signposts

TA Talk – Teaching as a transferable skill in different career paths

Whether you are planning to pursue a career within or beyond academia, teaching provides valuable transferable and applicable skills. This session will explore ways to think and talk about these competences when planning for your future career.

By the end of the session you will be able to identify a range of transferable skills gained through your teaching activities and have had a chance to reflect on how to articulate them in different professional contexts.

Please visit the BDC’s website for more information on support for Doctoral Teachers, or get in touch with Dr Conny Lippert.

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.

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 7

‘Funding’

This week in my blog I would like to talk about funding. How have I funded my office project? Now, before we go any further, I would like to be honest; I have very little experience in funding. I have never applied for a research grant (although I have been a collaborator on one small proposal) and have had a relatively unsuccessful run of applying for teaching grants. What I have done is successfully apply for a teaching fellowship, and successfully applied for £3k from my school. That’s it.

So, this week’s blog will be short and sweet.

But first a short bit of backstory…

In 2000, I graduated from Nottingham as a Civil Engineer and joined a company called ‘Whitby Bird’ where I designed buildings for three years. In 2003, I came to Bristol as an RA and worked on a research project for three years (whilst also gaining my PhD). In the first year of my contract I supported a member of staff as they taught how to design buildings out of steel and concrete. In the second year I taught the steel component. In the third year- well in the third year I wrote my PhD (which was super tough, especially as my second son was born just months before the final hand-in). In 2006/7, I was employed 2 days a week to teach both steel and concrete and spent my other three days designing buildings. From 2007-2014, I worked roughly 4 days a week in industry and 1 day a week teaching initially steel and concrete design. Then I added another unit on sustainable materials. Then I added another unit on architecture, all on a single day a week.

Just under five years ago I stopped designing buildings (something I really loved) to go full time into teaching, something I loved even more.

So, although I am now in my forties and I have become School Education Director, I have not actually been full time at the University for very long. Most of my career I have been a practising engineer. But more than that, I gave up something I loved to do something I love even more- teach!

Now you understand the background you will hopefully understand the following comment, I have struggled to apply for funding for teaching because as far as I could tell the main item I could get funding for was for my time. As a teaching only member of staff most of my time is spent teaching. So, if my time is bought out that would surely mean less teaching. But I don’t want to teach less, if anything, until recently, I have always wanted to teach more (only a few days ago I was told off for volunteering to teach something)!

So, I have applied two of three times for funding from the University because it seemed like the right thing to do, but I never had any success, partly because I am really quite rubbish at writing applications. And partly because I didn’t really have anything I actually wanted the money for (I often wondered if I could just apply for a large supply of chocolate to give out to flagging staff and students on a Friday afternoon). It just seemed a good idea to apply for funding.

This all changed about 18 months ago when I saw the advert for BILT Fellowships. Working in a team with other academics from across the University appealed much more than applying for a simple buyout from my teaching, so I went for it. I updated my CV, filled in a form, went for an interview and got the post. Which was fantastic. I am now a BILT Fellow for 30% of my time until the end of this academic year.

However, what I discovered was that my teaching load didn’t go down, in fact it went up! This wasn’t by design- a member of staff went on long term sick leave and I covered for them at short notice. But, and this a really big BUT, having the Fellowship did mean that I had a day and a week when I could say I was working on my pedagogy. I was able to block book my calendar, turn down meetings, and sit in coffee shops:-

Plotting.

And reflecting.

And reading papers.

And drawing large diagrams on A3 spotty paper.

And writing endless blogs.

And visiting other universities (where I also sat in coffee shops).

And in this time and space I was able to dream up the office. I think the important thing, which I had not realised until then, was that what I needed was not buyout from teaching, but permission to block book a day a week where I could focus on something else. To buy-in to some quality thinking and reading time.

