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

Two cows at the gate
Teaching Stories

A BILT Project: Evaluating a clinical skills lab as an active learning space: sharing best practice and identifying areas for improvement

Alison Catterall, Rachel Christopher, Sam Brown, Sarah Baillie, Clinical Skills Lab Team, Bristol Vet School.

The Clinical Skills Lab (CSL) at Bristol Vet School provides a student-centred learning space that combines taught practicals with an open-access policy allowing students to practise as required. The CSL opened in 2012 and is now embedded in the BVSc curriculum. The CSL team considered it timely to undertake a review of the CSL teaching, which was based on factors considered important for active learning spaces (Peberdy 2014). We aimed to identify best practice, new ideas and ways to further enhance student learning. CSL usage data were collected from the timetable which showed that the CSL is in use most days of the week as practicals are now included throughout the BVSc (Years 1-5).

The open-access sign-in sheets illustrated that there was continuous use year-round, complemented by strategic use prior to assessments and clinical rotations. Focus groups were conducted with veterinary students (in year groups) and one group of veterinary nursing students. Questions covered aspects of the physical space, how students were using the CSL, and how the variety of resources supported learning.

A survey was sent to recent graduates to ascertain what aspects of the CSL had helped them prepare for work-placements and their job as a vet, and to identify additional skills that should be taught in the CSL. Students and recent graduates appreciated the benefits of being taught in a dedicated clinical skills facility throughout the curriculum and the open-access policy. Opportunities to further support student learning included enhanced communication and teaching additional skills.

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).

photo of bristol with colourful houses
Teaching Stories

Urban Spaces. Civic University.

The University of Bristol has pledged to make the city a better place1. Our research institutes are leading the charge to action this2, but how can we connect our research to our teaching? How can we support our students to consider the relevance and applicability of their studies to the real world on their doorstep? 

Here are four innovative ways that you can think about engaging your students with the idea of the “civic university”. Shared resource templates to support these approaches are available from BiLT, such as risk assessments, health and safety guidance, photography and film consent forms, and UoB’s indemnity insurance. 

1. Primary data collection 

Primary data collection in the city can be tailored to suit a broad range of subjects. In Chemistry, first year students ascend ladders to check air quality monitors. In Archaeology, students visit local cemeteries and record observations of burial sites such as demographics and mortality rates.   

Most data collection has simple requirements: notebook, phone camera and a space for sharing the data. This type of fieldwork is well suited to formative groupwork but can also contribute to summative assessment. 

The benefits of incorporating primary data collection early in the undergraduate curriculum include: 

  • Improves confidence in handling primary data and conducting research; 
  • Develops teamworking skills; 
  • Provides an opportunity for transferable skills such as film making and good health and safety practice. 

Staff can consider using this data within their research so that students’ research is seen to be valued and incorporated into larger projects. This enhances students’ sense of the value of their coursework. 

2. Designing for the city 

Designing for the city can include civil engineering projects, temporary city installations and exhibitions, and embedded urban technologies, to name a few.  

The tools needed for this approach can range from simple pen, paper and observational walks, to advanced design software packages. It can be purely classroom based, or engage with external organisations. The permutations are endless. But at the core is the ethos of creating an asset for a defined public space. 

By choosing a specific space or type of space for the asset, students need to keep in mind the limitations of that space. This approach works well in groups, with dedicated groupwork sessions supported by staff.  

A suggested facet of this approach is to “throw a spanner in the works” in the middle of the project. For example, telling students that their planned asset must make a 20% reduction in budget, to reflect real world dynamic challenges. 

The benefits of the design approach include: 

  • Enhances appreciation for the complexity of applying theoretical learning into real world contexts; 
  • Develops adaptability in challenging circumstances; 
  • Increases creativity and innovation skills. 

This approach can also invite direction from external collaborators who suggest assets for students to develop to meet particular needs. This might include local community groups or Bristol City Council. This relevance can support students’ improved sense of the value of their studies.  

