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Employability in the curriculum – Engaged Learning

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success. In this blog we look at Engaged Learning in an online context.   

As challenging as the pandemic has been, it has provided the opportunity to think about things differently. Our last blog explored authentic learning in the curriculum – what it is, why it matters, and some examples of where it is already being done at Bristol. For this blog post we’re taking a closer look at one particular example of authentic learning: Engaged Learning. 

Engaged Learning – aka Service Learning or Community Based Learning – involves students working with an external organisation on a real-world problem, as part of the curriculum. This benefits students as they have space to develop skills they may not pick up in the classroom as well as getting the chance to contribute to our civic mission. The partner organisation gets extra capacity, and many praise the benefits ‘a fresh pair of eyes’ can bring.   

There are, understandably, some challenges in delivering Engaged Learning projects at the moment – but in many cases it is still possible for these opportunities to go ahead. And at a time when it’s potentially harder for students to access traditional work experience, these can be a key opportunity for students to develop their employability as part of their programme and contribute to society. 

Student engaged learning outdoors along the Bristol waterfront

Interested in finding out how you could make Engaged Learning a success in your unit? Here are our five top tips: 

Choose a model that can work remotely  

Opportunities need to be able to translate into the digital world. For example, consultancy projects such as the MSc Environmental Policy and Management Consultancy Unit and the BSc/ MSc International Development business planning units involve students working in teams, sometimes virtually, to solve a question posed by a partner organisation.  They are less time intensive for partner organisations than placements as students aren’t based within the organisation nor do they provide the supervision but have a limited number of meetings.   

Communication is key! 

Partnership working can be carried out virtually allowing students to access and work with organisations across the globe. Meetings between the unit director and partner, as well as students and partner, can be conducted over platforms such as Skype, Zoom or phone.  Essential documents from partners can be shared via email; students can work on documents together using MS Teams or Microsoft cloud. 

However, there are limits to digital interactions.  In a face to face meeting, it’s easy to read other’s reactions.  This is harder over online platforms where it can feel stilted, not to mention connectivity issues leading to frozen faces!  This increases the need for clear communication throughout the project, including careful consideration and management of student and partner expectations.  For example, when preparing the students to ‘go out’ and engage with their partners, students need to understand that local knowledge is of equal value to academic knowledge.  Building relationships and communicating remotely will be a valuable skill for students to take with them into the workplace. 

Think creatively about assessment 

Choose an assessment method which meets the unit’s intended learning outcomes (ILOs) but also involves an accessible element for partners. A lengthy essay will probably be of no use to an external partner so alternative assessment methods should be sought.  

Methods could be formative or summative, with partners also given the opportunity to provide feedback. For example, our second year Physical Geography students do a presentation which is assessed by the academics while partners provide formative feedback which feeds into the student’s final report. Our Environmental Policy and Management partners answer one simple question contributing to 10% of the student’s mark.   

Presentations can be an accessible method for a wide variety of audiences – students can pre-record themselves presenting to a PowerPoint and then use a platform such as Zoom for questions. Partners could either attend the live presentation or watch the PowerPoint recording and meet separately with the students. 

Some other ideas on alternative assessment methods:  

  • reports 
  • podcasts 
  • videos 
  • online exhibitions 
  • digital storytelling 
  • concept maps 
  • policy briefings 
  • project plans 
  • app development 
  • Wiki 
  • blog post 

Don’t forget about accessibility

We must be mindful of accessibility for our students and partners, including potential issues with access to computers and broadband (see BILT’s recent blog on accessibility issues for external partners). The Digital Education Office recommends using a blend of synchronistic and asynchronistic content, with a focus on the latter to ensure inclusivity. 

Have a Plan B 

When Engaged Learning projects are well thought out, they run smoothly. Very occasionally things don’t work out – e.g. if a partner drops out or data becomes unavailable. A Plan B is important. You may want to plan other ways to include real-world learning in your unit or programme, so students can still apply their learning (see our previous blog on real-world learning for more ideas), or ensure that there’s accessible data available for students which doesn’t rely on the partner producing it. 

Although there are challenges, now is the time to think creatively about our curriculum offer for students. It’s also a chance to develop opportunities that are meaningful for our students, allowing them to work with our partner organisations to create a better society. 

This information has been collated with the support of our academic colleagues 

If you have any further thoughts on how to run Engaged Learning opportunities, or are interested in becoming a part of the joint BILT – Careers Service peer support Engaged Learning Community, then get in touch with our Engaged Learning Coordinators – Hannah Tweddell and Hannah Cowell. 

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Authentic Open Unit Map

This map has been designed to make it easier for students and staff to find units that include elements of authentic learning. It includes everything from integrated assessment to real-world relevance, so please click around and see what units are on offer!

Here is the same information but in a more accessible format. It is suitable for screen readers:

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

city of bristol
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Employability in the curriculum – the Why and How of real-world learning

This ‘Employability in the curriculum’ blog series is brought to you by the Faculty Employability Team at the Careers Service. These blogs are designed to give you practical advice and ideas to get started with enhancing how your curriculum prepares students for their future success. 

‘Real-world’, or ‘authentic’ learning are terms you are probably familiar with by now. This approach is a key feature of the curriculum framework, and one on which BILT have already shared a lot of great advice (if you haven’t already, check out their blog post on creating authentic online teaching and learning).   

If, like us, you’ve taken part in the Digital Design course you will have enjoyed finding out about how authentic approaches can transform student learning and their experience of assessment. We were inspired – so are now delving into this topic with an employability lens too.  

