The following blog was written by James Norman, a Senior Lecturer in Engineering and a BILT Fellow.
I am sure we have all been there, it’s the Monday before the start of term and as we do the final preparation and look at the time table for next week we notice that we don’t recognise the room number where we are teaching. As a matter of fact, we don’t recognise the building either. As an engineer I have taught in most buildings from the arts faculty to Maths to biomedical sciences. Every building has its own character (I particularly enjoy walking past jars full of animal parts and large skeletons, I feel like I am at the Natural History museum), and its own set of distinctive teaching spaces. Standing up to lecture for the first time there is an A-Ha moment. If I had known a few months ago I was teaching in here I would have done this differently. Of course, I could have checked the space out before hand (I always do, as well as sweet talking the porters of the building into accepting large bowed of my printed notes) but something about the moment you stand up to teach brings all the senses alive and makes you think, could I have done this differently.
As a practicing engineer I have spent many years thinking about buildings, drawing them, carrying out calculations. Even now I can describe in intimate detail every aspect of the new building at Oxford Brooks University which I worked on for 5 years. But I can’t imagine what it would be like to stand up and deliver a lecture there. And yet we often expect lecturers and other members of staff to look at the plans of buildings and do exactly that. Or even worse we give them 100’s of pages long technical specifications and expect them to make sense of them and imagine they are teaching in that space.
I would like to explore recreating the A-Ha moment as a tool for helping lectures think about the space they are going to be teaching in and more importantly critique it before it has been constructed. I would like to go one step further and explore whether we can use different virtual spaces to explore teaching and learning and the opportunity for innovation in rethinking space.
Finally, I was recently at a workshop on simulating living on Mars. At this workshop, organised by Professor Lucy Berthoud and Ella and Nicki, two artists who plan to live in a mars simulator for six months, we were discussing sensory deprivation. Many of us in the room assumed that if you wear a VR headset you can fool the body into thinking it is in a large field of corn not a tiny space capsule. However, Dr Ute Leonards pointed out that current research in embodied cognition is looking into whether the body needs full sensory immersion to believe it is somewhere else, that visual simulation is not enough. I am therefore interested whether my idea to create the A-Ha moment to test teaching space will be further enhanced by the smell of new carpet and the babble of excited students looking forward to a whole term of lectures on concrete. Whether the A-Ha moment is enhanced if you really think that you are about to stand up and teach?
For more information on the Mars project see http://www.ellaandnicki.com
If you are interested in helping to create a series of virtual environments or have expertise in the immersive experience please contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org