News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 10

Work-Life Balance

So this is the penultimate episode of The Office! As we draw towards the seasons finale I want to examine a hot topic – work/life balance. And I want to look at it from two perspectives – the students (employees) and my own (the boss!).

Employees

Right back in Episode 1 I outlined 7 aims of ‘The Office’ project. They are summarised below as I don’t imagine you can remember them:

Learning

1. Students to take ownership of their own learning

2. Students to more directly input what they are learning into what they are doing

3. Students to take ownership of feedback

Professional

4. Students to work sensible (office) hours and not work more hours than necessary

5. That both learning and assessment will be integrated so students co-learn and co-create

6. That students produce outstanding projects which totally blow me away. Projects which look amazing, have clearly used the problems/constraints of timber to lead to a solution and can articulate this.

7. That students will be able to speak to their experience in a professional context such as an interview and that it would add value for them in this situation

Note item 4, “students to work sensible (office) hours”. The idea was to create a unit where time is boundaried. Where people come to work, they work hard, and then they go home and leave their work behind them (and possibly go for a cheeky post work drink, although without the boss!) Enabling them to focus on the other challenges that are before them over the course of a week.

Office hours are 9-5 with setup occurring between 9-9.30 and set down between 4.30-5. All students are encouraged to take an hours break at some point during the day – this could be a longer lunch break or a shorter lunch break with a couple of coffee breaks. There are also the lunchtime talks 1-2 which break the day up. And students have other commitments, lectures, project meetings, interviews etc.

Employees are encouraged to leave all their work at work. This is facilitated by every group having a large box which contains all of their resources, from pens to calc pads. From books to notes. And their A3 and A4 folders which contain their work. Every week these boxes are put away in a store room which is locked up. Employees can, of course, take work away with them – I haven’t yet started a stop and search policy on bags – but I have gently encouraged them not to.

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As part of my own practice I have taken a 15 minute pause at the end of every session to reflect on the day’s events whilst heading back to Bath on the train. About week 4 I started to note that students were raising concerns about how much there was to do and they started suggesting they would take work home with them. I tried to tackle this in part by discussing where they felt the pressure was and adjusting their expectations for the work in hand, something that I will do more of when I run the unit again next year.

In week 7 I noticed one student stuffing their work folders in their bag – something I hadn’t noticed previously, and I offered one extra session of four hours during reading week (week 8) – which two groups utilised.

There have been a few disgruntled rumbles about the early start from some of the more sporty of my employees (all staff are asked to be at work from 9 as the first task of the day is to agree workload) who have extra curricula activities on a Wednesday night (I wouldn’t know about that, at Uni I wasn’t in any sporting teams and I tried to avoid going out on a Wednesday night – preferring instead Thursday nights when the clubs would stay open later and I could spend the night bouncing around to Drum and Bass – as an original Junglist).

Last week I handed out a survey to my students (as part of my pedagogy project) and asked them “How much time did you spend on this unit compared to other fourth year engineering units?” Of the 28 students who replied only two said less or the same whilst 15 said a bit more and 11 said a lot more. Whilst I need to spend time fully reviewing the reasons it would appear that whilst quite a few students noted they only worked during office hours, many noted they worked a lot less than a day a week on other units. It was also interesting to note that much of their motivation to work came from not wanting to let other members of their group down, a perspective that I hadn’t considered when preparing the unit.

It is worth holding the above in tension with comments from last year’s Timber Engineering unit (which I ran as a standard two hour weekly lecture). Students suggested they were spending approximately 10 hours a week on the unit. So, whilst the office hasn’t significantly reduced the number of hours they spend on the unit, I don’t think it has increased it either. What it has done is move it from an informal environment to a more formal one. My challenge for next year is then how to help students to do a little bit less on the unit.

Boss

Whilst considering the work/life balance of employees (students) is very important, to ensure that the method of delivery is sustainable it is also important to consider my own work/life balance. I have for a while now been wrestling with the idea that I want to care enough that my teaching is good (not perfect, just good) whilst also wanting it to be sustainable. It’s no good being great, if two years from now I have to leave and find another job! This came to the fore for me two years ago when I found myself in hospital with chest pains. Whilst at the time my results were inconclusive I have since come to realise that I was suffering from anxiety. Over the last two years I have both been to counselling (through the University) and spent six months on a coaching course (through my church). Neither came easily to me, despite regularly recommending students attend counselling, it took a year for me to attend my first session, but they have both been highly beneficial.