Real-world learning: why does it matter? 

Opportunities to apply learning to real-world contexts and challenges help to prepare students for life and work beyond university. This might seem to be stating the obvious – most people recognise the link. But to fully appreciate the potential impact of real-world learning, it’s worth reflecting on some of the benefits for students:  

  • They become agents in their own learning – thereby developing the initiative and autonomy they need to succeed professionally   
  • They develop enterprising, questioning, innovative mindsets – essential for organisations of all sizes and sectors to thrive  
  • They develop a broader range of other highly valuable skills and attributes – such as project management, collaborative working and professionalism 
  • They gain insight into, and experience of, the world of work – helping to inform their choices about where they go next  

Real-world and online learning – a contradiction?    

The idea of real-world learning in the curriculum may sound appealing. But how possible is it in the current context? Surely applying learning to real challenges requires students to actually go out into the ‘real world’? 

Well, hopefully you can see that many of the suggestions and examples we include below are those that could be delivered remotely. Of course, there are significant challenges for placements, lab work, or other applied teaching and learning methods which ordinarily require a physical presence – but in many cases, it’s still possible to deliver a meaningful and engaging remote real-world learning or assessment experience. And in doing so, students develop a skillset that will equip them for the reality of work after university.  Look out for our next blog post for more on this!   

Real-world learning: how can you incorporate into your unit or programme 

There are a range of ways to introduce real-world learning into your curriculum – from light-touch approaches like using case studies through to embedding work experience or placement opportunities.  

We’ve included some examples below, which are grouped for ease into three categories. It’s impossible to do this neatly and there is some overlap – but hopefully gives an idea of the range of approaches you could choose…  

Professional tasks  Briefings for policy makers or Think Tanks    
Reports for research bodies  
Blogs/vlogs or podcasts 
Customer / patient information leaflets  
Articles or videos for the media  
Business ideas or plans  
Digital portfolios 
Creating an exhibit or curating a museum  
In tray/e-tray exercises under time constraint 
Applying subject knowledge and methods  Labs and workshops  
Research projects and reports  
Mini-academic conferences  
Poster or panel presentations  
Debates  
Data collection/surveying, analysis, interpretation  
Using real source material  
Real-world contexts and challenges  Examples or illustrative case studies  
Live case study problems or consultancy briefs 
Engaged Learning projects  
Applied dissertations – research with or for external organisations  
Virtual shadowing or insight using video platforms  
Work placements or experience in industry  
Developing a business idea to meet needs of a society / community / industry challenge  
Real-world learning practice examples

If you’d like to explore further, take a look at this paper on authentic learning practices or this one on alternatives to exams.  

Real world learning at Bristol  

There are plenty of examples of real-world learning taking place in programmes across the University. We have gathered a small selection below to give you of an idea of what it can look like in practice.  

Take a look at the teaching case studies on the BILT website for some further examples. You can also see approaches used in other institutions in JISC’s case studies on using technology for embedding employability.  

Your examples and feedback – we want to hear from you!  

We would love to hear about any work you’ve done to develop real-world learning in your unit or programme – please share your examples in the comments below.  

Do also let us know how you are finding the blog series so far or any suggestions for topics that would be useful for us to cover. Comment below or get in touch at ellen.grace@bristol.ac.uk 

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Learning to live well in lockdown: A student’s diary on the Science of Happiness course

When I heard the Science of Happiness course was being made available, I was immediately curious. Not only did Bruce Hood’s course offering provide the prospect of doing something to cheer me up during lockdown, but because I’ve spent the past year admiring the authentic learning techniques used in the Bristol Futures course. However, I had my reservations, with over 700 students and only 4 weeks can this really improve my happiness? Either way, I had the time to try.  

Week 1:  

After the usual technical difficulties, the lecture began. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of watching things online and unlike many student’s RePlay has always baffled me, but this lecture actively encouraged you to engage. Using the chatbot rather than being asked to raise your hand/ turn on your video and microphone made it feel safer to ask questions. I was less afraid of asking a stupid question, or of my video freezing at a comical moment (the new reliance on technology does not suit my decrepit laptop). We were also encouraged to use the chatbot for just that: chat. Hearing about where people were from and what they were feeling grateful for made it feel more like I was in a room of likeminded people rather than staring at blank screens.  

From an authentic learning standpoint, the Science of Happiness really glows, particularly in the way that it is ‘assessed’ (as an optional course it is not credit bearing assessment). Before setting our weekly task, Prof. Hood provided an entire slide about WHY we should be doing these tasks and HOW it would be helpful for us. This is always something I have struggled with at university, being set tasks that at the time feel arbitrary and I am unsure about what their purpose is or the skills I am developing. By explaining it simple terms why we should be doing the task, it made me look forward to doing it, and excited to see the possible results.  

From the perspective of a student in lockdown, I was excited to see the blending of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. Again, with a decrepit laptop and dodgy internet connection, the interactive seminars were not always in my favour, so the opportunity to reflect on the course in my own time by completing small daily tasks was appealing. Similarly, a big part of this course seems to be about reflection: on your day; on your experiences; on your relationships. I am also applying this to my learning outside of this course with the hope it might become a valuable ‘Way to Wellbeing’, particularly in a time when it is easy to wish things were different.  