3. Equitability and Sustainability 

Take students on a series of local fieldtrips across Bristol, incorporating observation and primary data collection. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a useful framework for considering how your subject relates to social, environmental and economic challenges faced in different ways in different city districts. 

You can take students on walks, on public buses or hire buses, depending on your budget and accessibility requirements. Sites might include the industrial landscape of Avonmouth, the historic harbour and docks, the mix of nature and residential in St Werburgh’s, or the Clifton bubble. 

Students can be tasked with seeing how their subject relates to the SDGs in the applied context of the city. This approach can be delivered as an “outdoor lecture” or through directed tasks for students to conduct in the various outdoor settings, perhaps with printed template worksheets. 

The benefits of this approach include: 

  • Enhances cohort cohesion, as students undertake a shared experience; 
  • Encourages engagement with themes of sustainability and global challenges; 
  • Greater understanding of the lived experiences of people from different socio-economic backgrounds. 

This approach works well as a shared start of term activity that brings the whole cohort together and is then integrated into successive classroom sessions as a point of reference. It can also invite co-delivery with external organisations visited during fieldtrips. 

Specific questions posed to students could include: 

  • How should we innovate the city to prepare it for the future? This might consider rising sea levels, emerging technologies, increased populations, housing shortages, changing demographics, transport, etc. 
  • Is Bristol a City for All? This might consider designed abelism, economic zones and divisions, the density and provision of healthcare, etc.  

4. Haptic experiences

Space for reflection and the individual experience is intrinsically valuable. One way to invite introspection is to consider haptics (see Paterson 2007). This considers the sensorial world created in different places in the city, the sights, sounds, smells, textures and “Bristol vibe”.  

Students can take theoretical concepts of phenomenology3 and sensorality and apply them to lived personal experiences, expressed through personal reflective writing. Sites can be visited multiple times to see how weather, events, and the time of year affect the experience of space, place and meaning. For example, St Nicholas’ market visited on a Monday morning is an entirely different space to a Saturday Christmas fair. Landscapes too are dynamic and ever changing, where a summer stream can transform a winter river. 

Haptic investigations can impact new ways of understanding the world and invite fluid readings of space and time. It can also challenge recorded experiences in the literature. For example, antiquarian explorers recorded their observations from the subjectivity of an able-bodied male (Johnson 2012). Students can be tasked with questioning urban spaces from other perspectives, such as from the viewpoint of women, children, or the elderly. 

We can also invite intercultural dialogue in understanding the senses, as they are both physically and culturally perceived (Classen 1997: 401-410). The senses are not confined to the five we learn in school (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell), they extend to inclination, temperature, acceleration, hunger, time, etc. How these senses are externally controlled or created can be queried, such as through the design of public spaces. 

References: 

  • Paterson, M. 2007. The Senses of Touch: Haptics, affects and technologies. Oxford: Berg 
  • Johnson, M.H. 2012 ‘Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology’ Annual Review of Anthropology 41, pp. 269-284 
  • Classen, C. 1997 ‘Foundations for an anthropology of the senses’ International Social Science Journal 49(153), pp. 401-412 

Footnotes:

  1. http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2019/february/civic-agreement.html 
  2. For example, the Cabot Insitute’s City Futures theme https://www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot/what-we-do/city-futures/ 
  3. One’s personal experience of a place, including one’s feelings, emotions and senses.

Coming soon- a podcast, ‘The City as a Learning Space’ – only available on the BILT Broadcast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Soundcloud.

Ash Tierney





Teaching Stories

An American Indian Holocaust?

