500 Words

Confessions of an Engineer

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

About a year or so ago I was invited to give a very short talk at Knowle West Media Centre on divergent thinking as some food for thought at the start of a workshop. I proceeded to read to the audience the children’s books ‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers and ‘Shhhh We Have a Plan’ by Chris Haughton (I can’t remember now if I did the voices I do when I read it to my children or not!). The idea was to challenge people to think divergently by using a divergent approach to giving a talk. The workshop that followed my talk, looking at the housing crisis in Knowle West, was interesting but felt distinctly non-divergent.

Following the talk, we were taken to a near by community centre where architect Craig White was building his solution to the housing problem in Knowle. It was a straw-bale house on wheels, designed specifically to sidestep planning laws and provide low-cost housing solutions to people who need it most. I was blown away. Craig discussed a number of practical solutions, none of them really relating to architecture but instead looking at micro-financing and making the houses affordable and accessible to people on very low incomes. I wanted to get involved. To be part of this amazing project. The only problem was, there was no engineering to be done. No concrete to specify, no steel to check for buckling. The engineering was so simple as to be trivial. I’ll be honest; I felt crest fallen. What can I possibly bring to a project like this I thought. I don’t understand finance, or local politics, or planning law. I am an engineer. I know how to make things stand up. Deflated, I went home and thought little more of it.

A straw bale house
A straw-bale house. Credit: White Design

But over the coming year or so my thoughts keep coming back to that project. I am challenged by Craig’s desire to tackle the problems that sit outside of his own discipline. To solve them with creative solutions. I am confronted with my own limitations. The fact that I am limited by my discipline. But what separates Craig and I is not a skill set, but his willingness to step beyond that. To see a problem and then learn and play until a workable solution exists. And yet, I would argue that engineering is not about solving maths equations or deriving formulas, it is, above all else, about pragmatically solving problems. And yet I have failed to grasp that in myself. I have become lazy in my thinking, limiting myself to problems that feel comfortable and within my skill set to solve. I am, as the boy in Oliver Jeffers’ book, stuck. I have fallen into the same trap as so many others, thinking convergently when only divergent thinking will do. Only now does the irony hit me, that those people in the workshop, who I secretly felt disappointed by, were me. That I was them. Convergent. Playing it safe.

But if education is really about life long learning then I should be willing to have another go. This moment of reflection shouldn’t stop at self pity, or self realisation. But should lead to action. To learning what is necessary to solve the problems ahead.

And so I plan to try again. To try and step beyond myself. To learn new things to solve problems. I’ll let you know how I get on.    

Notes:

For more info on the straw-bale house on wheels see: http://kwmc.org.uk/projects/wecanmake/

For good bed time reading to your children and deep philosophical challenge for yourself I can highly recommend both ‘Stuck’ and ‘Shhh We have a Plan’.

Intrigued to see what a lecture given in the medium of children’s books might look like? You can see James’s Best of Bristol lecture here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

News, Teaching Stories

This is why I teach

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

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

Photo taken from the train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 1998

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

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

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

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

Nayyirah Waheed, Salt, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013

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

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010

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

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

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

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

News, Uncategorized

Teaching Space as a Teaching Lab

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

Today I continue my physical journey into the research of space as I embark on my third road trip of the year. I am back in Winchester, where I spent so many hours, ten years ago, when working on the Oxford Brookes project I discussed in my previous blog.

The reason for my visit is to revisit the architecture practice I was collaborating with to ask them their views on pedagogy informed design in higher education. Before I go any further I need to come clean, I am a huge fan of what they do. I really enjoyed working with them on Oxford Brookes and I have a great respect for their work more generally. And I am not the only one, they have been short listed three times in the last four years as Education Architect of the Year.

Photo provided by Design Engine Architects

I was expecting our conversation to be simple, straight forward and pedagogy-focussed. Instead it was wide-ranging, chaotic, with ideas flying everywhere. I tried to keep up typing away. But my notes are so wide-ranging it’s hard to know what exactly to say. So, I will do my best to summarise two different overlapping conversations.

The first is around pedagogy informed design, at some point about one and a half hours into our conversation I asked, “When you design a building do you bring a pedagogy or do you respond to the clients pedagogy?” to which Richard Jobson, one of the directors, replied, “it’s a bit of both and we look for common meeting ground. Our job is to challenge people. You can learn and talk to people and move your own thoughts on”.

This led to a much richer discussion about not just pedagogy but all the different competing stakeholders on a university project and how each one comes with an agenda, each one has set requirements and also a vision for the future. And each one is constrained by time, money, but also the needs of other stakeholders. And that the challenge to these ideas by the architect was robust, sometimes fierce and charged with emotion. We discussed how, in our collective experience, pedagogy can be discussed and agreed before a project starts (which the literature suggests is ideal), as a project starts, or some point further down the process, even sometimes after the physical building has started to be constructed.

This led to the discussion that unlike for other stakeholders like library services there is often not a dedicated group of people who are already engaged in conversations around pedagogy and space waiting for the next large building project, that these groups need to be assembled ad hoc (or even post hoc) to try and engage with the design process. As a result, it is hard to have pedagogy before a project and too often the pedagogy comes at some later point in the projects development.