All in all, I’m looking forward to the rest of this course, and who knows, maybe it’ll make my life in lockdown a little bit happier

Week 2:  

As forewarned, my hedonistic adaptation kicked in slightly this week, and although I noticed a significant change in my mood shortly after the first lecture I have now noticed it drop back down to normal; external factors may have come into play with this week being full of deadlines. Nonetheless, the homework, write 3 things that went well in your day has been making my evenings far more pleasant, and I have been able to savour the little things much better: sitting on the grass with my dog, really good bread etc. Also, by doing a little bit of asynchronous work each day (8-10 minutes) I have really stayed engaged with the ideas and concepts behind the lectures. 

This week for our homework we are to write a gratitude letter expressing our thanks to someone close to us and READ IT TO THEM. While I see how helpful this would be, I would be lying if I said that my inner Stiff Upper Lip is battling against my desire to try and reach a new level of sustained happiness. We will see, I have the feeling that with the right amount of nervous laughter and self-deprecating jokes I will manage to stutter the words out. 

One aspect of the lecture that really changed the way that I am currently viewing lockdown is the idea of ‘Focalism’: being obsessed with one thing and thus being unable to see the context and situations that go on alongside it. This is easy to do with university at the best of times, focusing so hard on the stress of impending deadlines that you fail to see any of the positives going on around you. Lockdown puts this into hyperdrive, and I have previously spent days absorbed in the news, not focusing on the fact that the weather’s been lovely in England for almost eight weeks or that the lack of dog groomers means that the family dog now resembles a pompom made by a very young child who has not yet mastered their motor skills.  

Week 3:  

This week was on mindfulness. Not to sound too colloquial, but mindfulness is my jam. I love yoga and meditation and am a full believer in breathwork, chakras, EVERYTHING. I greatly enjoyed the homework and the five-minute meditation session mid-lecture. For any two-hour lecture, I would say this is a must halfway through.  A lot of the lecture this week focused on the impact of exercise on mood, and while I think most people know that, I was surprised to find that the reasoning behind this was not the endorphins released (although I’m sure that helps) but a routine. By committing a bit of time each week to something it gives us structure, which in turn makes us feel more purposeful and ultimately, happy.  

Week 4:  

The final week was on goal setting, and I am beginning to see the benefits of going through all the studies which initially while I enjoyed as they are interesting examples, thought they detracted from the core content. This course has not told me anything I didn’t already know; diet, exercise and sleep are important and through reflecting, mindfulness and gratitude you can feel more fulfilled, but it has allowed me to understand all of these concepts on a deeper level and empathise with my past self about why I may have failed to do these things in the past and imagine the obstacles that may stop me doing it in the future.  

Pedagogically, there were also many aspects of the course that I really enjoyed. The variety of homework was something that I really relished, and it was enjoyable having a distinction from week to week. In a lockdown exam context, it helped to break up the monotony of essays and gave me something productive to do each day. Furthermore, while I was not very good at keeping up with the Nudge app, the fact that I had a medium to contact my lecturers without logging on to blackboard and my email, meant that if I was having problems with any of the tasks I could contact them in a less formal manner than logging on to blackboard.  

I guess the ultimate question is, am I happier because of taking the course? For anyone who knows me, I’m a pretty cheerful person anyway, so I’m not sure my happiness has gone up drastically. However, I have noticed significantly less ‘bad days’, and my ability to cope with these bad days has felt more conscious as if I am equipped with strategies to do so.  Similarly, I feel like I’ve been able to appreciate the good days more and be a little bit more present in moments of enjoyment. In short, I am a believer, and would strongly recommend anyone and everyone to enrol on this course in the future.  

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

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Out of the ordinary: Tips to create authentic online teaching and learning

 “The value of authentic activity is not constrained to learning in real-life locations and practice, but that the benefits of authentic activity can be realized through careful design of Web-based learning environments.” – Lombardi  

Well, I can safely say this is not how I thought I’d be spending my year but the quest for authentic learning continues. As we all struggle to get our learning and teaching online, I’ve created a handy guide on how to do authentic learning and teaching via the magical medium of the internet. It bears noting that although many of us would rather return to life, as usual, this is a time of considerable opportunity to change the way we teach and learn. The traditional format of lectures and seminars has been broken down and if ever there were a time to try something new, it is now. 

Real-world relevance is critical for authentic learning, but it is important not to fall into the trap of making everything about coronavirus. Now is an excellent time for using studying as a form of escapism. However, it is also an excellent time to be teaching about adaptability and how to manage a crisis. 

Using stakeholders has become tricky and nearly impossible. With many organisations furloughing their staff, now is not the best time for partnerships but to give an authentic experience, stakeholders can be imaginary. This can be anything from an imaginary business giving them a task, or more broadly how would they tackle an issue and who would it affect. For the unit Managing and Evaluating Development, students usually partner with NGOs, but now are being asked to create their own business plan to start up their own organisation. This allows students to create their own value and assess what is important to them and wider society. 

Working collaboratively is something that is now more crucial than ever. Social distancing can be lonely and feeling disconnected from your peers can be very isolating. Giving students an incentive to have regular communication with their classmates, be that via video call, normal call or even email, is an excellent way to not only improve their collaboration skills but also to maintain a sense of community. Also; as online communication is increasingly looking like the future of work, collaborating via online platforms is a crucial way of improving these skills. 

It is also crucial that while the contact hours have been limited that students are given the opportunity to feedback and that lecturers can monitor their progress to ensure that students are sustaining their levels of investigation. The Social Innovation Programme run by Bristol Hub has been doing this using a Gantt Chart and tools such as Trello. This is a way of including teaching soft skills and letting students visualise their progress, along with making sure that students are continuing with their work even if they are away from campus. 