All of that being said, I am still wrestling with work life balance. I try and work a 40 hour week (confessing this feels very vulnerable as I know that this is a struggle for so many), I very rarely work weekends, and I am trying to tackle my obsessive checking of email outside of work time and wonder how much is down to me just wanting the dopamine fix our electronic devices provide when a new massage comes in?

I say all of this as I think it’s helpful context to my own reflections. Working the office has been different. Not better, not worse, but different. To enable it to happen I have had to block book a day a week. I also block book a day a week for pedagogy – which is how I manage to write a blog post every week, without doing it over coffee on a Saturday morning. The advantage of this approach is that those days are dedicated, focussed and productive. The downside is that my other three days can feel relentless. With meetings starting at 9 and finishing at 5. However, I am trying to always have a lunch break and I know that for every full on busy day or two there is a day drinking amazing coffee whilst working on pedagogy – and this is a choice I have made.

The other thing is that as I am the Boss (and not the teacher) I work when I am at the office. I can’t do big jobs (or confidential jobs) but I can reply to emails, check things, do those little admin jobs. I do also, from time to time, nip out for a short meeting. And I invite people to the office for meetings. Generally this works well. Some weeks it works very well. One week I packed too much seeing:

  • One member of the timetabling team
  • Two separate students to discuss their research projects
  • Three visitors from BILT
  • Four students in a group to discuss their design project (a 40 credit final year assessment mentioned in earlier blogs but not part of this unit)
  • Five first years keen to build a house somewhere out of straw
  • Six, there was no six, five was more than enough.

That evening I reflected I had packed in too much. Partly because it was my Birthday and I wanted everyone to share in the cake goodness. So going forward I have tried to pack in less.

Of course the real proof in the pudding will be how I feel as ‘the office’ comes round again next year, or the year after, or the year after that. I am all too aware that what can feel exciting and energizing at first can become wearying in the end. But I also know that every year if someone asked me to lecture on concrete I would jump at the chance, because I love it.

I am sorry- I am not sure I have any answers here. Has the office been OK in terms of work/life balance is hard to say. Partly because it takes time to reflect, partly because so much has changed, this year I have become School Education Director – a new role which I am learning to adapt to, last year I was Programme Director, an old role which I knew well. And therefore it is hard to know what of my current sense of busyness is due to my new role, what is due to my new method of teaching delivery, and what is due to my new level of self awareness (I now try and take 10 minutes each morning of quiet contemplation before I start the day).

I do know that I leave for work at 6.15am (I only do this on office days, but actually it is not because of the office, but this was the best time for my weekly coaching phone call, and the fact it has coincided with the office has been helpful) looking forward to the day ahead. That I look around at different points in my day and just drink in the atmosphere. That as I sit on the train I feel weary but not dissatisfied. And that I have enough energy to go again the next day, and the next week.

So as this year comes to an end, I suspect I will miss my office, but I will also be glad for the break. I will be replete. A feeling I know well, maybe it’s the feeling of a job well done.

Which brings us to the conclusion of our penultimate post. Next week, a final fair well to ‘The Office’ Season 1.

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

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!)

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.

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 6

‘All kinds of feedback’

A few months ago, I was sat in a conference when I got an email from one of the heads of department asking me if I was around. Without thinking, I replied that I was working but not in the office. The subsequent email asked me, in broken English, whether I could purchase £500 in Amazon vouchers and send them back to them. My suspicions were raised so I checked the email address – and, lo and behold, it had come from a scammer.

I spent the rest of the conference not thinking about the topics of discussion but how the scammer could improve the scam – how they might increase their chances of catching me out – and the feedback I should give them. I can’t help it. I love feedback (although I have learnt to keep feedback on the precise science of loading a dishwasher to a minimum over the years).

In today’s episode, I want to talk about feedback. It’s amazing. For me, it is one of the biggest reasons I am in education – to give kind, constructive, thought-provoking and applicable feedback. If you want a great lecture on concrete I am sure there are thousands of YouTube videos just waiting to be discovered (or maybe not) but getting personal feedback really is gold. Being able to present your design to an engineer who can gently ask questions and help a student to realise both what works and what maybe doesn’t is really important.

So when I design a unit ‘feedback’ is one of the items I really focus on. How can students get feedback? From whom? How can they apply it in the future on other units? And more importantly how will they apply it when they go into industry and act as a professional engineer?

Feedback mapping

I love to draw. And so rather than list the types of feedback I will use, I map them. For ‘Timber 4’ the feedback map looks like this:

Open a larger version of the image here.

So, what on earth is going on here? Well I have tried to show also sorts of different ‘feedback’ mechanisms.

