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.

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Experiments in content flipping

Experiments in flipping content


This year I have been experimenting with content flipping in my teaching. The idea of content flipping is that students first encounter the course material in their own time, so that teaching time can be spent discussing, applying or interpreting the material. The aim is to make more effective use of both time together and time apart.

I have had two opportunities this year to take a flipped approach. The first was as part of a Think Up commission at the University of Cambridge to assist in the coordination of a residential Masters module in innovation in construction engineering. It was my job to provide a theoretical framework that would weave together the themes of the week’s speakers. I decided it would be a better use of class time if the students could arrive at the residential week having already got to grips with conceptual ideas around notions of ‘future’ and ‘innovation’. These frameworks having been established before students arrive, we’d then be able to use our contact time to interpret what the course speakers had said against these frameworks.

The flipped exercises I sent out as two documents we called ‘Think Up Think Pieces’, one on ‘Future’ and one on ‘Innovation’. [link coming soon] These were sent to the students along with pre-reading papers from the more ‘traditional’ lecturers. In my first session with the students, I asked if anyone had covered the flipped content – only two out of twenty had. Not a great success – I’ll come on to my reflections on this in a moment.

Where I have had more success with flipping is with the graduate training programme I designed as part of a Think Up commission for a large construction management company. Here the aim was to introduce their first-year graduate intake to the key stages in the construction life-cycle of a building. The programme was to involve five intensive role-play-based workshops in which the graduates, working in teams, would take on the role of a team engineers as it managed the key stages in the construction process of a building. In order to have the maximum time available for role-play we decided to flip the theory. Two weeks before each workshop, we sent the participants a pre-briefing worksheet of activities and reading they needed to carry out to prepare them for the contact time.

In this instance, the majority of the students actually did the ‘flipped’ exercises. So what was the difference?

  • In the Cambridge scenario, there was just one set of flipped exercise, followed by a back-to-back set of lectures and contact time. In the corporate training scenario, there were several sessions with long gaps in between when the participants could do their flipped work. In the latter case, the participants could see the benefits of doing the flipped work, and if they didn’t do so for the first workshop, they probably made sure they did for the second one.
  • In the Cambridge scenario, my hopefully-interesting flipped exercises were bundled with more traditional reading lists sent out by the other lecturers. They weren’t to know there was something maybe a little different inside the material I’d sent over, and so probably didn’t look (I didn’t get the chance to ask students why they hadn’t read my material, or whether they had read anyone else’s)
  • In the corporate training scenario, I got to brief the participants several weeks before the start of the course on the pedagogical model we were adopting, and in particular the importance of the flipped learning exercises. In other words, they knew what was expected of them, and so may have been more motivated to follow that learning scheme.
  • Unfortunately I was not able to bring a reflective learning element into the work at Cambridge, but in the corporate training example, the teams were required to complete a reflective learning diary post after each workshop during which they were asked to reflect on the value of what they had learnt in the pre-briefing phase, which I am sure helped participants to see the value of this approach.
  • Finally, in some of the flipped exercises in the corporate training example, I required participants to write a short summary of what they had learnt in the run-up to the session.

The flipped learning exercises were clearly of benefit to the graduate participants. They arrived at the role-play scenarios with a clearer idea of how they might be able to succeed at the tasks they were being set, and had more contact time with the facilitators to discuss the issues that they didn’t understand.

So what do I conclude about flipping? In the case where it worked I was very happy with the impact of the approach, and I will continue to adopt the approach where I can. To anyone else trying it, I would recommend:

  • Being clear with the learners in advance that this is the approach you are going to take and why.
  • Keep the reading or exercises concise and achievable rather than sending out a lengthy reading list that no one is capable of reading.
  • Consider setting a short exercise to check participants have completed the flipped activities.
  • If you are using a reflective learning approach, ask students to think about what they learnt from the flipped compoment of the teaching.

So, what do you think? Have you tried this approach? What are you experiences?


The Beginning of Engineering Knowledge Club

Engineering Knowledge Club logo

Engineering Knowledge Club logo
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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!