Sam Hitchmough, Director of Teaching and Senior Lecturer in American Indian History

Historians of any field constantly grapple with a thorny mass of official histories and unofficial/vernacular histories, histories that are constructed, invented, exaggerated or politicized, narratives and counter-narratives, memories, hagiographies, teleological narratives or triumphalist epics, even when the events are relatively recent. Often, history is rescue work, uncovering voices and perspectives from the past that have previously been lost, disassembling and reforming our understandings. Historians are, as a result, regularly accused of re-interpreting past narratives from modern standpoints with active agendas, of retro-fitting, or else attempting to re-engineer our societal foundations and ‘re-remember’ events in certain ways.

Teaching American history is one such minefield: frequently a triumphalist history, a story of empire, destiny and progress. A predominantly white, male, Euro-centric narrative has been rightly challenged, particularly in the past 50-60 years, and whilst this has resulted in important revision, the way that American national history is presented and taught is still problematic at many levels. Amongst the most overlooked histories (and indeed communities) are American Indian, and when we give due weight and space for discussion to arguments forwarded by scholars of American Indian history (both American Indian and settler) the challenges to the celebratory narrative of the American national project are numerous and robust.

There has been a steadily growing body of academic work that makes the case that American Indian experiences in the U.S. should be discussed with reference to the terms ethnic cleansing and genocide. Whilst not making significant inroads into school curricula, these arguments have nonetheless gained widespread traction in academic circles as well as growing references in popular culture. There is, however, another layer of argument that is fearsomely controversial and is a debate that many historians have preferred not to engage with at all.

Can, and should, American Indian experiences be referred to as a Holocaust? Some argue that this should encompass over 500 years of interaction since 1492, whilst others focus more directly on 19th and 20th century experiences of successive U.S. administrations. The implications of this argument are profound and the debate around it fierce.

There is not a consensus on this amongst scholars of American Indian history, and it also creates debate amongst scholars of the Holocaust, with one prominent Jewish historian, for example, suggesting that we should ‘dare to compare’ the two experiences, whilst others claim the Holocaust in the Nazi era is ‘phenomenologically unique’ and resists all comparison. The comparisons explored involve apparent similarities between the American ideology of Manifest Destiny and the Nazi ideology of Lebensraum, both giving rationale for the annexation of land for a perceived to be superior race, the official Removal policies of successive U.S. administrations and the forced marches in Nazi Germany, and terminology utilized in the U.S. that frequently and openly called for extermination of ‘inhuman savages’. Whilst this already carries some pedagogic challenges, some have gone a step further and suggested that closing the door to comparisons, those that wish to conceive of the Holocaust as unique and that the term remains exclusive to events in wartime Europe, are actually committing the great crime of denying a holocaust elsewhere.  

How can this debate be utilized as a lens through which to explore the teaching of difficult topics? More broadly, how can we use cases like this to effectively share experiences and strategies that can be adapted to make a whole range of teaching difficult subjects less daunting?

I can share some reflections on the way that I have taught the question of whether the word Holocaust can or should be used; I have taught this using a debate format for nearly ten years in two different universities.

Focus on the question comes roughly half way through a course on American Indian history from the 1830s to the 1950s, so the first few weeks deal with context and major emerging themes in terms of American Indian ideologies and U.S. policy. Arguments around ethnic cleansing and genocide are introduced and scrutinized in order to broach issues of applying modern terminology to past events.

Two weeks are typically set aside for a debate about whether the word holocaust should be used to describe American Indian experiences. One or two further weeks are used to reflect on the debate, largely online so that other topics can be moved onto.

Key staging posts:

Length: These are 2-hour sessions

Debate: Should the word Holocaust be used to refer to American Indian experiences in the U.S.?

Form: 2 groups, one arguing that it should, one that it shouldn’t.

First session:

  1. ‘Space.’ It’s been useful having short discussions about the nature of academic learning spaces (in addition to the introductory session that talks about learning expectations and the adoption of a shared learning model), including freedom of expression so long as doesn’t cause offence, the validity of opinions that might be different to our own.