Feed-in and Feed-out

On the left we have the ‘feed-in’ what have they learnt previously – and what feedback did the students receive which will help them on this unit.

On the right we have the ‘feed-out’ what happens to the feedback I give the students after the unit – this looks forward both to other units (which at this point in their degree is quite limited as they only have one term to go after this unit) but it also looks beyond this – to their life as a practising engineer – and the skills they will need and the experiences they will have.

The feedback on the final project is designed to support them in another project – their 40 credit Masters design project. I use the same marking pro forma and will provide feedback so that they can learn for this next project.

Different Types of Feedback

In the middle is all the formative feedback which occurs within the unit. We might call this feed forward or feedback cycles, I’m not sure what the exact pedagogic term is, but in my mind, it is where much of the learning occurs. And it’s where I can bring real value to the students by being involved. I have tried to build in a number of different mechanisms.

Firstly, I sit in the office and discuss questions that students might have. Some people call this feedback, I actually don’t like this term… I prefer ‘conversation’ or just plain old ‘teaching’! I think it’s useful to differentiate the two, feedback should be focused and specific not just a conversation. This of course doesn’t mean that these conversations are not important, they really are, it’s just I think that if we call them feedback its confusing.

Secondly, students are required to review each other’s work. Every group has a checking log which records the feedback students have produced, every calculation page has a checking box – which should only be signed once the page is checked, and every drawing has the same box. The aim is to get students to support each other’s learning whilst also learning from each other.

Next, students are required to submit their drawings from the first project and these are reviewed both by me (who will provide some generic feedback) and much more importantly, by a timber fabricator who will attempt to cost the students designs based on the information they have provided.

Finally, there is a ‘Quality Assurance Review’. This will involve sitting together with each team and reviewing their progress on all four projects. Three should be complete, and one will be in progress. The three complete projects will be reviewed to ascertain whether they can competently design a number of key components. It will also ensure they have checked each other’s work (a checking log is provided to students beforehand so they can clearly see what they need to do). Once we have reviewed the three projects we will then discuss project 4 (the Quality Assurance Review). This is the summative project which they will be about a third of the way through. The aim of the review is to give some technical feedback (based on projects 1-3) but also provide some feedforward on the project they are working on. This review is not credit bearing, but if I am not convinced that they are competent in certain areas of design I will ask for them to include these again within their final project submission.

Formative feedback – Myth busting

I don’t remember how many times people have said to me – ‘if the assessment is formative students won’t do it’ – but it’s a lot. I don’t agree. I think it is much more complex than this. Take the week 3 project for example. The assessment is formative – but ten out of ten groups submitted drawings. That’s 100%. Or everyone. So maybe they will do it if they have a good reason? I like to think that there are lots of good reasons for doing formative assessment including (but not limited to) it’s fun, it’s interesting, it will help build a portfolio of work I can show other people, it will help me develop as I work towards my summative assessment, it helps me to know what I do and don’t know (although I appreciate it’s rarely that simple). Much of this is described in detail in ‘Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice’.

Feedback on the unit

So finally I thought I’d let you know how the unit is going. I don’t have any formal feedback, yet. But I am writing a reflective diary every week so I don’t forget anything. Highlights to date have included:

  • Some really interesting external talks – including one on timber gridshells by Jonathan Roynon of BuroHappold and one on timber architecture by Fergus Feilden who’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park project was shortlisted for the Stirling prize – the highest honour in British architecture.
  • Taking the students to the Old Vic for a tour – this had two purposes – the Old Vic have agreed to be the client and they had a brand new entrance built from timber I wanted the students to see – I loved hearing their conversations as they noticed specific details.
  • The buzz of the office – every week it’s busy – people come and go – but there are always more people in than out (lot’s of students have other commitments through the day) and the conversation reminds me of when I used to work in industry – a mix of what you did the day before and technical discussion.
  • Students turning up in work attire (for the most part) every week.
  • Students not taking work out the office to continue working on it in their own time (as far as I am aware) – some students started to raise concerns that they might need to do this – but rather than pursue that option we reviewed what they were doing and why they had concerns.

And so at this midpoint in the project (and blog series) it seems to be going well.

Next week – funding and the student BILT fellows will be coming to visit!

Note 1: I decided – for ethical reasons – not to give feedback to the scammer in the end.

Note 2: My son recently discovered a TED talk by James Veitch on replying to scammers which we all watched and laughed to – a lot – If you have ten minutes and need a good laugh I can recommend – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4Uc-cztsJo.