As part of this time and space dreaming about the project I did then write a funding proposal. It was only to my school and it was for £3,000. It’s not a lot of money, but it really has helped. I have used it to buy calculation pads with my made-up company logo. I have used it to buy books for all the groups. I have used it to buy stationary and folders and boxes to store everything in. And most importantly I have used it to buy everyone their own mug so we can have teas and coffees in the office. I don’t think my application was any better than in previous years, but as this was only school level I suspect that there were a lot less applicants – and so my bid was successful.

And so, my takeaway from this project (and my time as a BILT Fellow especially), is that the most beneficial thing is not the buyout that you get from other things (whether teaching, admin or research) but the buy in that I got for having a day where I can concentrate on pedagogy and developing ideas. That when I stopped focussing on what I didn’t want (to give up teaching) and started to focus on what I did want (to have time to think and read and write) I was more successful. But let’s not get carried away, maybe I was less successful and more content with what I was achieving.

Next week’s episode… is a reading week special. Until then have a good week.

students working the office space
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Four

‘Space… ‘

At some point in Spring 2018 I went for an interview to be a BILT Fellow in Assessment and Feedback. All went well and I was offered a two-year Fellowship. But on reflection, I wasn’t sure if I really should be doing Assessment and Feedback – not because I don’t think it’s important, I do – but because I realised that having worked on a number of university projects as a practising engineer I was probably more suited to the other BILT theme, ‘Rethinking Spaces’. And so, I switched.

Last year, I spent my BILT time digging through literature on space (alongside all sorts of other things) and dreamt up some fun projects about it. And from this, ‘The Office’ was born. But it turns out that when you change space you change a whole load of other things as well. In simple terms, when I moved from thinking about teaching as lectures and considered it as coming to work, this raised so many more questions: questions about teaching delivery; identity; community; authenticity- not just space.

As a result, whilst my main topic is ‘space’, it has taken until Episode 4 to really talk about the physical space because, in short, I had so many other things to talk about. But this week I want to focus on the actual physical space.

Over the course of the last 6 months there were a number of questions to be answered. Boring, practical questions.

  • Where could I base my office?
  • How was it going to fit into the timetable?
  • How would the space look like anything other than a class room with tables grouped together?

To answer the first two questions, I reached out to a variety of different staff across the university, I visited different buildings, reviewed different options, but in the end the solution to both came from Engineering Timetabling – without whom this project could never have happened. We discussed pragmatic solutions, like allowing students to be present for core hours – but being able to go and do other things (like lectures, supervisor meetings or design project meetings) outside of these. Above all else we started the conversation early in the year, enabling options to be reviewed and timetabled early in the cycle – long before official deadlines.

To answer the third question, we started by looking at actual office spaces across the university campus, but nothing quite worked. And so, we went back to the old flatbed teaching room, as beloved by engineering (a quick walk around Queens building will show you just how much we love our flatbed teaching rooms).

The room was agreed before the summer break, enabling me to plan the space, have a trial run and work out the different furniture I needed to beg, steal or borrow. I made plans. The original plan is outlined below under week 1. There were a number of key features:

Entrance – To make the space feel more like an office and less like a classroom the first step was to create a different entrance. This was achieved very simply by putting a company sign by the office door, and placing plants either side of the entrance.

Entrance to the ‘Just Timber’ Office.

Working Space – The working space is laid out as desks in groups. Much like my old companies – tables are in lines – but unlike my old companies where everyone has a computer and at least a table each, here to fit in the number of students we placed groups of 4 students around two tables and there are no computers.

Students working in the office.

Huddle Space – When working in industry we used to have a Monday morning huddle – where we would plan the week ahead – this space would also be the location for lunch time talks. I created a large space where students could bring their chairs for the huddle.

Breakout Space – In addition to more formal working spaces, I wanted to create a breakout space which students could use to have a pause, discuss ideas, drink a cup of tea, read architecture magazines and generally refresh before cracking on with the next task at hand. It has 4 low chairs – taken from my own office (which now looks very sad) and a low coffee table. There is a couple of magazine racks with the latest issue of engineering and architecture magazines.