Although lockdown has it’s challenges, it provides students and staff alike with a lot of time. This time can be useful for reflection: what is going well, how do students feel their course has been affected, what could be improved. Coming out of the Easter holidays, students may find it helpful to consider what they have already learnt and how this can be applied to the final term of the year. By allowing opportunities for continuous reflection, students are placed in a position to make more informed choices about their learning, along with communicating the value more effectively. In other words, authentic learning gold. 

Given the unusual circumstances of the entire year, students may feel inclined to stick to the reading list like glue as it’s no secret that many students are driven by their academic results. However, now is not the time for conventional teaching, and by encouraging students to look at multiple sources and perspectives outside of normal reading can help to rekindle students love of their subject, in a time where they are probably not thinking about how History of Art has changed their life. By encouraging them to find sources and perspectives which students have found themselves and are therefore likely to be genuinely interested in, it can also help to cultivate a good online discussion- students (and staff) may be nervous in online group discussions so having something that they have found can be a useful starting point. 

The final way in which you can help to make online teaching more authentic is by asking students what they want to be learning. What do they want the rest of the term to look like? Are students more interested in mimicking traditional seminar formats online, or would they rather have asynchronous teaching using videos and podcasts? By asking students how they want to learn, it allows them to reflect on their learning process and think about the subjects they are particularly curious about. It also shows an acceptance that this is not business as usual; not everything about online teaching will work for every student but it is crucial to find a format that allows everyone to engage, even if it’s not in a way in which they are used to. 

I hope that this has been helpful, or at the very least food for thought. I would love to hear from students and lecturers alike, how would you change online learning and teaching? What would work for you? What do you want from the final term of this year?

Marnie Woodmeade, Student Fellow

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 11

‘And that’s a wrap…’

“I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much I just think
And my eyes don’t move left or right they just blink”

I thought I’d start my 11th and final episode of the blog series with a Dizzee Rascal quote, because as I was reflecting on the day, whilst grabbing some lunch, these words came to mind.

Today, this instant, this very moment, is the last office session. At 5pm, 10 groups will hand in 10 reports and the unit will be over for the year. I am hoping for some help whilst I shift all the furniture that I have begged, borrowed and stolen back around the building and then hopefully it’s off to the pub for a swift celebratory beer for a job well done.

The reason Dizzee’s words came to me is that every week the office has been a busy, noisy, buzzing space, but today is different. Everyone is working hard. Really hard. Because it’s deadline day. And I still have a few questions to answer, but mostly people know what they are doing and where they are going they just need to get there. And so I am, for the first time all year, able to sit in ‘The Office’ and write my blog post. I don’t intend on being overly long but I thought I might reflect back on the 10 weeks.

As I mentioned last week, after each session I write a short reflection on the day as I take the train back home to Bath. Re-reading these reflections now a few things strike me:

Firstly attendance. Attendance has been outstanding. Every week everyone has come for most of the day. Occasionally a few people are late in. And there were a few times when people were ill or had other commitments. But overall the attendance on this unit has been better than any I can ever remember running.

Space. The space has worked well. Students would like even more desk space, but other than that, this dreary flatbed lecture room is weekly transformed into a buzzing office (see the video), with people working hard and discussing timber engineering. Asking each other sensible questions.

Team. I selected the groups for this unit and so they were pushed into groups with people they hadn’t worked with before. This isn’t a new thing for our students, but most years I have at least a few complaints about teams. This year there have been none. And as I look around I can see diverse groups of students, some of whom are studying on different degree programmes, and who, for the most part have never worked together, collaborating to create something great.

Sound. One of the most striking things about ‘The Office’ is how much it sounds like an office. Every week in my reflections I’ve noted it. That busy bustling sound. Even without the pictures on the wall, and the breakout space, and the boards to hide the lectern and extra seats, and the plants by the entrance, and the tea point! Even without any of these other features that differentiate this space from any other flatbed teaching space, it sounds like an office. It doesn’t sound like a lecture theatre, which is both quieter when I’m speaking and much noisier when I’m not. Neither does it sound like a work space where students are all working on their own. Instead it has that unmistakable hubbub of people collaborating and working together. I took a very short snippet of this, and you can hear the sound of ‘The Office’ for yourself.

Speakers. Every week we have had an external speaker come and give a lunch time talk. These are not lectures, they are designed instead to replicate the weekly lunchtime talks my old business’s organised when I worked in industry. They have covered a wide selection of different areas of timber engineering and have been well attended and well received by the students. My only thought for next year was to ensure a higher proportion of female speakers, the unit was taken by more than 40% female students and so it would be good to have 3-4 of the 7 speakers as female, rather than the one we had this year.

Cake. Cake for my birthday was a real highlight (for me at least). My wife and son made it. So next year I need to move the office day to a Saturday so it coincides with my birthday again.

Jokes. So the last point was a joke (about teaching on Saturday – my Saturdays are already busy, what with running, coffee, taking my son to rugby, watching Bath rugby, cooking Saturday night tea, watching Strictly, there is no way I could squeeze the office in as well!) As was the below that I found on one of my architecture magazines. A joke I very much enjoyed, and I hope you do to.

EP11-a.jpg

And I just discovered why it is so quiet in the office today, most groups have moved up the corridor to one of our new group work teaching spaces where there are large touchscreen computers, ideal for the final edit of the report as the group collaborate and agree content and presentation together. Another new teaching space being put to good use by our students.

