Slow-motion multi-tasking leads to productive research

Most of my academic colleagues focus their research activity on a relatively narrow field and many have established international reputations in their chosen field of study.  However, my own research profile is broad, including recently-published studies on the motion of nanoparticles, damage propagation in composites and stress analysis in aerospace components  as well as current research on the fidelity and credibility simulations and tests (FACTS) in the aerospace, biomedical and nuclear industries.  My breadth of interests makes it difficult to categorise me or to answer the inevitable question about what research I do.  And, I have always felt the need to excuse or apologise for the breadth and explain by making  tenuous connections between my diverse research activities. However, apparently my slow-motion multi-tasking is a characteristic of many high-performing artists and scientists.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has proposed that slowly changing back and forth between different projects is a standard practice amongst people with high levels of originality and creativity.  Scientists that work on several problems at once and frequently refocus their research tend to enjoy the longest and most productive careers according to another study by Bernice Eiduson.

So, no more excusing or apologising for my range of research interests.  It is merely slow-motion multi-tasking to achieve a long and productive career characterised by original and creative research!


Tim Harford, Holidays hold the secret to unleashing creativity, FT Weekend, Opinion 25/26 August 2018.

Root‐Bernstein RS, Bernstein M, Gamier H. Identification of scientists making long‐term, high‐impact contributions, with notes on their methods of working. Creativity Research Journal.  6(4):329-43, 1993.

Engineering idiom

Many of us, either as students or as instructors, will have experienced the phenomenon that students are more likely to give a correct answer when the context is familiar [Linn & Hyde, 1989; Chapman et al 1991].  Conversely, a lack of familiarity may induce students to panic about the context and fail to listen in a lecture [Rosser, 2004] or to appreciate the point of a question in an examination.  Your dictionary probably gives two meanings for context: ‘surrounding conditions’ and ‘a construction of speech’.  You would think that the importance of teaching by reference to the surrounding condition is so obvious as to require no comment; except professors forget that conditions experienced by students are different to their own, both now and when they were students [Nathan, 2005 & ‘Creating an evolving learning environment’ on February 21st, 2018].  To get an appreciation of how different consult the ‘Mindset List‘ produced each year by Beloit College; for example as far as the class of 2020 are concerned robots have always been surgical partners in the operating room [#55 on the 2020 Mindset List].

What about the construction of speech?  I think that there is an engineering idiom because engineering education has its own ‘language’ of models and analogies.  Engineering science is usually taught in the context of idealised applications, such as colliding spheres, springs and dashpots, and shafts.  It would be wrong to say that they have no relevance to the subject; but, the relevance is often only apparent to those well-versed in the subject; and, by definition, students are not.  The result is a loss of perceived usefulness of learning which adversely influences student motivation [Wigfield & Eccles, 2000] – they are more likely to switch off, so keep the language simple.


Chipman S, Marshall S, Scott P. Content effects on word problem performance: A possible source of test bias? American Educational Research Journal, 28(4), 897-915, 1991.

Linn M, Hyde J, Gender, mathematics, and science, Educational Researcher, 18(8), 17-19, 22-27, 1989.

Nathan R, My freshman year: what a professor learned by becoming a student, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2005.

Rosser SV, Gender issues in teaching science, in S. Rose. and B. Brown (eds.), Report on the 2003 Workshop on Gender Issues in the Sciences, pp. 28-37, 2004.

Wigfield A, Eccles JS, Expectancy-value theory of motivation, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1): 68-81, 2000.


CALE #7 [Creating A Learning Environment: a series of posts based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell and Eann Patterson in the USA supported by NSF and the UK supported by HEA]

Alternative definition of education

I am taking a final week of vacation before the new academic year starts.  During the fortnight of vacation we took in July, I read a novel by Elizabeth Taylor called ‘A View of the Harbour‘.  One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘education [meant] the insinuation into children’s heads as painlessly as possible of a substance which might later turn out to have money-making properties’.  It describes how I sometimes feel, in my more cynical moments, about teaching in a university today.


On the state of universities

In the UK we are limbering up for the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF 2021) which is the process of expert review of research activity in UK universities that is conducted periodically by the government – the last one was in 2014.  The outcome influences the allocation of government funding for research as well as providing accountability for public investment in research and benchmarking information.

Earlier this month I received an email inviting me to contribute to a government consultation on the draft guidance and criteria for REF 2021.  It reminded me of a description of Abraham Flexner’s 1910 report for the Carnegie Foundation on medical schools in the US that I read in an essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf.  Flexner branded many of the 155 medical schools in the USA as ‘frauds and irresponsible profit machines’.  Hopefully that will not the outcome of REF2021!


Robbert Dijkgraaf, ‘The World of Tomorrow’ in The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by A.Flexner, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2015.