Students taking a break

Directors’ Tables – When in industry I have always worked in companies where the directors are in the same open plan office space as everyone else, no fancy corner offices with large leather sofas. The theory is that this flattens the hierarchy (which is does) but I also imagine the financial saving from space and furniture is quite attractive. To start with the Directors tables (where a PhD student and myself sit) were located by the huddle space for the simple reason that the tables could be quickly moved making more room to huddle in.

Directors’ Table

Storage – Finally to keep the illusion alive that this was an office and not a classroom a screen is set up (which students are invited to cover with inspirational images) and behind this all the excess chairs and tables are stored along with the lectern (nothing says lecture more than a lectern) and the giant projector screen. As the screen cannot be used a large TV is now wheeled in for all presentations.

Floorplan of the ‘Just Timber’ office.

Changes and reflection following the first week

Following the first week of delivery there was some immediate feedback from the students, most notably that there was not enough desk space. In addition, my plan to huddle did not materialize. Maybe because students were on heavy static seats rather than seats with wheels which can quickly be moved to other locations. As a result, the layout in week 2 was revised. More tables were put out, so groups now had 3 tables each rather than 2. The huddle space was removed.

There were some further consequences to this change in the use of the space in that there was now less furniture to store (all the tables in the room were being utilized) and as a result the breakout space became much bigger. In the first week I didn’t notice any groups sit in the comfy chairs, but in week 2 the space was used by a number of different groups during the day. This of course may be due to the students becoming more familiar with the space and the fact that one of their projects is much more open ended and so inspiration from different sources is required. But I also believe the space is now more welcoming.

We also opted to move the directors table to a more central position, so we were more in the mix. This didn’t change the number of enquiries during the day, but I was able to get a better feel for what was happening in the room and the conversations that were taking place – being in the ‘thick of it’.

Following the end of week 2 students confirmed that they were much happier with the space. One student requested that we use the large screen as the TV was harder to see, but I am reluctant to do this as there is still space for students to move closer if they wish and we would be back to just a flat bed teaching room if we have a lectern and large screen.

I also wonder if, by moving groups apart (there is a clear gap between each group now), whether there is a reduced sharing of information across groups and the groups become more insular, something I am very keen to avoid as the aim is that all students learn as much as possible. I will monitor in the weeks ahead. My feeling was, certainly in the first week, that when I shared some key information with one group – this was being quickly fed to other groups. For example one of the questions was whether all floor joists should be the same depth? Once explaining the different arguments to one group I found as I talked to other groups they presented back to me the same reasoning I had given, acknowledging that this seemed to be the consensus among others.

So next week as we continue to consider pedagogy and ‘the office’ we will look at authentic learning. In the spirit of the project if you would like some pre-reading I would recommend you read ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ By Marilyn M. Lombardi (Educase 2007).

Student Voice

In conversation with a fourth year Liberal Arts student

Check out this snippet of conversation our Student Fellow Zoe Backhouse recorded with a fellow fourth year Liberal Arts student on the topic of assessment.  Want to know why Europe’s doing HE better than the UK and why playing Donald Trump in class may not be a bad thing? Read on…

Z: How was your assessment on your year abroad?

A: Well, when I was in Amsterdam it was broken down so much into different areas. It wasn’t all reduced down to an essay because that isn’t the one mode of intelligence in the world.

One of my assessments was I became Federica Mogherini who’s the Foreign Minister for the EU and we played out a simulation of the Middle East. Everybody was a different country – someone was Donald Trump! – and literally I learned so much about applying the theory and the logic and actually putting in a practical sense. I think that’s just so important because university should be about teaching skills that can be transferred to employability.

I also loved how we did presentations abroad. At Utrecht you had to lead a seminar for 45 minutes after a 20 minute presentation. In your presentation you couldn’t just read from a piece of paper like everyone does at Bristol. You would stand and deliver a lesson, not looking down at notes, you’d talk to people and have eye contact. And then you had to lead a discussion amongst your peers.