So in conclusion, I have really enjoyed teaching this unit in a different way. I hope that my students have found it just as beneficial (I suspect only time will tell on that front) and I am looking forward to delivering the unit in the same way again next year (but hopefully with all the books I have written to make it happen published and in the library).

So until next time goodbye and thank you for reading my weekly blog, it’s been great fun sharing all my different thoughts on teaching and I really hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

James

500 Words, Teaching Stories

Reflections from the Employability Exchange

Have you ever attended an event and just thought ‘I wish more people were here to hear this’? That is exactly how I felt all afternoon whilst attending the second Employability Exchange event on Wednesday afternoon.

I didn’t know much about the event before attending, other than that there was a free lunch (I was sold) and there was a focus on authentic learning – something I passionately feel we should be exploring more in the curriculum. Regardless of my lack of knowledge on what would take place, I was looking forward to the afternoon in Engineers’ House.

And I was not disappointed. From Tansy’s energetic introduction to her vision for education at Bristol and the new Bristol Futures Curriculum Framework (more on this at a later date) to the quick-fire contributions from colleagues implementing authentic learning in their programmes, the four-hours were pack with inspiration and enthusiasm for embedding employability authentically in the curriculum.

We were lucky to have Dr Kate Daubney, Head of Careers and Employability at Kings College London, join us, where she shared their ‘Employability Touchstone’ approach to embedding employability. Their focus is not on adding employability into an already packed curriculum but rather looking at what is already covered and highlighting where tasks, activities and content enhance students’ employability. It isn’t about fitting something new in, it’s about taking what is already there and enhancing it – you can read more about this in Kate’s slides.

Dr Kate Daubney

Kate’s talk was followed by a panel discussion with Tansy, Kate and BILT Student Fellow Marnie Woodmeade and SU Undergraduate Education Officer Hillary Gyebi-Ababio. They shared how they believe authentic learning could support both students learning experience and wellbeing, and the impact it could have on their future careers.

Our panelists (L-R): Marnie Woodmeade, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio , Tansy Jessop and Kate Daubney

We then had six very quick presentations from colleagues (four listed below) on their use and experience of authentic learning, ending with a 50-slide, 5-minute presentation from James, in which he whizzed though his journey in ‘The Office’ at a rate of six seconds per slide! I don’t want to make any promises, but rumour on the street is that we may be getting a recorded version of it to share with those who couldn’t be there… watch this space!

Some time was then spent in Faculty groups discussing next steps for exploring this further and each of the FEDs (plus a SED!) fed back to the group. The only questions I left with was how to share the day’s events with more people – and so here we are.

The day was jointly hosted by the Careers Service and BILT. Stuart Johnson, Director of Careers, has shared his thoughts:

We’re delighted to have hosted such a positive and well-received event. The presentations and discussions demonstrated how employability already is an authentic part of some curricula, and how creatively it can be explored as part of the overall student education experience. We look forward to continuing to work with BILT to surface and share activity, and to working in partnership with Schools to ensure every programme authentically embeds employability and that students recognise the associated benefits of what they’re learning.

You can find more information about the authentic learning projects below:

  1. Chris Adams’ Monitoring Atmospheric Pollution (project summary)
  2. Terrell Carver’s Contemporary Feminist Thought (unit information)
  3. Sheena Warman’s LeapForward project (project resources)
  4. James Norman’s The Office (a growing series of fascinating blogs)

On a final note – if you’ve been inspired by any of this and have an exciting idea you’d like to implement in your teaching – consider applying for the BILT Discretionary Seedcorn Funding.


Amy Palmer

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 9

Emerging Engineers

So before we go any further, a serious health warning, if you are the sort of person who feels the need to reach for the sick bucket whenever you hear self-congratulation then you may prefer to skip this episode all together, because over the next few paragraphs there is going to be A LOT of trumpet blowing. I am not kidding.

You have been warned.

Our students are amazing. I mean my students, my Civil Engineering students[1]. Incredible. Just this year Amy won the regional heats of the Women in Property Student Awards and Grace won the regional heats of the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) Emerging Engineers award and was runner-up in the final against two graduates who had been working for a few years (and she was a finalist in another award, along with yet another of our students). And neither of them have graduated.

If you think this is a blip, you’re wrong, our graduates had such an amazing run of winning the NCE graduate of the year award[2] that I fear that subsequent, also just-as-amazing, graduates may have been overlooked.

But it’s not just the odd student, it’s all of them. Bristol Civil Engineering graduates are amazing. I know this because I have a long list of employers who tell me. One was recently telling me how impressed they were by the recent Bristol Graduate they had employed and how seamlessly they had moved into the role of graduate engineer, successfully taking on jobs he would expect an engineer with a few years’ experience to do.

And this has nothing to do with ‘The Office’- not a sausage- because all of these things have already happened. They happened before I started The Office project.

I was having a really interesting conversation with Stuart (who is the Director of Careers Services), and it struck me how I had presented The Office as something different, maybe even something special. That it was possible to read all the blog posts and think that it exists in isolation. It was possible to think it worked because of my hard work and enthusiasm and not realise everyone else in my department (and school) is similarly hard-working and enthusiastic. That when my students enter The Office, they are ready. They have learnt to work in teams. They have become self-motivated and self-actuated learners. They know what it means to take on a wicked problem, to consider options, to put their new found learning into a context.

A few months ago, I emailed a graduate and asked them to finish the following sentence as part of updating our website.

“In my current job…”

Their response is very telling…

“In my current job… as a structural engineer, I have been feeling no difference than working on design project in the university but in more detail.”