    We’ve also discussed the importance of the art of argument: this is an exercise that reveals how effective arguments are constructed, nuanced and critiqued. As such, students are reminded they may wish to engage with the debate as devil’s advocates (for some students in the past this seems to have offered a degree of objectivity that they’ve preferred)
  2. Why do students think this is an important question to ask? Are there aspects of the debate that students imagine will be difficult or controversial? This can be a short written exercise that is useful post-debate, and I’ve also read some of them out beforehand.
  3. I’ve often asked at this point how students feel they most effectively learn about difficult subjects, not necessarily to get fully-formed responses but to encourage them to think that others may learn differently, and to prepare them for the range of tasks involved in reflecting on the debate.
  4. Knowing the debate question, the group is split into two by sign-up. If the numbers are uneven then any absent students are added to the smaller group.
  5. The groups spend some time discussing their possible arguments, assign reading to do over the week.
  6. I show groups the VLE pages dedicated to the debate – online discussion pages for each group, suggested readings, and a whole-group discussion forum. They are encouraged to communicate with each other over the following week.
  7. The ‘architecture’ of the debate is discussed. Depending on the size of the group, various roles are sometimes introduced: ‘debate facilitators’ (one student who acts as a ‘chair’ if discussion needs to be re-focused) and student ‘scribes’ (one or two students who take fairly detailed notes that capture key points, to be made available to entire group afterwards).
  8. ‘Conduct’ is discussed and earlier points reiterated about the nature of academic expression, that debates flourish when multiples voices and perspectives are heard.

Second session:

Ensure that the space is appropriately configured so that students don’t need to raise their voices and don’t have defensive lines of tables/desks in front of them.

  1. The first 30 minutes is used for the two groups to reconvene and run through their arguments. They are reminded to present two or three short and precise points that act as springboards for discussion.
  2. A coin toss to see who starts. One side then forwards its two/three key points, the other side does the same, and then it’s an open discussion that usually uses the points as hooks.
  3. The debate itself has around 60-65 minutes to run.
  4. I’ve found it important that the debate doesn’t run up to the end of the session – some sort of reflection is crucial. Each side is asked to reflect on how they felt it went and to identify three points that the opposing side made that they found persuasive.
  5. Discussion of what the most challenging and difficult questions/points were – what did they think were the best ways n which to tackle these?

Possible related tasks: in the past I’ve asked students to create posters that reflect the debate, write up reviews of the debate for fictitious magazines or newspapers that can either require objectivity or else op-eds work well. Students have also engaged in a post-debate online discussion forum.

I’m particularly interested in how we teach difficult subjects, the kinds of pressures and challenges (and often pitfalls) that they create (to the extent that in some cases we can become relatively vulnerable) and how these subjects affect the learning environment and the student learning experience. In the case-study here I’ve known that many students will be upset by the topic, some will get angry, and that some have had relatives who died in, or survived, concentration camps. In some cases I’ve followed up in the next session with a silent debate for around 30 minutes. This is an opportunity to have students in smaller groups, of around 4 or 5, focus on specific points from the previous week’s full debate and explore them further. These are often the most contentious or controversial, and it’s interesting to use the silent debate format as an alternative as it often allows students who might have been frustrated or subdued during the debate to have an opportunity to express their opinion in a different setting.

I’d be very interested in talking with anyone about the challenges of teaching difficult subjects, perhaps with a view to writing up a number of case-studies that might prove useful to colleagues across the university.

An interview with...

An interview with… Lisa Howarth

Lisa Howarth is a BILT Student Fellow, working on the theme ‘Making the Most of our Teaching Spaces’ at the University of Bristol. As she comes to the end of her fellowship, she reflects on her time at BILT.

How have you found the BILT Student Fellowship?

It has been an amazing learning opportunity and a diverse experience; sometimes it involved discussing the use of facial recognition technology in universities and other times I found myself challenging students to build a tower with marshmallows and sticks! I began the year visiting the campuses of Northampton University, Oxford Brookes and Southampton Solent to see their innovative use of space and ended it supporting BILT at the Bristol Teaching Awards. In the middle I ran a workshop, interviewed students and produced a series of videos on student perspectives about spaces at UoB. It gave me access to a range of perspectives and encouraged me to reflect on my own views about pedagogy and teaching spaces in higher education.

What was most interesting about your project?

It was really interesting to discover the impact that space can have on mental health and wellbeing. A number of students talked about the anxiety associated with finding a space in the library during exam season or the anonymity felt when sitting at the back of a large lecture theatre. The majority of students mentioned natural light as an important consideration in a teaching or study space. This experience taught me that teaching space isn’t just about the layout of the tables or the colour of the walls, but that the space has an impact on the way that users behave and feel within it. A well-designed teaching space can promote active teaching and learning, which in turn has the power to promote supportive relationships and to encourage a sense of community.  

What surprised you the most?

One of the biggest surprises for me was that students were often more conservative in their approach to teaching and learning than academic staff. Very few students felt comfortable with the idea of scrapping lectures in favour of seminars and practical sessions, despite saying that these were the classes where they did the most learning.

What did you learn?

I had the opportunity to attend some thought-provoking Education Excellence seminars and one thing I learned is that there is a real tension around the purpose of higher education institutions; whether they exist to support thinking, learning and the creation of knowledge or whether they provide a service to students in readying them for the world of work. This issue seems to have been approached in a number of different ways, with some HE institutions making innovative teaching their main focus and others increasing their research output. The idea of ‘student as producer’, where students are involved in the creation of knowledge and understanding through supporting academic research, attempts to blur these boundaries. This approach, presented by Professor Mike Neary, was new to me and sparks a really interesting conversation.

What challenged your views?

The seminar by Professor Bruce Macfarlane challenged my idea that a teacher is responsible for encouraging engagement for learning. The argument that students, as adults, have the right to choose whether, and how much, they want to engage in sessions, was a perspective that I had not considered, having taught in compulsory education for many years. It raises questions about the extent to which students should be responsible for their own learning and what is really meant by ‘engagement’. Is the person at the back of the room absorbing information and reflecting on their thoughts any less engaged that someone participating in discussion at the front? As an undergraduate, the feeling amongst my fellow students was that attendance was the most important thing, even if we fell asleep in the corner or sat at the back of the lecture theatre eating ice cream! Perhaps discovering that engagement in learning is more important that attendance is part of a student’s learning process.

What did you enjoy the most?

Meeting all the fantastic and inspiring people involved in BILT, the amazing BILT team and the Student Fellows. I’d like to say a big thank you to the team and to the UoB students involved in our research for being so open and honest and for making this experience so much fun!

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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).

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Insights from attending UWE’s Festival of Learning for an afternoon

The following post was written by Emilie Poletto-Lawson, a BILT Fellow and Educational Developer in Academic Staff Development.

The Academic Practice Directorate at the University of the West of England (UWE) is the equivalent of Academic Staff Development[  team at the University of Bristol. They organised a week-long winter festival of learning [] after the success of their one day Learning and Teaching Conference which started in 2011. This year, they aimed to “create a buzz about Learning and Teaching to coincide with the NSS survey”. I attended one afternoon but it was fantastic to see students and staff come together to share their enthusiasm for learning and teaching.

The first half of the afternoon was entitled “Fresh approaches to T&L – A session in our new laundry space to get you inspired” led by Dr Laura Bennett (Associate director – academic practice directorate). The session included members of staff that delivered sessions in the new ‘laundry room’ as well as students that were attending sessions there but who were also using the room for extra-curricular activities.

I valued the opportunity to visit the Glenside campus of the University of the West of England to discover the laundry  room. At a time when a lot of thinking is going into teaching spaces in our University (BILT symposium June 2018 , BILT fellows working on space and design of Temple Quarter) it is always enriching to see what colleagues are experimenting with.

