Category Archives: Learning & Teaching

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.


Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)


Tacit hurdle to digital twins

Tacit knowledge is traditionally defined as knowledge that is not explicit or that is difficult to express or transfer from someone else.  This description of what it is not makes the definition itself tacit knowledge which is not very helpful.  Management guides resolve this by giving examples, such as aesthetic sense, or innovation and leadership skills which are elusive skills that are hard to explain [see ‘Innovation out of chaos‘ on June 29th 2016 and  ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2017].  In engineering, there are a series of skills that are hard to explain or teach, including creative problem-solving [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘  on October 24th, 2018], artful design [see ‘Skilled in ingenuity‘ on August 19th, 2015] and elegant modelling [see ‘Credibility is in the eye of the beholder‘ on April 20th, 2016].  In a university course we attempt to lay the foundations for this tacit engineering knowledge; however, much of it is gained in work through experience and becomes regarded by organisations as part of their intellectual assets – the core of their competitiveness and source of their sustainable technology advantage.  In our work on integrated nuclear digital environments, from which digital twins can be spawned, we would like to capture both explicit and tacit knowledge about complex systems throughout their life cycle which will extend beyond the working lives of their designers, builders and operators.  One of the potential advantages of digital twins is as a knowledge management system by duplicating the life of the physical system and thus allowing its safer and cheaper operation in the long-term as well as its eventual decommissioning.   However, besides the very nature of tacit knowledge that makes its capture difficult, we are finding that its perceived value as an intellectual asset renders stakeholders reluctant to discuss it with us; never mind consider how it might be preserved as part of a digital twin.  Research has shown that tacit knowledge sharing is influenced by environmental factors including national culture, leadership characteristics and social networks [Cai et al, 2020].  I suspect that all of these factors were present in the heyday of the UK civil nuclear power industry when it worked together to construct advanced and complex systems; however, it has not built a power station since 1995 and, at the moment, new power stations are cancelled more often than built, which has almost certainly depressed all of these factors.  So, perhaps we should not be surprised by the difficulties encountered in establishing an integrated nuclear digital environment despite its importance for the future of the industry.

Reference: Cai, Y., Song, Y., Xiao, X. and Shi, W., 2020. The Effect of Social Capital on Tacit Knowledge-Sharing Intention: The Mediating Role of Employee Vigor. SAGE Open, 10(3), p.2158244020945722.

Homework practical exercises in structural mechanics

Last week I wrote about the practical exercises that I have been setting as homework in my first year undergraduate course on thermodynamics.  The instruction sheets that I published had been used by thousands of learners on my MOOC, Energy! The Thermodynamics of Everyday Life; and slightly modified versions had been used by more than a thousand students at the University of Liverpool.  A few years ago, I produced another MOOC called ‘Understanding Superstructures’ which also contained three practical exercises for online learners to perform in their kitchens.  I have not used them as part of a blended undergraduate course but nevertheless they have been completed by hundreds of participants in the MOOC.  I have decided to share them for colleagues to use in support of first year courses on the Mechanics of Solids or the Mechanics of Structures.  There is strong food flavour and no additional equipment is needed. Please feel free to use them to support your teaching.

Instruction sheets for thermodynamics practical exercises as homework:

Structural collapse | Crushing and toppling of towers

Stress concentrations | Newspaper tension tests

Residual stresses | Bending carrots





Thermodynamics labs as homework

Many of my academic colleagues are thinking about modifying their undergraduate teaching for next academic year so that they are more resilient to coronavirus.  Laboratory classes present particular challenges when access and density of occupation are restricted.  However, if the purpose of laboratory classes is to allow students to experience phenomena, to enhance understanding, to develop intuition and to acquire skills in using equipment, making measurements and analysing data, then I believe this can achieved using practical exercises for homework.  I created practical exercises, that can be performed in a kitchen at home, as part of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about thermodynamics [See ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016].  I have used the same exercises as part of my first year undergraduate module on thermodynamics for the past four years with similar levels of participation to those experienced by my colleagues who run traditional laboratory classes [see ‘Laboratory classes thirty years on‘ on May 15th, 2019].  I have had a number of enquiries from colleagues in other universities about these practical exercises and so I have decided to make the instruction sheets available to all.  Please feel free to use them to support your teaching.

The versions below are from the MOOC entitled ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ and provide information about where to obtain the small amount of equipment needed, and hence are self-contained.  Although the equipment only costs about £20, at the University of Liverpool, we lend our students a small bag of equipment containing a measuring beaker, a digital thermometer, a plug-in power meter and a plumber’s manometer.  I also use a slightly different version of these instructions sheets that provide information about ‘lab’ reports that students must submit as part of their coursework.

I reported on the initial introduction of blended learning and these practical exercises in Patterson EA, 2019, Using everyday examples to engage learners on a massive open online course, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, 0306419018818551.

Instruction sheets for thermodynamics practical exercises as homework:

Energy balance using the first law of thermodynamics | Efficiency of a kettle

Ideal gas behaviour | Estimating the value of absolute zero

Overall heat transfer coefficient | Heat losses from a coffee cup & glass