That their work in industry, at a professional practice, where they are being employed, feels like a continuation of working on the final design project on their Civil Engineering degree. A project that has been running for years, involves numerous industrial supervisors, and is a credit to our staff and students.

In Jenni Case’s “Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar” tool 4 is all about ‘communities of practice’[3]. Communities of practice started off as an education theory where educators and older students are at the centre of the community and that newer students are at the edge but they are moving into the community. Jenni Case argues that in an engineering sense industry and ‘practice’ is at the centre and students are at the edge. That there is a language, a set of behaviours, a series of tools[4], and that as students learn, they become more able to access the community, that they are better prepared for practice.

I really like this idea. And I think that we have been embedding this practice in our teaching in Civil Engineering for years. Whether in our surveying field trip, or our professional practice unit, or our labs, or our different design-focussed units, or our two programme-level assessments – one that draws all that students have learnt and challenges them to go much deeper, by carrying out a research project, presenting at a conference and writing a journal paper[5] – the other that draws on all that students have learnt and challenges them to work in mutli-disciplinary teams to take large and complex problems and solve them both creatively and safely (this is the traditional engineering bit) – with the projects mostly taken from engineering practices.

I also think that to try and teach, sorry, I mean lecture, on the things students need to know to become more engaged with the community of practice, is the wrong approach, that it’s by embedding this information into our other teaching that it comes alive. That by looking at what we already teach and reimagining the delivery, without changing the ‘knowledge’ content, we can add so much more to the student’s experience.

So when Toby and Marnie (BILT Student Fellows) came to visit my students in The Office and asked them about the experience[6], my students were slightly non-plussed by their questions, because far from feeling like a different approach to learning, working in groups on projects felt very much like a natural continuation of everything that they had done before.

That we, the department of Civil Engineering, have worked hard to create a course which develops ‘Emerging Engineers’. That when our students arrive, normally from school but not always, they often don’t know what a noggin[7] is, or what units to use on a drawing, or that when we ask them to submit a coursework with a specific file name we mean it. But as they develop, as they draw into the engineering community, they become engineers.

However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, that I use the phrase ‘emerging’ engineer because it takes the duration of our four-year course for our students to transition from school pupils to engineers. This requires careful planning and looking across the whole programme to find opportunities for learning the skills required to be an engineer.

Secondly it is very much a team effort. That our department is a community of practice. We talk together, support each other, make suggestions and work collaboratively to make this happen. This point is really quite important because if we were to deliver a unit in the style of the office without all this collaboration and development of students I suspect the outcome would be very different. That trying to embed authentic learning is not something that can be done at unit level but needs to be considered and mapped across the degree and that we appreciate the development of our engineers and match our expectations accordingly. 

I appreciate that I have barely mentioned the role of ‘The Office’ in this post. I hope that it will play a small part in helping our engineers to emerge. But really, I wanted everyone to be able to see the bigger picture. The hard work of my colleagues. The breadth of considered pedagogy. That actually, without The Office, I really think that we would still be helping them to emerge as engineers, no wait, that’s not quite right, that we have already helped hundreds and hundreds of students emerge as engineers. Engineers who are working around the world right now, taking on big complex challenges and who are thriving in what they are doing.

Next week is the penultimate episode – and we are not shying away from exciting topics with a look at work-life balance.

PS, last week was my birthday so my amazing wife and son cooked cake which I brought in for all my employees. It was much appreciated by everyone!



[1] Please note that 2 months ago I became School Education Director. I have no doubt that the students and staff in my school are all equally brilliant and I hope, over the coming years to blow many trumpets for all of them, but as I am new to this role I mostly know about the students and staff in Civil Engineering and hence I am focussing on them for this blog.

[2] From 2012 to 2017 our students won three times and were runners up, commended or a finalist a further three times!

[3] Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[4] See my blog on scale rules as an example:- https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/

[5] Many of which go on to be published in academic journals

[6] See the BILT Blog post:- https://bilt.online/an-atypical-day-in-the-office/

[7] You may be interested to know that a noggin is a small piece of timber placed between floor joists to stop them rotating, the term has become popularised by the phrase ‘use your noggin’ because not including them can lead to the floor collapsing

Teaching Stories

An (a)typical day in The Office

Amy Palmer, Toby Roberts and Marnie Woodmeade all visited James Norman’s ‘The Office’ project and have shared their experiences below.

Amy’s reflection:

I’d been looking forward to visiting James’ ‘Just Timber’ office since before the concept had even come to fruition. Last year, while catching up over coffee, James told me about his plan to turn on one his classrooms into an office, and I was instantly excited. The project was a combination of all my favourite pedagogies: active learning, blended learning, challenge-led learning, authentic learning, group work… all coming together to form the ‘Just Timber’ office in 1.32 Queens Building.

‘Just Timber’ is a fictional engineering company James has created. His students (employees) were all set timber engineering design projects at the beginning of the unit and are working together to create real designs with real equations in an almost real-world environment. If you want to read more about the project so far, I highly recommend reading ‘The Office’ blog series .

A date was set in the diary to visit, and I invited two of our Student Fellows to come along and join me. And so, last Thursday, we went along and waited for James to show up fifteen minutes late to our visit after almost forgetting we were coming – helping further imitate the real-world, authentic environment (just kidding) and heighten our anticipation further.

And, when we arrived, we were not disappointed. We were welcomed by an offer of tea or coffee (served in a ‘Just Timber’ mug, of course) and then proceeded to look around the office and take it all in.

