We are delighted to announce Dr Francesco Fornetti was recently nominated by the University to apply for the Advance HE National Teaching Fellowship.
My passion for electronics and technology started when I was very young. My uncle Angelo owned an electrical appliances shop in a little country town in Italy and as a child, I used to love spending time there and seeing all of the technological marvels that would come out every year. Growing up in the 80s, I witnessed a plethora of innovations which truly changed people’s lives and the shape of society. I wanted to be part of that change, I wanted to learn how to make those wonderful things.
In a bit of serendipity, my uncle struggled to keep up with the galloping pace of technological advances and felt a little overwhelmed by the transition from knobs and screwdrivers to a more digital world. This allowed me to take over many tasks from him and take a front-line role in the deployment of new technology. He used to pick me up in his Fiat Panda and drive me to customers’ houses to install TVs, VCRs, and Set-top boxes, scarily complex back then compared to today’s plug-and-play devices. He loved just having a coffee, a smoke and a gossip while I did the work and I loved getting the odd 1000-5000 lira tip (30p – £1.50) which could buy a lot of Italian gelato back then! More importantly, those experiences taught me a lot about communicating with people from very different backgrounds and boiling relatively complex concepts down to something digestible. Looking back, those were my first teaching challenges and they made me realise that people with hardly any education – some like my mother, had just 5 years of schooling – had just as much potential as anyone to find their feet and learn to use new technology, if the right communication avenues were found.
Later in life, when I returned to academia as a postgraduate researcher, I had the opportunity to teach at a very different level and this made me realise how little difference there was between teaching undergraduate students and farmers with little education. The main key to successfully enabling people to construct knowledge and develop new skills was just the same: the instructor’s ability to empathise with the learners.
One should not be bogged down by what one thinks should work and what one thinks that students should buy into. I believe that a good teacher should instead understand and be mindful of what resonates with students, what can make them tick and keep them engaged enough and motivated enough to enjoy self-directed learning journeys.
In my view what makes my work successful is indeed the ability to put myself in the student’s shoes, to appreciate that their points of view and perceptions may be different from mine. Based on this understanding, I have been able to create a redundant set of tools, which enable them to choose the knowledge construction methods that are most suited to them.
The most innovative of these tools are:
- Virtual laboratories, which, by means of a powerful simulation tool, provide truly ubiquitous experimentation facilities. They enable students to gain a much deeper and more conceptual understanding of circuit design and operation and foster independent and enquiry-based learning.
- Home Lab kits, which feature USB-powered instrumentation and battery-operated circuits and made it possible for students to carry out some of their laboratory exercises at home and experiment with circuits and systems of their own design.
- Remote test stations, which gave students access to state-of-art lab facilities from anywhere in the world through a web interface.
In addition to the ability to empathise, one must be able to communicate effectively and ensure that a message is not just delivered but also correctly received. Communication channels evolve all the time, as does language, and teaching, which is underpinned by (bidirectional) effective communication should too.
In light of this, one can’t shy away from modern social media platforms and I have indeed used these very successfully in my practice:
- YouTube for video tutorials, which were pivotal to the success and uptake and virtual laboratories and have been helping learners across the globe.
- Facebook as a means of creating a peer-support platform for home lab kits.
- Tik-Tok, to make labs more engaging and help students work more independently through their lab exercises, particularly when Covid severely restricted close interaction between staff and students.
- Polling apps to create a continuous feedback loop.
On a professional level, 2022 was a great year for me since I was blessed with fantastic feedback from students, which led to a teaching award at UoB and to my work being “Highly Commended” in the “Most Innovative Teacher of the Year” category at the “Times Higher Education” awards. However, while I was truly delighted to receive such recognition and to win the support of our institution for a National Teaching Fellowship, the real win for me is the opportunity to share my practice far and wide and help other academics embark upon similar endeavours.
Indeed, following the Times Awards, I was tagged in an article in French inspired by my work and entitled “Innovez en (techno-) pédagogie… ce n’est pas sorcier!”, which translates (loosely) to “Innovating in (techno)pedagogy… it’s not sorcery!”.
The photo that they used was also quite amusing but they are quite right, innovation in engineering education is not witchcraft.
You just need to put three ingredients in your cauldron: empathy, effective communication and a can-do attitude: stir them vigorously et voila, a potion that could “magically” change people’s lives.
Find out more about Dr Francesco Fornetti and his work at the WeAreEngineering Blog