I found it pretty nerve-wracking and I’m quite a confident public speaker. But that’s because the way we’ve always been indoctrinated here is… it’s just very insular. I don’t know, I just think there is a lack of discussion in general in all forms. Discussion only happens as an internal monologue that gets reproduced in an essay. People can’t have conversations in seminars because they get nervous, because they feel like they’d look stupid. I think you should take that away.

We used to be marked on class participation at Utrecht which was like 20% of the mark. I actually do think that’s really important? In the UK people are so scared of saying something because they think there’s only one right answer. In our education system we’re taught that there’s only one right answer and it’s at the back of the book and don’t look and don’t copy and don’t speak to anyone else about it. But it’s not that. Art is about taking things and reinterpreting them and making them better. So I think discussion has been lost from education.

I did another module called Digital Citizens. And literally, we were just coming in to talk about what was going on in the news that day, we’d all just sit around and have a discussion. One of the requirements of that course was to write a journalistic article which was liberating. And it wasn’t just GCSE journalism, it was like, can you write a legitimate article? So I wrote about how data analytics is perpetuating gender stereotypes.

You did have essays as well because that’s important. It’s just about diversifying assessment, and making people feel more comfortable and able in their abilities as opposed to constantly critiquing people and telling them they’re wrong all the time because they don’t fit one style of system.

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.

Photo from Chris Adam's Education Excellence Seminar
An interview with...

An interview with… Chris Adams

Chris Adams is a teaching fellow and first-year coordinator in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, where he has been teaching undergraduates for nearly twenty years. He is interested in all aspects of education, from digital learning to practical chemistry, and was recently awarded a BILT Teaching Innovation Grant to try and get first-years to do some real research.

What are the biggest benefits of near-peer learning?

I think that students really appreciate getting to know fellow students from other year groups. Especially with a first year unit, the older student can pass on a whole host of tips for being a successful student. This mirrors what Imogen Moore has recently talked about in law: students like hearing the voice of other students.

Did you encounter any challenges? How did you overcome them?

I was anticipating challenges to the ‘legitimacy’ of being taught by fellow undergraduates, but that has never happened, possibly because they’re not awarding marks. Also, they’re not really teaching – it’s more that they’re facilitating learning, which is why I always call them facilitators. Timetabling is problematic – trying to get students from two different year groups to the same place at the same time is not straightforward.

Do you think near-peer learning could be effective with other areas of the curriculum?

I think that it’s especially useful for what we call ‘transferable’ skills. I would think long and hard before using a similar scheme to teach academic knowledge, though there are many examples of instructor-led near-peer teaching sessions where students help teach factual knowledge, with an academic present to provide oversight and fill in the gaps.

What advice would you give to staff who wanted to set up a similar project?

Make sure that you’ve got a reliable group of facilitators, and write a ‘lesson plan’ for every session. Then, go through each session beforehand with them as participants so that they experience it as a student.

What one film/book/resource would you like to share with the academic community?

I like Graham Gibbs ‘53 powerful ideas’ series, available at https://www.seda.ac.uk/53-powerful-ideas. Bite size chunks of deep  teaching wisdom which should be compulsory reading for anybody teaching in HE.

If you could change one thing about HE in the UK what would it be?

Student fees. When I went to University I went purely because I was interested in chemistry, and my only goal was to learn as much about it as possible. Nowadays, students end up with such a huge debt that there is tremendous pressure on them to do well and get a well-paid job, and that pressure is detrimental to their well-being.

Who was your favourite teacher at school/university and why?

My chemistry teachers at school, Mr Herrett and Mr Waugh. Both of them were old-school masters who delighted in setting fire to things, preferably with as much coloured smoke as possible, and who didn’t get too upset when I blew the bin up, or pointed the Bunsen burner at their hand.