# Tag Archives: Teaching

General

## Difference…

Since moving into academia three years ago, I don’t think that a week goes by when one of my students doesn’t humble me or make me appreciate just how lucky I am.  A few of my students recently have commented that I treat them as equals and peers and they like this.  But in all honesty I don’t think I make a conscious effort to, I just enjoy working with people who are enthusiastic about my subjects, regardless of if they’re a student, engineer, lecturer, layman, or even a professor…. well maybe not a professor, everyone has limits.  I just enjoy working with people who are prepared to step through the gate and share with me…

Last week a student asked me to proof read their personal statement for a PhD application and the words they’d written about the support I’d given them and how much of a difference it made to their outlook on education stopped me dead in my tracks.  I’m rarely lost for words, but it took me a minute or two to compose myself, even though I know the student is grateful for all the help they receive, seeing it in writing was humbling and almost gave me a bit of a wobble.  What I didn’t realise is that two years ago they’d have happily walked away from their degree if they’d been offered a job, but with a little support and the right topic for their dissertation, they now enjoy their subject enough to want to take on a PhD in the same area.

This week we’ve had one of our current students talk to 40 prospective students about how his level of maths skills upon leaving school meant that they couldn’t understand simple fractions, but through the support of the foundation degree and the additional Math-Scope sessions we run they now regularly score in the 80’s and 90’s in maths phase tests at degree level.  They were brimming with praise and pride about what they have achieved, and quite rightly so.  One of the mum’s even offered to adopt him she thought he was so inspirational…

And that’s before all of the trials and tribulations that some of the students face to simply allow them to attend the course, fund the course, keep up to speed with the work.  Personally I don’t think I’d have the resolve to deal with some of the issues that these students take on at my age, let alone in my early twenties.  I am in awe at their get up and go attitude and it’s the perfect tonic for when I need to give myself the ‘man up princess’ pep talk.

For all the crap that comes with life as an academic, it’s these special people and moments that make it all totally worthwhile, it’s this that keeps me teaching in all honesty and it’s the pride I feel for my students that has stopped me jumping back to industry on several occasions.  Because the secret is; the lecturers probably learn just as much from the students as they do from us.

If you’re thinking of becoming an academic, brace yourself to be humbled regularly and get used to the odd damp eye.  There are a lot of very special and amazing students out there, all you have to do is remember that they’re people too.

Teaching

## Mentoring…

Ever since I graduated I’ve always wanted to learn new things and for that reason I’ve pretty much always had at least three different types books on the go at any given time.  Typically I have a fiction book to read when my brain is really tired, a technical book linked to engineering, maths, or programming, and some sort of self-improvement book.   I want to be the best I can be, to reach my full potential and not be limited by my lack of understanding.

Over the past few years I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about how mentoring (and what I believe to be the lack of) is affecting the environment for modern graduates in industry.  As margins become tighter and tighter in industry, the experienced engineers have less and less wriggle room to spend mentoring graduates.  Instead the experienced engineers merely push the less-experienced engineers to a quick solution so that deadlines are met and fee structures are not blown – resulting in a shallow learning experience.

I’ve always tried to make time to help less experienced engineers understand new concepts, even if I think they should know them already from University.  This has meant frequently giving up my dinner hour and time after work to help someone understand a new concept.  I’ve not always been successful and that’s a limitation of my skill and something that I’m getting better at with time as I improve as a mentor, but as time goes by I wonder if my approach is mentoring or coaching?

Most of the time I spend on a 1 to 1 basis with students takes the form of conversations and specific questioning to change the way they think about things.  To change or reinforce their perceptions about how something can be improved in the future.  This is the commonest form of mentoring that I’ve taken over the years, but through what I’ve read of Starr (2010) this approach isn’t mentoring at all, it’s more like coaching.  It’s essentially a series of conversations to help change a future outcome.  One of the favourite activities I teach is the supervision of dissertations, this is the module I can see the biggest leap in a student’s abilities, particularly with regards critical thinking and it presents the biggest opportunity that I get to mentor and build a connection with the students.  It’s the one area that probably sucks a disproportionate amount of time out of my week but it’s definitely where my mojo (Goldsmith, 2010, p17) lies when I’m teaching.

It’s this connection with the students and their topics I think that I enjoy the most, especially as I watch them grow and I still get emails and calls from some of the students that I supervised a few years ago simply so they can let me know what they’re up to.  Of course quite a few students only get in touch when they’re chasing a reference or contacting me because they want something from me but when someone drops you a note to say hi or let you know what they’re up to now without wanting anything from you it’s personally very rewarding and it’s this type of contact that I treasure as it’s then that you know you’ve made a real impact on someone’s perspective on life.

