News, Teaching Stories

This is why I teach

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

Every year I give a lecture on the Civil Engineering unit ‘Engineering For International Development’. I love giving the lecture. It’s possible my favourite lecture of my entire year, I think of it as my ‘This is why I teach’ lecture. And I talk about this weird thing called love.

Photo taken from the train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 1998

Now, anyone that knows me knows that I love concrete. I absolutely flipping love it. I just adore the stuff. I think it’s amazing. Incredible. You can build almost anything from it and many of my favourite projects include it. I spent years obsessing over it. From the exposed concrete on Oxford Brookes which is cast against timber boarding and reflects the grain of the timber, to the existing concrete on the Tate modern in those huge, awe inspiring oil tanks under the extension. And I try and inject my lectures on the subject with the same sense of joy and excitement (I have been known to try and get students to whoop with joy at the very thought of concrete). But I don’t teach because I love concrete. I designed buildings out of concrete because I love concrete.

More recently I have been getting excited about wood. I am always looking for an excuse to move logs at my in-laws so that I can breathe in the smell of a wall of logs. I got an axe for my 40th birthday so that I can chop wood. Observe the grain. Feel the release of stresses locked in by years of growing as I drive the wood apart. I have a deep attachment to wood. I have written a book about wood, with another on the way. In fact, I love it. And if I went back into industry I would love to design more buildings out of wood. I think it is amazing. But I don’t teach because I love wood.

No – I teach for a different reason. I teach because I believe that teaching can make a positive difference in the world. I teach because I think that many of today’s challenges will be solved by engineers, by my future students. That reusing existing buildings will make a difference. That designing with wood will make a difference. That even concrete buildings, when designed right, can make a difference. And once a year I stand up and tell my students my story. I tell them that at age 18 I was going to make a difference. That I had a plan. That I have failed to do my plan! But I haven’t stopped caring and loving. I have tried and tried again. I talk about what drives me. I mention this weird, unquantifiable thing called love. I mention my personal faith as a Christian. I put up some quotes about love to make myself feel less foolish and make the experience feel more rigorous. Quotes like:

Seek:
You will find your way,
It is
In the
Same place
As
Your love.”

Nayyirah Waheed, Salt, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013

First I have to look hard at the landscape, at the woods and trees, the leaves, the grasses, the animated surface of the earth, and then develop a feeling of love for what I see – because we don’t hurt what we love. We treat what we love as well as we possibly can.”

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010

So, I tell them about my values, about this thing called love*, and about how I have tried to live these values out in all parts of my life. I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach. And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.

Photos taken 2 minutes walk from my house. I have intentionally chosen provocative photos to make a point, but I love where I live, it is amazing, and whilst it has its challenges it also has so many great things about it

So why do you teach? And do your students know? Do they really know what gets you up every day?

* Note this is an intentional reference to the Frank Sinatra song .

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #8: James Norman

Dr James Norman is a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

Take a break

Many, many years ago I gave a three hour lecture on concrete with out taking a break. In the three hours I barely paused for breath, let alone stopping to enable students to collect their thoughts and order them (or go to the loo). This was back in 2003 and I had recently become a Research Assistant. A combination of my own exhaustion, friendly feedback from a member of staff and a few reasonable student comments helped me realise that maybe three hours without a break was a little unreasonable.

So I started subdividing my sessions, first into 50 minute chunks but now into (roughly) 20 minute chunks. I generally deliver my units in two hour sessions and so I now divide this into 4 20 minute chunks. In the gaps sometimes I give students exercises and things to do or dwell on, but sometimes I just suggest they stretch their legs, get some fresh air, take a moment to catch up. I often answer questions in these breaks and I try and move around the teaching space making myself available. Sometimes these will be questions on the subject at hand, sometimes they will be about something tangential (grand designs seems to come up lot) and sometimes it will be advice about other parts of life (jobs, other units, projects they are working on, societies they are involved in).

News, Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #7: Aydin Nassehi

This teaching story is submitted by Aydin Nahessi, a Reader in Manufacturing Systems and Head of Mechanical Engineering.

Using name labels to make the interactions more personal

In a medium sized class (around 40 students) dealing with a relatively technical subject, I wanted to create more interactivity. I observed that asking questions from “the student with the red top” or “the student with the blue jacket” was very impersonal and strengthened the feeling that I was “picking” on students. Last year, I asked them write what they would like to be called on a piece of paper and put it in front of them. I then used these names to ask them questions or create dialogue between them (e.g. Ed what do you think about Joshua’s point?). In addition to creating lively discussions, this had the side effect that by the end of the teaching block, I had learned the names of the majority of the class.

News, Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #6: Ksenia Shalonova

My unusual classroom observation

This teaching story was submitted by Ksenia Shalonova , a Teaching Fellow in Engineering Mathematics.