Before telling you about the presentation, let me tell you about the room. When we came in, it was a big empty space. I must say it had a medical feel to it, very white, sink at the back, metal shelves, not a warm atmosphere but perfect for its intended purpose: “a practical learning space for trainee optometrists, paramedics and occupational therapy students”. The facilitators were coming straight from another session on the other side of the campus so we had to build our classroom which was in itself a nice way to feel like we belonged and it was our space.

The room can be described as a “connected classroom”. There are four screens on both side walls, connected to a keyboard that enables students to use the screen as a group and it is also possible for the facilitator to show the main screen on all screens or to display the students’ screen on the main screen/all the screens. If you were able to attend a session during the digital classroom roadshow two years ago (June 2017) the set up was very similar apart from the fact that the tables were not fixed to the floor.

As the idea was to experience the technical aspect of the room we built our on wheels foldable table next to the screen and sat on high stools (not very easy if you have short legs like me) ready to roll. As I managed to sit down I realised my bag was quite far down from me on the floor and I had nowhere to put my coat. I was also quite far from the front as the room can open on both sides to create an even bigger space so the screens are at the back. Having moved the weekend before it did not take long for my back to start hurting but I was not quite sure what to do when another lady voiced the same issue and was given the option to grab a heavy chair instead of the stool. It was good to have an option but the chair was considerably lower creating some difficulties if you wanted to work from the table. Final hurdle for me as a non-native speaker, a fan covered the voices of speakers that did not use a microphone and it was a real strain to keep up.

However, despite all that, I still think it was a great workshop because it was about possibilities, about teaching differently and the space supporting your approach and ideas rather than limiting you. If you came into the room and lectured for three hours just talking at students, you would be missing the huge opportunities the toom has to offer to make your students more active, to encourage and facilitate group work, peer learning etc.

Laura Bennett introduced the aim of the session and presented key ideas from the literature regarding space and concluded that “Space should be what you need it to be”. The next speaker was Liz Reilly (Senior lecturer, social work) whose presentation “The Laundry in action – pitfalls and possibilities” gave a very engaging insight into the use of the room. Liz was very positive regarding the possibilities the room offered for learning and teaching:

  • Create groups based on theme 
  • Carousel approach – screens act as flipchart 
  • Moving from one table to the next made the students were very active 

However, she also picked up on the inclusivity issues I mentioned earlier and some other practical aspects.

  • Inclusion: comfort, high tables are a problem for people who cannot spent too much time on a stool and for wheelchairs, far away so lip read or hearing impairment 
  • Booking of the room, paperwork involved
  • Groups complained they could not hear what the lecturer said to specific groups 
  • Finally, being faced with one of her students lying on the floor to do back exercises despite the active approach she had in place was definitely not an outcome she expected.

Here are her pieces of advice:

  • Play around in the room 
  • Play around with what you are doing 
  • Log in ahead of your session and test everything: screens, keyboards, etc. 
  • Have a conversation with people managing the room 
  • Get feedback from students 
  • Get someone to observe you 

The following presentation, “Simulation: the Laundry as Emergency Room” byAimee Hilton (Senior Lecturer, Adult Nursing) took the original idea behind the design of the room and took it quite a few steps further. She transformed the Laundry into an emergency room treating the victims of a mass casualty event for paramedics, radiographers and nurses students. Drama students joined students paramedics, radiographers and nurses from other years to play the roles of patients. She also involved journalists students whose aim was to get as much in the way as possible journalists would should such an event take place. The university security team, fire brigade and ambulance crew also joined in to add to the realism of the situation. Did I mention professional make-up? Now, I must admit I would have loved to be a fly on the wall. The feedback from the students was extremely positive. It was very interesting that the hardest part of the planning was recruiting enough actors. I particularly liked the multi-disciplinary approach of the project.