Note 3: I just made up the phrase feed-in and feed-out. I was trying to think of fun names for the episode and I was trying different variants and they seem to make sense to me. If you have seen them used before please let me know so I can reference them in future.

Note 4: Full reference is Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D., Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in higher education, 31, 2006.

Note 5: Timber gridshells are incredible structures – Jonathan spoke about the Savill Building – for which he was the engineer – and you can find more information here: https://www.burohappold.com/projects/savill-building/

Note 6: For lot’s of beautiful photos of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park building go here: https://www.architecture.com/awards-and-competitions-landing-page/awards/riba-regional-awards/riba-yorkshire-award-winners/2019/the-weston-yorkshire-sculpture-park

students working in the just timber office
Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 5

Authentic Learning

So, this week I want to talk about Authentic Learning. Hopefully you had a chance to look at the paper I mentioned by Marilyn M. Lombardi on ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ (Educase 2007) which provides a really nice, simple and clear framework for what authentic learning is. It breaks it down into ten key components:

1. Real-world relevance
2. Ill-defined problem
3. Sustained investigation
4. Multiple sources and perspectives
5. Collaboration
6. Reflection
7. Interdisciplinary perspective
8. Integrated assessment
9. Polished product
10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes

For ‘Timber Engineering 4’- as I have noted previously- (see Episode 3) we used flipped teaching and a series of real-world projects to enable the students to learn. I also noted (in Episode 2) that we have provided a library of information which provides different information (sometimes conflicting) that students need to make sense of. In this episode I want to quickly and simply break down how I have attempted to provide all ten of these principles across the unit and specifically the four projects that the students are working on. I don’t intend to spend too long on each one – but instead provide a few practical examples that people might be able to replicate.

1. Real World Relevance

In one sense, all engineering should have real world relevance. But on this unit, I have tried to make this explicit. There are four projects and all four projects are designing buildings. One is a real building that was built, one is a real building that requires repair and two are made up, but could be real. To enhance this sense of real buildings every project includes a project information sheet and a job number. This is a simple summary of all the information provided and all the information required. This is supported with drawings, photos and further information.

2. Ill-defined problem/ 3. Sustained investigation/10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes

There are four projects that the students are working on. Two are what we call detailed design. The building size, shape and structure is already known – but the final sizes of elements needs to be confirmed. These two projects are designed to teach students the basic principles of timber design. The other two projects are less well defined. One is an existing building that needs strengthening. There are many options for strengthening a floor and students need to develop some different strategies and confirm which one the client should proceed with. The other is a portable theatre. This project is the one that students will be assessed on. It has a real client (Dave from the Old Vic presented to the students on Thursday and we are off to look round their building this Thursday) who has provided an open-ended brief for the students to propose their own solution to.

All four projects are non-trivial and require students to work on them for a number of days and weeks. The final assessed project (the portable theatre) was launched back in week 2 and students have until week 10 to provide a solution.

Finally I am looking forward to seeing the output of the final project and expect a diverse selection of solutions. Of course, I won’t know if I have been successful until I receive the students final reports.

4. Multiple sources and perspectives

As noted earlier students are provided with a library of information – not one definitive set of notes, however this is not enough to really achieve this aspect of authentic learning, as students should find the information themselves! Whilst they are presented with a large library of information they are not provided with everything. When designing a building there are a large swathe of codes and standards they should be looking at. There is also an even larger body of inspiration that they can use to inform their own design. So, as with other items, the first three projects the students predominantly have everything they need to complete the task but for the fourth project they will need to go beyond this information.

5. Collaboration/ 7. Interdisciplinary perspective

I have been running Timber 4 for a few years now and one of the most gratifying moments was when my tutees explained to me that unlike other projects they had worked on they had been forced to work together and collaborate right through their Timber Design project. I was delighted, as this is such a key skill for real life, however I am aware of other projects which are approached as ‘cut and shut’ where students all work independently and then stick their work together into one report. The design of the projects on this unit is such that working independently is just not possible. Every decision impacts on everything else. And hence the best way to work on the project is to sit together in a room and work collaboratively – in an office like environment.

Timber Engineering was the first time I felt as though I was doing ‘engineering’. This is a module that cultivated everything I’d learnt in my previous 3 years; communication, team-work, problem-solving, creativity and innovation. For a person who has never had the opportunity to work at an engineering company as an intern, this was the first real insight and experience I had as a structural engineer.” 