The first thing I was struck by was the buzz in the room. Not a noisy, can’t-do-any-work’ buzz, but the natural up-and-down of a genuine office environment, with students in their groups switching between their sketching, calculations and discussions with each other over how best to proceed in their projects. Barely a glance was thrown in our direction when we bumbled into the room, the students so engaged in their projects that they weren’t looking for distraction.

We had a quick look around the office, admiring the various projects pinned on the wall, and browsing the elegant engineering magazines by the break-out space. We then proceeded to interrupt students by asking them questions about how they were finding the unit and how it compared to others they were taking.

As you can imagine, they loved it. Of course, they are students, and so the conversations were not void of the odd grumble (nothing you wouldn’t expect from a unit being run for the first time), but the overwhelming response was that they looked forward to Thursdays – regardless of the fact they were spending eight hours in the office – and that the learning they were doing there was both enjoyable, challenging and reflective of an authentic engineering office environment. Some of the students even ended the day with a traditional post-work trip to the pub, further preparing them for life out working in the ‘real world’.

If you’ve been keeping up with The Office blog series, you’ll know that students prepare for their day’s work by watching videos James has created on their VLE, and then come to work to study their projects. This means that time in class/ office is dedicated purely to student-centred work with no didactic teaching. Students highlighted that their favourite aspects of the unit were the group work element, the room layout (large groupings of desks together), the project-centred work and the fact that they had a day dedicated to the unit. Student wouldn’t want all of their modules to run as full-day units, however, but would have found a unit like this in their previous years of study valuable and enjoyable and a great chance to get to know others in their cohort.

James’ Just Timber office is a product of a great idea, hard work and dedication to a new way of learning, and there are many lessons we can take away from designing a unit in this way. Please get in touch with BILT if you’d like to learn more about setting up a project similar to this in your unit.   

Marnie’s reflection:

I had an extremely positive outlook on the Office before I even entered the building; the concept reflected the challenge-led work that I only ever dreamed about during my undergrad. My positivity was only enhanced by the almost immediate offer of cake and tea (an important part of daily office life).  

However, two pieces of feedback from students struck me as unexpected. The first was that students said they genuinely enjoyed being in the Office. Not merely that it was a great educational experience, but they actually looked forward to coming in each day. Having an open-plan office where interaction is encouraged clearly enabled students to really enjoy their time there. 

The other piece of feedback was perhaps more sobering. One student pointed out that although they enjoyed the way the office replicates an engineering company, a ‘real boss’ is unlikely to give mass amounts of work on the same day that five of your other supervisors have given you a deadline. In order for more projects like the Office to succeed, students felt that communication between units is key. This not only has the benefit of reducing their stress but treating students as valued workers positively impacts their outlook on university.  

Toby’s reflection:

One of the things that really struck me about the atmosphere in the Just Timber office (other than the delicious smell of cake courtesy of James’ wife and son) was how much it reminded me of a classroom. Not a school classroom – there wasn’t any paper being thrown around and James hadn’t sent me out to think about how my behaviour affects the rest of the class – but a calmer and more focused 6th Form classroom. And to me that’s a real positive. All of the ‘employees’ were clearly getting work done and you could tell there was a strong sense of purpose. But at the same time, they were relaxed and there was friendliness between them, and the noise of conversation was a world away from the awkward silence of lectures or the hyperactive buzz of a library in exam time. 

However, I wasn’t there to drink in the atmosphere and reminisce about college. The students seemed more than happy to talk to us about the unit, and I think that was in part due to how much they enjoyed it. It was clear that the effort James had put into it had had an effect on them and their attitudes, but it had paid off in producing a rewarding learning experience. 

One area that students weren’t unanimous on was the intense one-day-a-week schedule. Some felt more productive, others exhausted (there was a suggestion that maybe in the future it could not be the day after sports night). However, one interesting element to me was the effect on wellbeing. With so many units and assignments to contend with at once it’s very easy to get overwhelmed as a student. Containing the work within a single 9-5 day helps to compartmentalise and means there’s one less thing to worry about for the rest of the week. Instead, something to look forward to every Thursday.

covers of the books james has read in 2019
Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 8

‘A reading week special’

Depending on when you are reading this it is either reading week, or it is the Friday before reading week. Either way happy reading week*.

Now I don’t know what your plans are for reading week but I really hope you will spend at least some of it, you know, reading. So below are four random thoughts on reading for reading week.

Luke Kennard ‘Cain’ (Printed in the Margins, London, 2016)

Now you may have thought that ‘The Office’ blog series was inspired by some sitcom from a few years back, but you’d be wrong. No no no, the office was really inspired by Luke Kennard’s ‘Cain’ where he takes Genesis Chapter 4 verses 9 to 12 from the Bible and he pulls the words apart, literally reducing them to 355 letters. He then takes those 355 letters and counts how many occurrences there are of each before reconstructing them into 32 ‘episodes’. Each episode containing the 355 letters. A mega anagram. My engineering brain boggles at this concept. I have read and re-read those poems. They are bizarre, abstract, peculiar. But Luke Kennard does not stop hear. Around each poem, literally around them, in tiny red letters there is a narrative deconstructing each ‘episode’ often leaving me more baffled than I was before. But I love this book. I love it’s audacious creativity. I love that he doesn’t stop at 2 or 3 anagrams like any normal person does, but instead he creates 32. THIRTY TWO! I can’t begin to imagine the amount of time and effort that would go into making one let alone 32.