The last presentation was by three students from the pre-hospital simulation society who study in the room but also used it for one of their events. The society provides “student led learning with the aim to facilitate realistic quality simulations to improve clinical competency and confidence within student Paramedics”. The Laundry is only one example of location, they have created simulations in a car, outside, during freshers’ fair etc. The idea is to design simulations of rare situations so that students are better prepared should it ever happen to them in their professional life. Each simulation is followed by a debrief at the end looking at what went well, what the literature says about such a situation etc. Their enthusiasm and commitment were exemplary.

Finally, Laura Bennet concluded the session with a tour of the side rooms and suggestions of technology to use to make your teaching more interactive. If you have attended CREATE workshops, you will recognize a few of those:

I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend the event and I feel I have learnt a lot. For me the main take away is that we need to make the space work for us and to be mindful of who will be in the room and how accessible out teaching as well as the room are.

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Three visits, three takeaways

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

Over the last three weeks we have visited three different universities who have recently (last ten years) built new teaching-focussed buildings. First, we visited the University of Northampton, who recently opened their brand new Waterside campus, bringing all they do into one location. We then visited Oxford Brookes’ John Henry Brookes building, which is a £100m new build on the Gypsy Lane campus, which was opened roughly six years ago. Finally, we visited the ‘Spark’ at Solent, which was opened in 2015. From these three visits I have taken away three key observations.

  1. The Atrium

The first is that all three buildings include large atrium spaces. These spaces, rather than being sterile and boring, feel alive. Filled with creative furniture and buzzing with people, they mirror in my mind the large chancel of a cathedral as people bustle in or out before a concert or the turbine hall at the Tate modern as people congregate, intrigued by what they are about to see, or debate what they have just seen. I always find these spaces inspiring; the huge headroom creating space to dream or imagine. And whilst we can’t magically create these spaces in our existing buildings, I trust and hope that we will aspire to them in future buildings.

  1. The Acoustics

The second take home for me is the sound of the spaces. This may seem strange, but there is something about the acoustic quality of these spaces. They feel warm and buzzing- not like walking into a bar where you need to shout to be heard, but neither like standing in an old library where you are self-conscious of every footfall and breath as people turn and stare at this noisy new intruder disrupting their thoughts. In these spaces the acoustic feel right. I am sure there are technical phrases for this but as a non-acoustician (and in my former life as a Structural Engineer working with -or against- acousticians I have often been skeptical of what they do) all I can say is that they sound right. Neither to loud, or too quiet, but just right. Of course, people associate acoustics and acoustic design with new buildings, and yet many of the acoustic devices that are used can just as easily be retrofitted to existing buildings as they can installed to new buildings. It is not the fabric of the building that makes the acoustics so good. I should know- I designed much of the exposed concrete at the John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes, which left untreated would have led to awful acoustics. Instead, it is the strategic placement of noise absorbing finishes that make the difference, and these can be added to any building.

  1. The Furniture

Third, and finally, it is the furniture. It is only coming to these new (and reused) buildings that the importance of the furniture comes to life. The conversation is not just about the design of lecture theatres or types of chairs, square tables or plectrum, fixed furniture or movable. There are just so many options and we have seen a wide variety of different furniture approaches being implemented in these three buildings, though admittedly not all successfully. But this attitude of playfulness and experimentation is refreshing. One of the great things about furniture is if it doesn’t work you can try something different. So much of our furniture is rectangular tables (on wheels if you are lucky) but there are so many different options. And you don’t need to build a new campus or building to put new furniture (or repurposed furniture from a different space) to be playful and thought-provoking about how we use space to enhance student learning.

So, over the last three weeks, we have seen three new buildings and taken away three lessons on what you can achieve in both new and (more importantly) existing space.

(L-R: University of Northampton Waterside Campus; John Henry Brookes building at Oxford Brookes; The Spark at Solent)

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth, Neil Davey, Christian Spielmann and James Norman visited Northampton University and Oxford Brookes – see this blog for more details of the trip.

Amy Palmer, Lisa Howarth and James Norman visited Solent to visit Professor Tansy Jessop who is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol with BILT.