Tag Archives: Writing

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.

007:365 - Unlimited...

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.

068:365 - Behind the Wheel...

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.

 

 

General

Dual Monitors...

For years I ran dual monitor configurations on my main PC for gaming and found that the extra space that the second screen afforded me was invaluable, although for some strange reason I never really transferred this logic over to my preferred working environment.  Well actually that's not entirely true, I actually ran two machines, a Windows machine and a Linux machine side by side with each performing different tasks.

Since starting my PhD, one of the first things that I wanted to get setup was a decent laptop for writing and modelling on so that I can literally work anywhere.  My colleagues tell me that I'm 'idea rich' but 'time poor' so I need to be very opportunistic about how I work and write if I'm ever going to stand a chance of getting close to completing my PhD.  Don't get me wrong I still use fountain pens and notebooks a lot too for when I'm just too impatient to wait for things to turn on and boot up...

023:365 - Journal...

I've tinkered and meddled in true engineering fashion and now I think I've got a fairly stable writing environment setup that works for me, I use Scrivener for papers and articles to get the framework of the idea set out and then do the final push in Word 2011 (although a warning to other users disable autosave on the Mac version as it has a habit of killing and corrupting your files).  For my figures and diagrams I flit between OmniGraffle Pro and Visio 2010 Pro.

For referencing I use EndNote x4, I know that it's currently on version x6 but I've got x4 spanning between a Windows environment and a Mac environment using a common database that is shared via dropbox, it works perfectly, and so until someone utters the words "Congratulations Dr Currie you passed your viva with no corrections" I'm not changing it... even if one of the Minogue sisters came round on bended knee begging me to upgrade, it's not happening... if both Minogue sisters turned up simultaneously however I may start to waiver...

But the downside of having a laptop is the limited area that you have to fit in all of these different windows etc on a single screen, of course one of the beauties of a UNIX based system such as MacOS is the different workspaces you can have configured, but sometimes you need everything in one space.

To overcome this I bought a cheapish (£90) 22" monitor with HDMI connection (with a TB to HDMI lead) for my office so that I can have a reference document or EndNote library up and running in the secondary monitor and my writing document in the primary window.  So far it's working well, I'm finding it is making my life a little easier, particularly when I want to merge two documents together into a single document, copying and pasting between the two when writing and combining my lecture notes into larger handouts.  One of the key things to consider though when picking a second monitor is get one with an identical or similar resolution to your primary monitor so it makes moving your cursor between the two painless, if the resolution is different then sometimes the mouse can get caught at the top or the bottom of the screen where the resolutions are just off.

I'm finding that the dual monitor configuration is really helping my writing, I spend a few minutes setting up the documents and then I can throw myself into my writing.  Of course if I find myself on the train or in a coffee shop with half an hour to spare or so I can still write and seize that opportunity to write on my laptop on a single screen, but the dual screens is still my preferred way of writing... there are a few articles kicking about the internet that extoll the virtues of double screen writing and how your productivity will double, I can't vouch for the doubling in productivity but it might just make your life a little easier with your various software packages competing for screen footprint space.

 

General

Writing...

I've been reading a couple of blog posts about other students' writing environments (both digital and physical) and the I've been really interested in the approaches they take when it comes to software selection but I've really been struggling to follow why they go to such extraordinary lengths to set up bespoke writing environment.  We have a few mathematicians associated with our course and they all swear by how LaTeX, for example, saves them days and days of typing equations and how they couldn't possibly write any of their materials without it.  But the part I'm really struggling to understand is that it was created about 40 or so years ago to overcome typesetting problems and surely there must be something more effective available now after all this time?

002:365 - My brain hurts...

Whilst I have a copy of Scrivener and I'm used to writing large batch files in Vi and ViM from my days using SPARC SunOS stations, I still choose to do most of my writing in Word.  It has an outlining tool which I find useful, but the deal sealer for me is that I can make it dance when it comes to large documents with regards automation.  Through simply using styles and captions, I can have a simply written and elegantly cross referenced document up and running in seconds.  Whilst scrivener is intended to get your ideas down on a page and get writing, I just don't feel that it's quite there for technical documents, as figures should be numbered and cross-referenced, as should equations and I'm far too lazy to do this myself and I've sort of gotten used to Word doing the donkey work for me for the past 20 years on these elements.

Admittedly the equation editor is dreadful in Word and is to type-setting what I am to men's ballet.  I've overcome this though by using MathType 6.7 which makes all of my equations look uniform and well typeset, with the added bonus of having numbering macros and scripts embedded into Word that allows me to automatically number equations and cross reference them in my writing.

Another boon for using MathType is that I can colour code equations, something that might sound trivial, but actually can be really useful in presentations to grey out parts of the equation that you're not interested in for the minute or for making critical terms bright red to make them pop out on the slide whilst you discuss them with the students.  I know you can do this too with LaTeX as that's the technique that I use for embedding equations in this blog, but I create the equations first in MathType and then after I've pasted them into here I simply edit a few colour tags.

To be clear, I'm not criticising anyone's writing setup, the key to writing is finding something that works for you.  But there does seem to be a trend on several social media sites to push for methods of writing that avoid mainstream packages.  I understand that money is tight nowadays and every penny counts, but I've managed to get myself a copy of MS Office and Mathtype together for about £60 all in, I'm sure that it can be done cheaper using something like LibreOffice that comes pre-installed with Ubuntu, but I take the view that £60 is less than an hour of my charge out rate when I was in industry and doing it this way will save me countless hours.

I do like peeking into other student's writing environments, both physical environments and their digital environments, but I'd love someone to explain to me why I should adopt LaTeX over Word and MathType, particularly given that I'll be embedding a lot of vector graphics from OmniGraffle and Visio and I'm really struggling to see how these other sorts of environments will help me write more efficiently, but then I guess it's horses for courses...

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.

111:365 - Clever Clogs...

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.

101:365 - Studious...

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?

General

Time...

Now that I'm through the massive pile of end of term marking and I'm starting to think about getting some research done through the summer, this goes hand in hand with time management skills.  I spend a great deal of my time in unstructured activities supporting students during term time, so during semester 3 I become quite hard nosed about the time slots with students.   Once I've made my list of things that I've got to do, then I'll typically I'll go for a quick win and tick off some of the easier things to give myself a sense of initial progress. With the remaining tasks then I create a Gantt chart to programme out the works through the summer period to see if I'm being overly ambitious with my intentions.

Screen Shot 2012-06-30 at 08.04.36

Once I've protected my time and planned out my summer work, then the next step is simply doing it...

I have to confess to being one of the great procrastinators and I have a couple of techniques that work well in getting me up and started on tasks and I encourage my students to make use of these techniques to help them keep on top of their dissertation writing, the two techniques I use are: the pomodoro technique & breaking the chain.

The pomodoro technique makes strategic use of an egg timer when working on tasks.  The notion is that you set the timer for an initial 25 minutes and then work single mindedly on your selected task for those 25 minutes, nothing else is allowed to distract you from that single task, no telephone calls, facebook, twitter, house fires (well maybe house fires)... but on the whole you just work on that one single task until you hear your bell ring.  Once the bell has rung then you can give yourself a five minute break, make a brew, make a quick phone call, whatever you need to do... but then you set the timer again for 25 minutes and crack on with the next step of your task, or the next task and repeat this process 4 times.

Once you've completed 4 sessions, give yourself a longer break, half an hour, an hour... that part's up to you, but what you're likely to find is that you've been super productive for the two hours that you've running the pomodoro technique and actually taking an hour off at this point might be needed to let your brain cool down... it just depends how hardcore the tasks are that you've been doing.  One tip here though is to set a timer for your breaks, otherwise they will over run.

I use a mixture of timers when working with the pomodoro technique, either a cheap mechanical timer from Sainsbury's which cost £3, a pomodoro mac app that puts completed pomodoros into iCal that I can't link too here as it's no longer available in the UK for some reason, or pomodroido on my phone.  If you're the sharing type, you're likely to want to broadcast your pomodoro sessions over Twitter or your social media network of choice... please be aware though, this is really annoying for those of us not working on your tasks so please exercise some discretion.

125:365 - Pomodoro...

The next technique I use is called 'break the chain' essentially this is about doing a little and often and requires you to have a big wall planner or calendar on your wall to be the most effective.  Say there are long term goals that would benefit from doing a little work on them, but regularly.  If your task would benefit from doing a little and often, and you can slowly work your way through to completing the whole task in this fashion, then the break the chain technique is perfect.  I first heard about this from a LifeHacker article I read which attributes this technique to Jerry Seinfeld.  Basically if you want a tidy house, to progress your PhD thesis, and get fit each of these tasks require constant effort to achieve.  You can't necessarily do them in monthly spurts, your house would become messy between bursts of effort, your thesis would become disjointed and rushed, and you're likely to have a heart attack when attempting your monthly marathon.  However, if you were to break these down into smaller tasks, you'd be amazed at the results that you could develop.

013:365 - Calendar...

Firstly let's say that every day you spend a minimum of 10 minutes cleaning, 30 minutes writing, and 20 minutes doing exercise... that's an hour you need to squeeze in every day.  But when you do these three tasks you are allowed to put a big fat black cross on your calendar, preferably in a fat marker pen to be highly visible.  Every day you do these tasks, you earn a big fat black cross on your calendar... the key is to make the longest chain of crosses possible...  Try and keep your daily tasks below 60 minutes to allow them to be achievable, but simply do them... 10 minutes of tidying every day will strangely make a large difference to the tidiness of your house and 30 minutes of writing, whilst in itself isn't a lot... but it helps to keep your hand in on writing and stops you going a whole week without having done any!  ( A common curse for PhD students).  20 minutes of exercise every day could be something as simple as heading out for a walk that day, you can vary the level of intensity to suit.

I'm not pretending that this would be all you'd need to do to keep the writing up, but by doing 30 minutes every day that's 3.5 hours of writing per week, that could be a few thousand words you never would have had being there in your thesis ready to edit and sculpt into some sort of tangible form when you've time to edit.  You're still going to need to make writing a priority during your working week, but at least your brain and fingers will be well trained in making a start after your core sessions each day.

I'm hoping this helps someone a little out there, either through sharing the apps that I use, or giving some food for thought on how a little and often can be a real boost to your productivity.  If you've found anything helpful, please drop me a line or leave me a comment.. if you've another technique that works for you or have an immunisation for procrastination I'd REALLY like to hear from you...

General Uncategorized

Vocabulary...

When trying to explain ideas and concepts to people, one of the biggest barriers can sometimes be the specialist vocabulary that comes with the subject area.  The wall of unintelligible words that can greet the newcomer can cause unnecessary distress; sometimes be off putting and cause you to be stumped.

065:365 - Stumped...

This doesn't always have to be limited to just technical phrases though, one of my colleagues is a keen cyclist and also a fellow yellow belly from Lincolnshire and recently I jokingly asked him for a 'croggy' much to the horror of my colleagues from the wrong side of the Pennines who probably thought I was propositioning him...  Folk from the West side of the UK call a 'croggy' a 'backy' which is essentially giving someone a lift on the back of your bicycle... I'm sure there are far more regional variations out there too that I've not heard of before... but this made me start thinking about technical phrases that may not be universal, even within engineering.

Part of the art of researching a new area is to ensure that you're familiar with this subject specific vocabulary; but at the same time the art in writing and communicating in an area; is to not hide behind the buzzwords and phrases that are associated with the area.  Indeed, those that are in command of their subject can frequently define and describe very complex areas and concepts using nothing but plain English... When it's done well, it's truly and art form to behold, but when it's done badly it can actually be to the detriment of the presenter (or author) and can make them sound unknowledgeable.

Hopefully I can bring the same level of explanations and analogical thinking into my academic writing (specifically my PhD thesis) that I try to integrate into my lectures.  I'm planning on having a productive summer and start to create some well crafted prose to describe the analysis that I'll be undertaking.  Only time will tell, but that's one of the reasons for keeping a blog going whilst I'm studying my PhD:   I'm hoping I can use it to kickstart my writing on those days when my brain refuses to start up properly.