Which of course leads to a bigger discussion, and one we will hopefully be able to respond to in time. Why don’t we have a group who are interested in pedagogy and space who are constantly active? Not waiting for the next project but creating their own. Who are trialling and developing teaching methods in different spaces not as a one-off event but as an ongoing discourse in pedagogy. Maybe the BILT fellowships in space are the start of this. But it strikes me this needs to be a long-term question. Buildings takes years (Oxford Brookes took 7) from idea to completion and we need conversations which understand this and develop with both the buildings and pedagogy.

John Ridgett, the project architect on Oxford Brookes, thought aloud “why not have a teaching lab? A space dedicated to trialling new teaching, both physical and digital. It could be a large warehouse with internal partitions which is designed to be constantly reconfigured”. This strikes me as a fantastic idea which I would like to explore further.

I headed out of Design Engine to walk along the road to their neighbour Winchester University. Here I can see Design Engines work in action. I am currently sitting and typing in one of their spaces. The campus is compact and vibrant with a multitude of lovely design touches. As I am shown round campus by Mat Jane of estates I am introduced to a number of people including Dave Mason who is literally in the middle of looking at furniture layouts. He describes how they, at a smaller scale, do what Design Engine were just suggesting. They trial room layouts, they play and see what works. They notice which rooms are popular and which are not, and they carry out surveys with both staff and students on which spaces they enjoy learning in. The teaching spaces became teaching laboratories.

Take the example below. One of the many observations of a teaching space is that the front rows are often empty. So they have provided different furniture at the front. Comfy seats and sofas, and suddenly the front third of the room is more heavily utilised. Of course, if this hadn’t had the desired outcome a different arrangement can be tried, and another, and another.

And so, as I reflect on my day, I am left asking myself “why haven’t I thought to do this before?”. It seems so simple, with hundreds of rooms, there is no reason why we also shouldn’t experiment, prototype and explore a wide variety of teaching spaces with a view to exploring what works and what doesn’t. Rather than wait and then refurbish large swathes of rooms with untested approaches we should play, learn, reflect and improve.

My sincere thanks go to Richard Jobson and John Ridgett of Design Engine (designengine.co.uk) for giving up two hours of their time to have such a wide-ranging conversation about the design of space and to Mat Jane who showed me around Winchester University with such enthusiasm and pride and also for all his insights on sustainability around the campus (including my free cup made from recycled chewing gum).

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #8: James Norman

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

Take a break

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

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

500 Words, News

Is There Any Link Between Design Thinking and Essays?

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering. 

It’s strange how a number of unconnected events can form an idea in your mind.

This weekend I stayed with my sister and we watched the film ‘Blood Diamond’, a harrowing film made in the early noughties about the illegal diamond trade. We started discussing the role of the press and, at a more meta level, the film industry, who were indirectly profiting from the same trade through film profits. It reminded me of a magazine I read a few years back called ‘Colors Magazine’. Each issue focused on a specific concept and the one that came to mind was Issue #86, which is all about making the news. In it there is a page on war photography, which included a harrowing photo seen in many newspapers. The magazine presented it by covering most of the photo and leaving just the part of the image widely presented in the press visible. Turn the page and you see the whole photo; it is a different story. Gathered around the incident are dozens of journalists and photographers capturing the moment. It is a shocking moment.

Fast forward a couple of days and I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Padley. Ann is a teaching fellow who works on the new innovation programmes and specialises in design thinking. As a designer of buildings and a teacher of people who design buildings, I would like to think I know a thing or two about design thinking. But it turns out there is a lot more for me to learn. Over a rushed lunch we discussed problem solving, problem definition and redefinition. We discussed narrative as well as more empirical ways to come to design decisions. We talked about the importance of active listening in problem definition. And we talked about something I have been struggling with, how do we differentiate between outcome and process? Is it possible for a student to successfully go through a design process but come up with a less successful solution and probably more commonly a successful solution without going through a successful design process (or at least unable to articulate the design process- something I have struggled with as an engineer across my professional career because it is actually really hard to do and requires a lot of practice)? Ann described the methods they use to set and assess design problems which don’t just focus on outcome but focus on the successful implementation of design processes.

Later that same day I spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Zoe Backhouse, one of the BILT student fellows. Our conversation was wide-ranging but covered different forms of assessment. We discussed the essays that she had written, and it started to occur to me that what is presented in an essay, much like the photos in the newspaper I mentioned at the beginning, is the story that we choose to tell. But what happened to all the other stories? How do we know that we have presented the right one?

These thoughts linked me back to my conversation with Ann. I realised that design thinking is not just important for designers but for anyone who is given a problem (or title) and then has to deconstruct the problem and find what the real problem is before deciding on the solution (when there are many possible solutions). Maybe not just engineers, but all of us would benefit both from learning to articulate not just the solution, but how we got there. The narrative around the solution. The options we considered and discarded. And maybe not only would we benefit from articulating this but also from discussing it with our friends and tutors. To receive feedback (or more precisely feedforward) not just on the output but on the processes through which we have gone to arrive at the solution (or essay).

Ann Padley is a Teaching Fellow in Design Thinking 3 days a week and is an independent consultant on design thinking for her other work days.

Zoe Backhouse is a final year student on the four year masters degree in Liberal Arts, she is a BILT student fellow and a fledgling zine maker. Zoe would welcome any musings, poems, doodles or cartoons from students & staff about your experiences of assessment at Bristol Uni. If you’re a student, you’ll get a £25 Amazon voucher for whatever you contribute! Email zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk for more details.

Colors Magazine Issue #86 ‘Making the News’ published April 2013.