EP8d.jpg

What has this got to do with the office you might be wondering. Well I think ‘The Office’ and actually a lot of teaching is much like Luke Kennard’s series of poems. You may have noticed that every week I write about the same thing, over and over again. But each week I shake it and look from another perspective (if you are of a certain age maybe the game Boggle might help the mental image here). Like Luke Kennard we take the same thing and see it from different perspectives. I think teaching works in much the same way more generally. If we are only interested in the knowledge we pass on, or the skills we provide, or the portfolio piece that students create, or the professional qualifications that students are working towards, if we are only thinking of our teaching as achieving one of these things we miss all sorts of opportunities. Luke Kennard saw those four verses from a story right at the beginning of the Bible and he reimagined them in a very literal sense. I love to think about teaching at a unit level, a year level and a Programme level by looking at it from all these different perspectives. Trying to find opportunities and searching for gaps.

Oh and if anyone can explain to me what Luke Kennard is trying to say over a coffee I would be most grateful.

gal-dem ‘THE UN/REST ISSUE’ (print issue 4, London, 2019)

For years, I have enjoyed independent and unusual magazines but find it hard to know which ones to try, there are magazines shops popping up with too many to choose from. So, six months ago I decided to take a subscription with Stack magazines who send out a different magazine every month – they do the difficult choosing for me. Septembers issue was gal-dem ‘a publication committed to sharing perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour’. I picked the magazine up with trepidation. I am a white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man. I wasn’t sure that me and gal-dem were going to get on. In fact, for a brief moment I found myself thinking ‘I might just give this one a miss’. But them it hit me. It hit me that as a white middle age man I have the choice to not read about the perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour. In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably spend the rest of my life choosing to not read anything by women and non-binary people of colour. And then the penny really dropped. Because if I was a women or non-binary person of colour the same would not be true. I would have to read about the perspective of white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man every – single – day.

And I found myself shocked by this revelation. Maybe you have had a similar revelation.

So I did what I should have done from the start. I read the magazine cover to cover. I read about life, and grief, and stories of struggle, and I found much to enjoy. But more importantly I found much of the human experience that connects us. That as a white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man my perspective overlaps with women and non-binary people of colour all over the place. And so I will continue to read as widely as possible.

The Pharcyde – Ya Mama (from Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, Delicious Vinyl, 1992)

I was driving my son home from some activity when for some very ill advised reason I mentioned the song ‘Ya Mama’ by hip hop group The Pharcyde (pronounced ‘far side’ for the uninitiated). It’s what’s known as a ‘dis track’. And it has some killer lines (if you like juvenile dis tracks about ‘Ya Mama’). I suggested we put it on for us all to listen to, but I couldn’t find it on my phone. So instead I encouraged him to google it to find the lyrics – parenting note – when you start to hear the words ‘why don’t you just google the lyrics of this 1990’s dis track and read them out to us all allowed’ coming from your mouth, stop. Change the subject, now may be a good moment to discuss the meaning of different swear words or sex or something similarly innocuous. So, obediently, he started to read the words out to us all in the car. Luckily my son is much, much more sensible than me. He started to sensor certain words, but then he stumbled across a racial swear word. Eeeeeeek. Now if I had stopped and thought about it I would have realised that reading lyrics from 1990s hip hop from a group coming out of South Central Los Angeles was never going to be a good idea (look no further than the introduction to NWAs Straight Outta Compton for evidence).

Now, a few months ago I was at a meeting to discuss my community. The idea was to capture the communities needs as part of a regeneration project. But the meeting was not a success. The developer had employed a facilitator who had prepared a series of statements about our council estate. All of them were true. But they didn’t begin to describe our estate. They missed the vitality, the community, the joy that we, as residents feel, living here. They didn’t mention that many residents have chosen to live on our estate for decades and decades because they like it. Yes we could do with better broadband. And it would be nice if the bus service was better. And there isn’t much for young people to do. But I love it. I like my neighbours. I like walking the streets. I like knowing many of the residents. I feel safe.

So here is my dilemma. Much music (and books and you tube videos) from communities much like mine have words in them that are not OK. They have ideas that are not OK. But if I don’t allow my children to hear them, much like the people who came to my estate, they will assume that they are all bad. They will miss the shear, ‘hairs standing up on the back of your neck’ visceral emotion that comes through on ‘Straight Out Of Compton’, the political unrest in tracks like ‘Sound of the Police’ they will be led to believe that there is only bad and miss all the good, just like those facilitators who came to my estate. I’ll be honest, I haven’t played my 13 year old son either of those songs…yet. But one day I hope I will, and I hope he will be able to hold the tension of the good with the bad. That he will find the joy in amongst the rage.

A final thought

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To wrap up this reading week special (which has little to nothing to do with ‘the office’) can I make a small suggestion. For the last three years every time I read a book, magazine, zine, pamphlet, poetry anthology, photo portfolio, comic or dictionary I take a photo of it. Each year I collect these images as a visual record of what I have read. I find it helpful. And it makes it easy to share with others what I have been reading. The photo Montage up the top is a selection of my reading in 2019. I would love to chat about any of them with any of you.

So next week – back to ‘The Office’ and I will try and tackle the topic of Communities of Practice.

Oh and by the way – I have never, in all my life, read a dictionary cover to cover, that was just a joke.

* It has come to my attention that whilst it is reading week in the Faculty of Engineering other faculties have reading week at other times, so if it isn’t reading week, or you don’t have a reading week, apologies, and hopefully you can enjoy the post anyway (and make some time for reading!)