared due to overexploitation, but now designers are working on bringing them back to defend the city against the impact of severe weather events.

I liked this article because it reminded me of the importance of looking to nature to find more collaborative ways of tackling some of our infrastructure challenges. It is also a reminded of the positive impact that imaginative design thinking can have a positive impact on people’s lives.

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.

Pursuing general knowledge – not such a trivial pursuit

trivial pursuit

The ability to design arguably sits at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, requiring as it does decent doses of creativity and evaluation. The foundations therefore of good design must be a broad general knowledge base. This certainly seems true in civil engineering. In order to quickly think up possible solutions to an engineering problem requires knowledge of material properties and behaviour, construction methods, costs,¬†precedents, laws and codes etc. Continue reading “Pursuing general knowledge – not such a trivial pursuit”

Skyfall, starring Daniel Craig…and Bazalgette’s sewerage system

Being set mostly in London, the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, takes us an action-packed tour of some the city’s great engineering projects: disused Underground tunnels, Bazalgette‘s embankment sewerage system, and even the ancient tunnels under Smithfields, adjacent to the Crossrail site at Farringdon. Even Bond is supposed to be scaling a skyscraper in Shanghai, it is in fact The Bishopsgate Tower (pictured). I was bemused to see that the meticulous plan of the villain seemed to depend on the District line running without delay. Was this meant as a joke?

The Rise and Fall of Civil Engineering – courtesy Google’s amazing ngram viewer

I read an astonishing article this afternoon titled ‘Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books‘, published early last year in the journal Science. Based on Google’s effort to digitise all books in all languages, researchers have carried out computational analysis on a corpus of over 5 million books – approximately 4% of all books ever published – to give access to vast amounts of data on word use.

The availability of this data allows researchers to observe cultural trends and then subject them to quantitative investigation – the study of ‘culturomics‘. The paper illustrates fascinating changes in language size and use, and shows how the data is used to draw more socio-cultural conclusions.

Best of all, Google has a nifty tool for presenting the data called the ngram viewer, which has allowed me to do a little culturomics of my own for the field of engineering.

Continue reading “The Rise and Fall of Civil Engineering – courtesy Google’s amazing ngram viewer”