When I was pursuing a teaching career, it was common to be observed by your manager. They normally come with a long list of things that you did right and wrong, the boxes that you ticked and did not tick … One of my managers was quite exceptional – may be because he was a rugby player in the past? He mentioned only two things to me that I still remember and sometimes struggle to fulfil.

(1) When you ask students a question, do not be tempted to answer the question yourself even if they struggle. Always give them a chance to reflect and to make mistakes that is important in the learning process. (2) If you want to engage your students in using a certain software product (such as Excel or Matlab), use this software yourself during your lectures.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #3: Lucy Berthoud

The following teaching story was submitted byu Lucy Berthoud, a
Professor of Space Engineering in the School of Aerospace Engineering.

Encouraging students to engage with feedback

The students submit their coursework via Turnitin and Blackboard and get marked the same way. We spend hours marking student coursework and it is a bit dispiriting sometimes to discover that they have not bothered looking at the feedback. This particularly seems to happen if they are satisfied with the mark and it could be because there is a fair bit of negotiating the Turnitin interface to go through to access the comments. To combat this, I started releasing the feedback first and the mark on SAFE (SLSP) much later. Now, to discover their mark they have to go through all the negotiating of Turnitin and so they might as well look at the feedback at the same time. This seems to have encouraged the students to engage with their feedback.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #4: James Norman

Dr James Norman is a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

A Friendly Welcome

As a lecturer I am always trying to think of different ways of crossing the divide between teacher and student. Some students are confident and will approach me with ease, but for many others they find it difficult to make the initial approach and admit that they didn’t understand what I said.

One of the ways I have tried to overcome this over the years is to think about the welcome at the beginning of my lecture series. Often I am nervous when I start teaching a new cohort and I always have to battle technology before I start a lecture but recently I have ensured that for the first lecture of the term I am set up with plenty of the time and I greet each and every student into my teaching space. I typically just try and smile and say welcome. It’s not a big act but hopefully it makes it ever so slightly easier for students to later come and ask a question.

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #2: Ann Pullen

The following teaching story was submitted by Ann Pullen, Faculty Education Director in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Programme Director for the MSc in Transfusion and Transplantation Sciences.

I’ve just been chairing the two day symposium on “Hot Topics in Transplantation” by the students on the MSc in Transfusion and Transplantation Sciences at NHS Blood and Transplant – Filton.

This is the authentic assessment on the Clinical Transfusion and Transplantation unit (weighted 30% on this 20 credit point unit, PANMM0019).

The students choose a topic to review that has appeared in the news in the last year.  They research their topic, critically evaluate the literature, prepare an abstract suitable for a scientific meeting, a poster and give a 15 minute oral presentation, with 5 minutes for questions and discussion.

Many of the talks were very impressive, triggering questions from the students, UoB and NHSBT staff, and thought provoking discussions amongst the students.

Talks included Uterus Transplantation (very topical for International Women’s Day), Breathing New Life into Bioengineered Lung Transplants, Reperfusion of Kidneys for Transplant and Faecal Microbiota Transplant.

Students from around the world (Chile, China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) presented alongside UK students, including those part-time students working for NHSBT or in NHS hospitals.

It was really great to see the students working together and supporting one another to refine their slides and practice their oral presentations, and then engaging in lively discussion following the talks.

Unit Director :Tom Bullock  (NHSBT)
Guidance on poster preparation: Gary Mallinson  (NHSBT)
Essential admin support : Laura Chapman  (Postgraduate Student Administration Assistant,  UoB)

Previous contributions by:
Unit Director (retired):  Nicky Anderson  (NHSBT)
Programme Director (retired):Tricia Denning-Kendall  (UoB)

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #1: Rulers for All

Our first teaching story was written by Dr James Norman, BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering.

For many years I worked as a practicing engineer. One of the tools I could not do without as an engineer is a scale rule (a ruler with 4 different scales on). I can stick it on a drawing and know roughly how big something should be and I can draw a quick sketch to scale. However I never bought a scale rule and neither did the company I worked for, we were always given them by other companies, keen to have their logo and product on our desk each and every day. Even though I stopped practicing a few years back I still keep my scale rule close at hand (helpfully it doubled as cutlery the other day when my friend bought a pasta salad and forgot to pick up a spoon).

A couple of years ago we decided to give all our students scale rules. As future engineers we wanted them to start acting like engineers and a scale rule is an essential tool. More than that, we wanted them to feel part of a community of practice, and a scale rule is an essential tool. More than that we wanted them to take their rulers out with them when they graduate, to sit on their desk as a friendly reminder of all that they have brought with them from their time at Bristol university. And hopefully some of them will hand in drawings to scale as well.