Making the project interdisciplinary is more difficult. The unit is after all just 10 credits, and the students are all designing in timber. They are required to think about architecture, acoustics, lighting, space. But ultimately, they are all acting as timber engineers. I would argue that on this point we are unable to fulfil the requirements of authentic learning. But fortunately, Civil Engineering students are also working on a much larger, more complex design project at the same time, where they must apply a much wider set of multidisciplinary skills. 

8. Integrated Assessment

The design of a theatre – the final project which students are marked on – is integrated right through the unit, being launched in week 2 and running until the end of week 10. The other projects are designed to both teach students and give them the skills to complete this project. There are a number of feedback (feedforward) mechanisms built into the unit – more of which will be discussed next week.

9. Polished Product

One of my aims when writing this unit was that students would produce a portfolio piece. Something that they can take to interview and be proud of. As a result the output is a report with drawings and calculations. The report is linked to the RIBA stages (which are used in industry). And students in previous years have found that the output has been very helpful in interview.

“In regards to recruitment, I would not have gotten my graduate job if it wasn’t for Timber Engineering. When I went in for my interview, the interviewers were amazed by the standards and level of detail that was undertaken in the design of the building. It was physical evidence that showed the recruiters that I had the skills, enthusiasm and ability to undertake responsibilities at their firm.” 

6. Reflection

Which leaves reflection. How do we integrate reflection into this process. I have to be honest, I find reflection hard, or to be more precise I find the articulation of reflection hard. I think, if there was one area that I would like to improve it is reflection. I will talk next week about feedback – and I hope that this will in part lead to reflection. But I know that there is more to it than just reflecting on feedback. One of the challenges is creating space for reflection, and as I sit here writing this I am thinking ‘how can I add some reflective practice into tomorrow?” After all last week, the students completed a project, and this week they start a new one, this feels like the ideal time to pause and reflect on their achievements to date, what they have learnt, and how they want to proceed. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Note: Quotes taken from an email a student sent me – used with permission

students working the office space
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 4

‘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).

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 3

What the flip is flipped teaching?

I love lecturing. It’s awesome. I get that nervous excitement beforehand, like an actor or musician about to perform – it fires up my imagination – I think of new ways to say the same old thing. And then there is the lecture itself. The whoops of joy as I derive the equation for timber design – the ohhhs and ahhhs as it looks like my worked example has gone horribly wrong only for me to save it at the last minute with a daring leap of engineering logic (change the initial assumptions and post rationalising). And then there is the cheering – the standing ovation – as 2 hours later we come in to land. Everyone having been on an emotional rollercoaster.

Now I know what you are thinking, you think I am joking, but I am not (in fact I very rarely joke as I have a below average sense of humour – as my children like to regularly remind me). I am exaggerating – of course – but in my mind the above is how a perfect timber lecture would go.

And so, when I say “I am not lecturing on my timber unit this year”, it is with a heavy heart – and it’s important that you know that this was a hard decision for me to make, a costly one.

But I have another agenda, a more important one, I really want my students to learn about timber. I believe that the world needs more people who can design not just with steel and concrete – that we need engineers who can do more than just replicate the designs of the past – we need engineers fit for the future who can design with more materials. And however much I love lecturing I believe that by flipping the teaching my students will learn more[1].

Now let’s be clear. There is nothing new about flipped teaching. Back in 1997 when I was a green haired undergraduate studying Civil Engineering I decided to take an option on the philosophy of science. Every week we were required to read a book. And every week we would come not for a lecture but for a debate. Facilitated and led by our ‘lecturer’. The whole thing worked really well. Every week the chapter of the book would convince me that this was indeed the ‘philosophy of science’ only for this philosophical viewpoint to be slowly ripped to shreds over the course of an hours discussion and leaving me wondering why I had been so foolish to believe it in the first place? I would then read the next chapter, the next idea, which would respond to all the arguments from the discussion we had in class, only for that approach to be similarly reduced to rubble in the next discussion. Flipped teaching goes back way further than my own education. And yet in engineering it happens very rarely. We love to lecture.

But lectures are not the best way for people to learn. And so, this year, in ‘the office’ there are no lectures. No derivations. Instead I have gone for a different approach. But before I break this down maybe it would be helpful for me to describe my old approach. It goes like this:

Part 1 – Context

Talk about some projects that relate to the topic for this week for about 20 minutes. This achieves a number of things: It gives the learning some context – students can see why they are doing it. It also gives me, as their teacher, credibility – I have done it. Finally it gives them some technical language and understanding of why we do what we do – it helps them join the ‘community of practice[2]’.     

