Many people take a week’s holiday at this time in the UK because Monday was the Spring Bank Holiday. We went walking in the Clwydian hills which we can see from our house to the south-west across the rivers Mersey and Dee. However, despite the walking on the wild side [see ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on August 26th, 2015], I did not feel particularly creative when I sat down to write this week’s blog post. Together with most of my academic colleagues, I am in the midst of reviewing student dissertations and marking end of year assessments. I have written in the past about the process of marking examinations and the tens of thousands of decisions involved in marking a large pile of scripts [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. However, the constraints imposed by the pandemic have changed this process for students and examiners because the whole exercise is conducted on-line. I have set an open-book examination in thermodynamics which the students completed online in a specified time period and submitted electronically. Their scripts were checked automatically for plagiarism during the submission process and now I have to mark about 250 scripts online. At the moment, marking online is a slower process than for hardcopy scripts but perhaps that’s a lack of skill and experience on my part. However, it seems to have same impact on my creativity by using up my mental bandwidth and impeding my ability to write an interesting blog post [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]!
Puzzles and mysteries are a pair of words that have taken on a whole new meaning for me since reading John Kay’s and Mervyn King’s book called ‘Radical uncertainty: decision-making for an unknowable future‘ during the summer vacation [see ‘Where is AI on the hype curve?‘ on August 12th, 2020]. They describe puzzles as well-defined problems with knowable solutions; whereas mysteries are ill-defined problems, that have no objectively correct solution and are imbued with vagueness and indeterminacy. I have written before about engineers being creative problems-solvers [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] which leads to the question of whether we specialise in solving puzzles or mysteries, or perhaps both types of problems. The problems that I set for students to solve for homework to refine and evaluate their knowledge of thermodynamics [see ‘Problem-solving in thermodynamics‘ on May 6th, 2015] clearly fall into the puzzle category because they are well-defined and there is a worked solution available. Although for many students these problems might appear to be mysteries, the intention is that with greater knowledge and understanding the mysteries will be transformed into mere puzzles. It is also true that many real-world mysteries can be transformed into puzzles by research that advances the collective knowledge and understanding of society. Part of the purpose of an engineering education is to equip students with the skills to make this transformation from mysteries to puzzles. At an undergraduate level we use problems that are mysteries only to the students so that success is achievable; however, at the post-graduate level we use problems that are perceived as mysteries to both the student and the professor with the intention that the professor can guide the student towards a solution. Of course, some mysteries are intractable often because we do not know enough to define the problem sufficiently that we can even start to think about possible solutions. These are tricky to tackle because it is unreasonable to expect a research student to solve them in limited timeframe and it is risky to offer to solve them in exchange for a research grant because you are likely to damage your reputation and prospects of future funding when you fail. On the other hand, they are what makes research interesting and exciting.
Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.
If 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)
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