Dissertations are also one of the key activities that is keeping me in academia, as it’s giving me an opportunity to continually learn and grow on a personal level although the longer I stay in academia the lower my career progression opportunities and the lower my earning potential become…. Perhaps Robert Greene (2012) is right, when looking back on my life nobody will remember the wonderful report I sacrificed weekends and evenings to complete, but perhaps they’ll remember the time I gave them to help improve their critical thinking skills and understanding of structural behaviour and I know my kids will hopefully appreciate the time we have together now I’m no longer being continually shipped out all over the place to design buildings.

After all I’ve changed quite a few skylines around the world when I had a proper job, maybe there’s more satisfaction to be had creating brilliant engineers to create even more radical designs.  Or perhaps there’s a compromise to be had by spending some of my time teaching and another chunk of my time working with brilliant engineers and architects to design really radical and life-changing designs… I think this could be where my future lies in all honesty, it’s about time I seized the steering wheel again as these things don’t happen by themselves.

References.

Goldsmith, M. (2010). Mojo. London: Profile Books.

Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. London: Profile Books.

Starr, J. (2010). The Coaching Manual (Third ed.). London: Pearson Business.

## Critical thinking…

One of the biggest challenges that I face as a lecturer is helping the students to develop their critical thinking skills, especially with regards problem solving as this is one of the key skills an engineer should possess.

It’s a fundamental skill for a practicing engineer to not only problem solve, but to critically review the problem and reconstruct it so that only the important parts are focused upon.  Essentially honing in on the nub of the problem.

I’m a fan of using stories in lectures and I used to work with an Italian engineer who unfortunately died last year and he had a plethora of stories and anecdotes that he paraded out whenever the occasion arose.  One of his numerous stories that sticks in my mind and that I think I’ll start using in my lectures about critical thinking involves three construction professionals on a train ride to Scotland for the first time.

There is an Architect, a Project Manager, and an Engineer on a train together and as they cross the border into Scotland for the first time on a train racing through the countryside they spot a brown cow in a field.

The Architect, being the first to spot the cow, declares that clearly all Scottish cows are brown, the Project Manager who feels that he clearly has the organisational skills to rationalise this observation and thinks that the architect hasn’t been critical enough, decides to correct the Architect and notes that in reality what the Architect has actually observed is that in Scotland there is a field which has brown cows.

The Engineer meanwhile has been listening intently to this discussion and decides to correct them both by sharing his observation, that in fact there is in Scotland, a field, that contains a cow, one side of which is brown.

Teaching

## Golden ratio…

A quick link through to my first ever screen case written for a Maths MOOC that’s hopefully going live soon… this was much more hard work than I gave it credit for when I agreed to write it.

The slides are available from below as a slideshare link.

Teaching

## Code…

I’m spending a lot of my time tinkering in Mathematica lately, with two objectives really.

1.) I want to write some code to calculate the tedious geometrical aspects for me for my research.

2.) I think that Mathematica has some real potential for students who are trying to learn structures, particularly through the CDF files.

I’ve learned various programming languages over the years most of which I’ve taught myself, admittedly not to the level that perhaps a computer programmer would, but I’ve armed myself with just enough knowledge to be dangerous and get the task done that I want to achieve.  I’ve created countless spreadsheets that can do all sorts of elaborate calculations and also to use as validation calculations for more complex analysis models that I’ve created.

This is a skill that I take for granted for engineers, particularly of my age, and in most engineers that are a couple of years older or so I tend to find that they’ve spent some time abusing Fortran code in some fashion.  Fortran isn’t a language that I’ve ever learned, but it’s probably one of those languages that a lot of engineers have dabbled with at some point.

One trend I’ve noticed in a lot of younger engineers is a reluctance to create computer code and indeed even in creating what I would consider simple spreadsheets to make a calculation tool that can run several scenarios for them and validate an approach to determine the boundaries of their calculations.  Increasingly there seems to be a preponderancy for young engineers to select their FEM weapon of choice and throw triangles at it until the model begs for mercy, or to download an app that some other bright spark has written to do at least part of the process of what they want to happen.  None of this promotes a deeper understanding of how the process works though unfortunately.

Perhaps the days of writing your own code are long gone for young engineers? But part of me thinks that they are missing out on a real opportunity to structure their understanding of the steps needed to do certain tasks as they assemble their code.  Writing code to perform a task, whether on a spreadsheet or in a more formal programming language, is a great way to develop understanding and to explore the intricacies of design codes and I feel that younger engineers are missing out on this experience by only using off the shelf packages.

One encouraging aspect is that with the launch of the Raspberry Pi I can see that if this continues to gather momentum that younger generations will again an ability to tinker and break programming code and gain an appreciation of the advantages that breaking down engineering problems into a series of procedural steps can bring.

At least for the next year or so I’m still responsible for sculpting young engineers minds and I’m determined to develop a fun way of getting them to extend their understanding of how to write code or spreadsheets, I just need to work out a way of doing this within the confines of the resources I do or don’t have available.

What do you think? Should engineers know how to programme or at least be able to create simple spreadsheets?

## Mathematica…

One of the reasons that I started this blog was so that I could mess about with embedding some Mathematica files to help with testing out some ideas.  For this to make sense it’s easiest if I embed a few simple examples in this blog post.  Now if you want to interact with these examples, I’m afraid you’re going to have to download the Wolfram CDF player, which is completely free and works on PC’s and Mac’s alike.  Imagine it as a sort of PDF viewer but it lets you interact with the files as opposed to a PDF which is typically just a static and lifeless document.

Consider the following equation:

$Sin\left( {2x} \right)$

Most text books would draw the graph for this over whichever range they deemed to be suitable and then students would try and learn from these dull and boring diagrams.

[WolframCDF source=”https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/22612196/Wordpress_Test5.cdf” width=”653″ height=”405″ altimage=”” altimagewidth=”https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/22612196/Wordpress_Test5.png” altimageheight=””]

Now this is how I was taught maths and in fairness, it’s pretty dull and it’s difficult to gain any form of intuition as to how it might behave if the 2 became a 3 for example, this is where Mathematica’s CDF files come in handy because it has some nice tricks for letting you explore maths in an interactive fashion… let’s consider the following equation, from the previous graph most people wouldn’t really know how it would affect the graph.

$Sin\left( {a.{\rm{ }}x} \right)$

But if we crank this through Mathematica we can create a really nice interactive widget that can be shared with anyone for free!  As you change the slider, the graph updates in real time, and if you want to know what number you’re changing ‘a’ to be then simply click the little + sign next to the slider itself to expand the input values beneath it.  In fact if you think that messsing with sliders is far too much like hard work, then simply click the little play button in the top right and the widget will work the sliders for you… sit back and watch the pattern.

[WolframCDF source=”http://dl.dropbox.com/u/22612196/Wordpress_Test4.cdf” CDFwidth=”752″ CDFheight=”574″]

If you’re not familiar with Mathematica, you may be concerned that this sort of widget is really difficult to create, but actually I’m still on Chapter 3 on the text that I’m working through and the code is incredibly simple to create this kind of interactive learning tool and I’ve replicated it below to show how few lines of text can create this level of interaction.

Manipulate[ Plot[ Sin[a x], {x, -10, 10}], {a, 1, 5}]

Essentially this code starts with “I want a slider widget”, “Plot me a graph of Sin(a.x) over a range of values for x from -10 to 10”, then “make the slider vary a from 1 to 5”.

Now this seems ok, but the Manipulate command is actually incredibly powerful and with a little more twiddling, high quality interactive 3D plots can be created, so let’s consider the following expression.

$f{\rm{ }}Sin\left( x \right) + g{\rm{ }}Sin\left( y \right)$

This expression has four variables: f,g,x, and y.  Of course, I bet you’re dying to know what the graph looks like for this function so you can boost your maths skills…

[WolframCDF source=”http://dl.dropbox.com/u/22612196/Wordpress_Test3.cdf” CDFwidth=”752″ CDFheight=”758″]

This is where the CDF player starts to flex its muscles a little, not only can you mess around with the sliders to change the values of f and g… but you can click and rotate the 3D graph itself to get a better view of how you think it’s working.  For me this level of interaction is a real opportunity for playing with the maths to help build up a level of intuition and feeling of how the maths will behave.  And once again the code to get it to work is fairly straight forward even for a novice such as myself.

Manipulate[Plot3D[(f ) Sin[ x] + (g)  Sin [y], {x, 1, 10}, {y, 1, 10}], {f, -10, 10}, {g, -10, 10}]

Now here’s the rub, a full Mathematica licence is the best part of £1,000 for a lecturer to use, in these hard times that’s a lot of money.  But because I carry ‘dual’ status as I’m studying 2 degrees as well as working full time as a lecturer I was able to pick up a student licence for roughly £80.  Normally the cost for a student licence is a shade over £100 but it is possible to reduce the normal student price by 15% by using the discount code PD1637 at the Wolfram store checkout and I still retain the full functionality of sharing my CDF files via export.

I hope this helps someone, if you’ve any feedback on this post or would like to ask any questions, please get in touch or leave a comment below.