Part 2 – Theory

Next I reach for the notes. Personally I don’t like to use powerpoint for this I proffer to use a stack of paper, a pencil, and a visualiser and I will explain the theory of what we are doing – effectively teaching them what is already written in the notes. This will typically take place as two blocks of 20 minutes.

Part 3 – Example

Once the technical content has been delivered I will talk through a real example by doing it on the board. This will normally last about 20 minutes. I generally make these up on the spot – asking students for numbers. This way I have to think about what I am doing and as a result I find it easier to explain my thought process to students as I go through the example – it also slows me down (a good thing). But this also has a negative effect, for I find writing things down hard. I will say one thing and my hand will write something different. It used to make maths exams tricky as I would regularly think the right process but write down the wrong number, similarly for students my mistakes can be confusing.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Students are set a number of problems to work through where they build up and extend their understanding of the course materials: – This occurs both in example classes, where I am able to answer questions and discuss the content with them. But also outside of the taught time as students work on their own.

This year I have used the same model in many regards but rather than deliver parts 1-3 in a lecture with part 4 predominantly happening elsewhere I have flipped it (hence the term flipped teaching) so part 4 happens in my teaching environment with parts 2 and 3 occurring elsewhere.

So this is how it (hopefully) works:

Part 1 – Context

I no longer give a 20 minute talk on projects at the start of each week. Instead I have done a few different things:

  1. I have covered the walls with pictures of real projects – to give them a sense of what they are working towards
  2. I have included case studies and inspiring photos of projects in the course notes
  3. I have invited a number of practioners in to give lunch time talks (we used to do these when I was a practicing engineer) on real projects
  4. Finally I have authored books on timber, which I hope gives me credibility without having to talk about my projects

Part 2 – Theory

As mentioned in episode 2[3] I have slowly built up a set of notes which are highly detailed over the last 8 years. So now, rather than effectively read them to the students (and anyone who has witnessed me reading a bedtime story will know that that is a lot more engaging than it sounds – see my BoB lecture for evidence[4]) I let them read them to themselves. It’s that simple.

Every week I have a list of pre-reading which has been there since before the course began so that student can read it in their own time for the whole course.

Part 3 – Example

So the biggest change for me this year has been that I have created a series of worked example videos. These go through the core concepts for each week. There are many advantages to this approach (rather than doing it live in class) students can pause – rewind – re-watch – jump ahead to where they are stuck. And more importantly I don’t make mistakes! The casual feedback from students has been very positive. The down side is that each 15 minute example takes about 1-2 hours to produce. And I need to find a silent location with no interruptions to make them in.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Which brings us to the purpose of all of this. By enabling students to learn about the subject for each week before they arrive at ‘the office’, we can use the working day to apply the information. I have created 4 projects which they will work on over the course of 10 weeks. Each designed to challenge them in a different way. Each designed to build up their engineering understanding. I have also provided a map to show how everything links together.

Having run the office for two weeks it really seems to be going well. Students come ready to learn. As I sit and work on my own projects I listen to the buzz in the room. The hum of conversation. And much of it is around the technical details of timber design. The students are discussing their work together. Working together. And I do get a good and steady stream of questions – but good questions. No one yet has asked me to give a mini lecture. So whilst there is still a long way to go (8 weeks) at this stage it feels like it is working.

Why don’t we all do it

So the obvious question is, why doesn’t everyone do this? The honest answer is for me that it is so much more work. I can see that in the long run, once it is up and running, it will be less work. But if you are time strapped now it is so hard to invest in the future – despite the reward.

I also fear it is more work for students. Not that they will spend longer working – but that it feels harder. That lectures seem easy – information being delivered in accessible bite size chunks and that somehow this is more challenging. And coupled with this, I fear that they won’t love it as much as they love my lectures – that my ratings will drop!

Another challenge is space. Physical space. Working in collaborative groups – with easy circulation and easy access for students and staff to ask question – takes up more space than lines of desks all looking towards the screen. I have been lucky in that I have got a small enough group (36) where it works. But I also understand just how big the space challenge is.

Plus a little bit of me is missing the excitement of standing up and giving a lecture!

Next week’s episode – Space…


[1] G. Gibbs, ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’, http://owww.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/20reasons.html, last accessed 11/10/19

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

[3] The Office: Episode 2 – https://bilt.online/the-office-episode-two/

[4] ‘How to change the world in three simple steps’ – Jump to minute 11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 2

The Office opens for business (learning)

Last Thursday evening as I sat on the train heading home I reflected on my day. It had been a variety of things, exhausting, exhilarating, extraordinary, just another day at work, surprisingly straightforward and above all else not a complete disaster, yes!

