students working the office space
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Four

‘Space… ‘

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrance to the ‘Just Timber’ Office.

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

Students working in the office.

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

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

Students taking a break

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

Directors’ Table

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

Floorplan of the ‘Just Timber’ office.

Changes and reflection following the first week

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

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

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

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

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

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

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Two

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 One

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.