Monthly Archives: March 2014

Slam dunk

CIMG0176Here is another lesson plan for use in teaching engineering science.  This one is based on the stress generated by a slam dunk in basketball.  Sports provide many potential Everyday Examples but caution needs taken in selecting them because not all students are interested in or participate in sports.  Research has shown that the context of examples should be familiar to all students in a class.  Otherwise students will be worrying about the context and will not be listening to the explanation of the engineering science.  Examples will be perceived as tedious intellectual exercises unless that allow questions to be posed that have interesting or useful answers.  Student motivation is closely linked to their perception of the usefulness of the exercise.

When Everyday Examples are set in a familiar context and yield fruitful outcomes, then the level of student engagement and learning is not influenced by the level of difficulty.  So there is no need to idealise a scenario to an elementary problem prior to applying engineering principles.  And here is the proverbial slam dunk, instructors who successful incorporate appropriate Everyday Examples into their lectures are likely to be rated more highly by their students, regardless of the associated level of difficulty.

Lesson plan: 5EplanNoS9_eccentric_loading

See the Everyday Examples page on this blog for more lesson plans and more background on Everyday Examples.

Reading offline

138-3816_IMGDavid Mikics, writing in the New York Times, reports recent research suggests that reading books is an important aspect of coming to know who we are.  It is a private experience that is best done without distractions, i.e. all of your attention capacity is employed on the book [see my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014 for more on attention capacity].  Our brains can achieve a much deeper level of thought and engagement when they are focussed on a single task without distractions.  This just does not happen when reading on-line because there are too many distractions.  Some research has shown that office-workers are distracted every three minutes and that it takes about 20 minutes to achieve a high level of engagement in a task.  So it is easy to see the attraction for bosses of replacing white-collar workers by smart machines [see my post entitled ‘Smart Machines‘ on February 26th, 2014].

But David Mikics suggests that reading a novel is important for deeper reasons associated with learning lessons about humanity that are not available elsewhere.  Novels take us on a journey with another self and allow us to look into people’s inner lives.  None of this can be achieved reading short blogs or watching short videos on-line and is perhaps why reading a good novel on holiday is such a cathartic and popular activity.

But don’t stop reading my blog instead click the ‘follow’ button if you have not already and then you can be distracted every Wednesday!

March Madness

basketballSome of you will be familiar with ‘March Madness’ which starts next week.  It is a couple of weeks in March when US universities play a knockout basketball competition.  At Michigan State University, where I used to be a professor, there would be huge disappointed if we did not make it into the final sixteen and great excitement if we were in the final four or even the final.

Basketballs can be a useful, and in the USA in March topical, prop to use in teaching dynamics.  In the lesson plan below angular momentum is used to investigate a basketball rolling over an obstacle, which could be someone’s foot rather than wooden block used in the example.  Of course, with 91 days to go until the start of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, you could easily switch to a football.


See the Everyday Examples page on this blog for more lesson plans and more background on Everyday Examples.

Emergent inequality

115-1547_IMGI wrote a few weeks ago about my visit to a conference on high-performance computing and big data [see ‘Mining Data‘ on February 12th, 2014].  We are able to use high performance computers to create simulations of complex engineering systems before we embark on the usual costly, and sometimes catastrophic, construction of the real system.  Some complex systems exhibit emergent behaviour, meaning that although we understand and can model the individual components when we connect them together the system behaves a new and unexpected manner, which is why it is good practice to simulate a system before building it.  Manuel Delanda has written eloquently on the topic of emergence in simulations in The Emergence of Synthetic Reason.  I encourage my first year thermodynamics students to read at least the first chapter which an amazing tour-de-force that ranges effortless from spontaneous flows of energy at the molecular level to the formation of thunderstorm systems.

Nature has many systems that could be described as emergent at some level or other.  For instance, the ants in an anthill go about their simple interactions but have no idea about how the anthill works or, perhaps more amazingly, the rafts that an ant colony can form using their bodies during a flood, as shown in recent research by Jessica Purcell and her co-workers at the University of Lausanne. With the exception of the queen, there is no leader in an anthill and all of the ants appear to be equal.  The same is not true in human society where currently 1% of the population own nearly half of the world’s wealth.

Seven out of ten people live in a country where inequality has increased in the last 30 years according to a recent Oxfam report.  This is bad news for everyone, including the wealthy because Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett have shown that in developed countries, there is a correlation between the incidences of mental illnesses and the level of income difference between the rich and poor.  A more recent study of the US found that depression was more common in states with greater income inequality, after taking account of age, income and educational differences.   Wilson and Pickett conclude that we become less nice and less happy people in more unequal societies regardless of our position in the social spectrum.