Of course, last Thursday was not any old day, it was the first day that I ran my ‘office’ teaching project. I arrived at work at 7.30 – having unloaded my academic office (where I had been collecting stuff for months) into the teaching space the night before – and I moved furniture, set out tables and chairs to make the space feel like an office. I put stuff on tables – so much stuff (more on that in a minute) and tried to get everything ready. At 9am sharp my new employees (current fourth year undergraduate students) arrived ready for work, generally in work attire. People moved to their designated groups – unpacked and sorted all the equipment I supplied – and by 9.30am were ready for their first day of work. Which, believe it or not went without any major hitches.

At the end of the day I asked students for feedback. Two major items were raised – firstly that they wanted a bit more desk space – so I will reconfigure the room next week. Secondly and much more importantly they want milk for their cups of tea!

So I think as a first day goes it was a success.

Across the next 9 weeks, as well as recording and reflecting what happens in my office sessions I want to also unpack some of my thinking – and some of the practical sides of the project. I sat down a few minutes ago and wrote a list of 7 topics I want to cover without thinking – I’m sure more will arise as the weeks develop. In many ways the topics overlap and intersect. I fear it will be hard to discuss some – without referring to others, so apologies if I keep saying (especially in the early weeks) ‘more on this in a later episode’.

This week I wanted to focus on stuff. To make the office feel like an office I have generated a lot of it. Partly I have done this because I am old fashioned and used to work in a paperfull office (as against to paperless). Partly, whilst digital tools are nice, I couldn’t assume all students would have the same access to resources. And partly because at the end of the year when students graduate I hope they will take some of the items with them and treasure them in their future adventures, I produced a lot of stuff.

Employee Induction Pack

When you start at a new firm, hopefully, they will provide you with some information about what working there might look like. From policies on flexible working to how to use the printers. Rather than create a course pack which explains ILOs contact hours, methods of assessment, I created a ‘New Employee Induction Pack’. This pack covers a wide variety of topics from what to wear, EDI, company document formatting (for use in the coursework submission), quality assurance, what resources are available and what they will hopefully learn whilst working for ‘Just Timber’.

Calcpad, mug and pens

As part of my step into creating a work identity and creating a ‘community of practice’ I selected some of the ubiquitous tools of an engineer. The trusty calcpad (a pad of paper with squares on and a title block that records a number of details about the design necessary for quality assurance), ‘sign pens’ in black for rough sketches and drawing large details and orange for shading in timber. And a mug, for all those cups of tea one drinks when designing buildings (I don’t actually drink tea but the firms I worked for always had a company mug). I hope that these items help students to identify as ‘employees’ of my firm – and I hope they resonate with their own experiences working for engineering companies over the summer, whilst also giving some insider information on the tools an engineer might use.

Note: I intentionally did not provide scale rules (see https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/) because no engineering firms has their own rulers, they instead have a selection in their draws from the different sales people that routinely come to the office to tell them about their products.

Notes

I have been teaching Timber Engineering 4 for about 3 years now (maybe a little longer) and before this timber was part of another unit called Sustainable Construction, which I have run for 8 years. Over this time, I have developed the notes from 8 sides of A4 and an old handout from 20 years ago (which a colleague in my old engineering firm found for me from the days he studied in Bristol) into a detailed set of notes covering a large array of different topics with a number of worked examples which are not just the course notes but a valuable resource for practicing engineers. This year about the only thing I haven’t changed about the unit is the notes. Students receive them on their first day (and are also provided with a PDF on blackboard which they can access about a week before they start).

A library of information

Beyond the notes this year students are provided with a library of information. These are the books and resources they would find on the shelf of an engineering practice. They are not course notes as such and I certainly don’t expect them to be read from cover to cover, but they are valuable references covering a variety of topics. Each group receives 5 books (one of the minor hiccups of the unit is that one of the books isn’t published – I am hoping it comes before the unit is complete) 3 from industry and 2 currently issued to publishers for review prior to publication which have been written by a variety of academics from Bristol and further afield. These are coupled with a wide variety of online resources which students have access to in the same way they would if working in industry. When they get stuck students are encouraged first to find the answers themselves in their engineering library, secondly to talk to other employees and finally to ask directors. This is not because the directors don’t like answering questions (we really do) but because in industry this would be the expected process, you would try and answer questions yourself, failing that you would speak to another engineer at a similar level and only if they can’t answer would you ask a more experienced member of staff (with other engineers eager to listen in on the answer). 

Stationary

On top of the pens, employees are given an A4 and A3 folder to store calculations and drawings respectively, file dividers to keep their work organised (they have 4 separate projects to work on over their 10 weeks) a hole punch, stickers to label loose sheets of paper (when inspiration strikes whilst eating falafel and you have to write on a napkin, that sort of thing), and of course a propelling pencil (as maths should always be done in pencil and never in pen). Finally, every group has an A3 box to put everything in, both during the day and afterwards – so they can leave work behind them until next week. Ideally this would be shelves which could be locked, but both space and budget constraints required something a little more lofi. And anyway when I worked in industry, when we finished a project, the paper work all went into a large A3 box where it could be archived, just in case we ever needed to look back over what we did.

On Thursday the office will reconvene. Those large A3 boxes will be re-opened, project folders will be reviewed. And a new project will be launched. In next week’s episode I hope to cover ‘what the flip is flipped teaching’ as well as reflecting on another week in the office. Until then, take care.

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 1

For the last year I have been on a BILT fellowship looking into learning space. I have travelled far and wide to see different teaching spaces, I have read numerous papers and I have written a few blog posts on the way. But also over the last year I have been planning and plotting and on Thursday this hard work all comes to fruition. Over the next ten weeks I plan on writing regular updates but let’s rewind back to the beginning.

Before I started in academia, before I did a PhD, I worked for an engineering firm designing buildings. And this work took place in an office.

Now, for many years people have learnt to do things in an authentic environment.

I learnt to drive a car in a car not in a classroom.

I have taken my children to multiple swimming lessons that occur in a swimming pool and not in a classroom.

We take our engineering students out into the field to measure and set out because you really can’t learn this just in a classroom.

And yet for many years I have taught practical subjects, like the design of buildings, in a classroom and not where they actually occur, in an office.

No more. This week, in just three more days, 40 students will walk into my new engineering practice, called Just Timber, where they will learn about Timber Engineering (a fourth year engineering option). To make this possible I will be transforming a flatbed classroom into an office.

Logo for the office ‘company’.

To understand what I will need to make this space feel like an office I went back to my old practice, Integral Engineering Design, and took a look around. I made a note of what they had, the photos of projects on the wall, the office plants, the meeting table and chairs, the library of useful books which you reach for when stuck, the comfortable waiting space, the architecture and engineering magazines which were in racks on the walls.

Various features of a typical engineers office.

Over the last year, I have been collecting up the necessary items, my office now more like a storage room than an office. I contacted old colleagues for images to put on the walls (in time I hope to add to these with students own designs). I have secured the loan of large pot plants for a day a week, will be donating my own comfortable chairs and coffee table. I have also created a library of information that each group of 4 students will have access to, this has included writing two books to fill gaps in what’s currently available and I have subscribed to engineering and architecture magazines.

Over the summer I had a trial run, moving tables and chairs around to make it feel more like an office. The typical teaching space lectern and screen hidden behind a screen along with excess tables and chairs. Pictures were spread around the space (although I didn’t attach them to the wall at the time). Plants will be brought in. And students will be encouraged to personalise their spaces, making their desk and their team space their own.

Teaching space transformed into office space.

Of course one of the things I have learnt in my last 12 months as a BILT fellow is I can’t just have an idea and do it, there needs to be a purpose, a research question. And so I wrote out what I was trying to achieve. I iterated it, discussed it with my BILT mentor (Jane Pritchard) and eventually I came up with:

‘In what ways does simulating a professional design office influence students approach to their learning in Timber Engineering 4?’

Open large version.

I then tried to work out what I was hoping it would achieve. I looked back over the last three years of feedback I had had on my Timber Engineering Unit. What had worked well, where were their concerns. And I came up with a number of desired outcomes. I subdivided these into learning outcomes and professional outcomes.

Learning outcomes

1. Students to take ownership of their own learning

2. Students to more directly input what they are learning into what they are doing

3. Students to take ownership of feedback

Professional outcomes

4. Students to work sensible (office) hours and not work more hours than necessary

5. That both learning and assessment will be integrated so students co-learn and co-create

6. That students produce outstanding projects which totally blow me away. Projects which look amazing, have clearly used the problems/constraints of timber to lead to a solution and can articulate this.

7. That students will be able to speak to their experience in a professional context such as an interview and that it would add value for them in this situation

Over the next few weeks I will let you know how it’s going, talk about ‘authentic learning’, identity, feedforward and flipped teaching. I hope to learn a lot along the way and more importantly I hope that my students both learn a lot and really enjoy it.