Feed your consciousness with sensory experiences

Our senses are bombarded in modern life.  When our ears are plugged with sound from the mobile phone to which our eyes are glues, our brain tends to be overloaded with stimuli and we barely register the signals from our other senses: smell, taste, touch.  Our smart phones can deliver so much data to our brains that there is little time to savour experiences.  Yet, some neuroscientists have suggested that the significant function of consciousness is to provide us with sensory pleasure and a reason to live.  In our busy lives, we need to pay attention to the small things in life, such as the taste of your home-made granola at breakfast and the smell of freshly brewed coffee, or the feel of a shell or pebble that you keep on your desk [‘Pebbles – where are yours?’ on September 27, 2017].  So, tune into all of your senses and give your mind a break from the digital world.  It should make you feel better.

On a similar theme see also: ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ on 31st May 2017 and ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015.

Sources:

Ken Mogi, The little book of ikigai, London: Quercus Editions Limited, 2018.

Nicholas Humphrey, Soul dust: the magic of consciousness,Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Laboratory classes thirty years on

Henry Lea Laboratory, The University of Sheffield in the 1960s

I have happy memories of teaching laboratory classes at the University of Sheffield in the mid 1980s and 1990s in the Henry Lea Laboratory.  The laboratory was crammed full of equipment for experiments in mechanics of materials.  We conducted the practical classes on a limited selection of test machines that stood around a set of benches in the centre of the laboratory on which were a series of bench-top experiments for undergraduates.  The outer reaches of the laboratory were packed with test machines of various shapes and sizes that were the domain of the research students and staff.  So, undergraduate students were privileged to conduct their laboratory classes surrounded by research activity – this was one of the advantages of attending a research-intensive university to study engineering.  However, this is not the experience that modern students gain from laboratory classes.  Sheffield, like Liverpool, and many other research-intensive universities has purpose-built teaching laboratories that provide modern spacious facilities for teaching and learning but also segregate undergraduates from the research business of the university.  In the UK, the increase in student numbers, as we moved towards 50% participation in higher education, was probably a prime driver for the design and construction of these facilities.  However, often the growth in student numbers exceeds the planned capacity of the teaching laboratories and the student experience is reduced by being in a group of five or six with only one or two of them being able to get hands-on experience at the same time.  To overcome this problem, I have used practical exercises as homework assignments that can be performed in the kitchen at home by first year students.  These were initially designed for the MOOC on thermodynamics that I developed a few years ago but they work equally well for undergraduate students and allow individuals to gain experience of conducting a simple experiment, recording and processing data, and write a short report about their findings [see post on ‘Blending learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018 and ‘Slow down time to think [about strain energy]‘ on March 8th, 2017].  I have found that the participation rate is about the same as for traditional laboratory classes but different because students can learn from their mistakes in private and acquire some experimental skills [1].  However, it is a long way from conducting labs for small cohorts in a laboratory where world-class research is in progress.

Reference:

1. Patterson EA, Using everyday examples to engage learners on a massive open online course, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, doi: 10.1177/0306419018818551, 2018.

Knowledge explosions

Photo credit: Tom

When the next cohort of undergraduate students were born, Wikipedia had only just been founded [January 2001] and Google had been in existence for just over a decade [since 1998].  In their lifetime, the number of articles on Wikipedia has grown to nearly 6 million in the English language, which is equivalent to 2,500 print volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and counting all language editions there are 48 million articles.  When Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1452, Johan Gutenberg had just published his first Bible using moveable type.  By the time Leonardo Da Vinci was 20 years old, about 15 million books had been printed which was more than all of the scribes in Europe had produced in the previous 1500 years.  Are these comparable explosions in the availability of knowledge?  The proportion of the global population that is literate has changed dramatically from about 2%, when Leonardo was alive, to over 80% today which probably makes the arrival of the internet, Wikipedia and other online knowledge bases much more significant than the invention of the printing press.

Today what matters is not what you know but what you can do with the knowledge because access to the internet via your smart phone has made memorisation redundant.

Pluralistic ignorance

This semester I am teaching an introductory course in Thermodynamics to undergraduate students using a blended learning approach [see ‘Blended learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018].  The blend includes formal lectures, example classes, homework assignments, assessed coursework questions and an on-line course, which I delivered as a MOOC a couple of years ago [see ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016].  It is not unusual in a large class, nearly two hundred students this year, that no one asks questions during the lecture; although, at the end of each lecture and example class, a small group of students with questions always forms.  The on-line course has extensive opportunities for asking questions and discussing issues with the instructor and fellow learners.  These opportunities  were used heavily when the course was offered as a MOOC  with 6600 comments posted or 1 every 7.7 minutes!  However, this year the undergraduates have not made any on-line comments and it was a similar situation last year.  Is this a case of pluralistic ignorance?  The term was coined by psychologists Daniel Katz and Floyd Henry Allport in 1931 to describe students who pretend to understand everything explained in class and don’t ask any questions because they believe everyone else in the class has understood everything and they don’t want to damage their reputation with their peers.  Perhaps we have all done it and been very grateful when someone has asked the question that we wanted to ask but did not dare.  Would be it ethical to pretend to be a student and post questions on-line that I know from the MOOC they are likely to want to ask?

Sources:

Patterson EA, Using everyday engineering examples to engage learners on a massive open online course, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, in press.

Katz D & Allport FH, Students’ attitude, Syracuse, NY: Craftsmann, 1931.

Origgi G, Reputation: what it is and why it matters, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Image: Author speaking at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan