Tag Archives: education

Time at the heart of our problems

This week I started teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students for the first time in twelve months.  I have had a break for a year because my course, which is only delivered once per year, was moved from first to second semester.  Although I have continued to teach postgraduate courses, it’s been like a sabbatical enforced by timetable changes.  Sadly, it’s over and I am back in the large lecture theatre in front of a couple of hundred of students – that makes it sound as if I don’t enjoy it which is not true but it does increase the intensity of the job because all of the other aspects of the role continue unabated.  So, for me time appears to accelerate as I attempt to jam more activities into a week.

Time lies at the heart of much of thermodynamics although we tend not to deal with it explicitly; however, it is implicit in our use of changes in the state of a system to understand it.  Quote Anaximander, the pre-Socratic philosopher & pupil of Thales of Miletus: ‘We understand the world by studying change, not by studying things’.  Time also lies at the centre of the tangle of problems found at the intersection of the theories of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.  As Carlo Rovelli has remarked we are still in the dark about this tangle of problems; so, I will touch on it in my thermodynamics course but just to show students the limits of our knowledge and perhaps inspire one or two of them to think about tackling them in postgraduate studies.

Meanwhile, I plan tackle my challenges with time by slowing it down once a week with a walk in the Clwydian Hills where the landscape appears unchanging so that time stands still allowing me to relax.


Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Wohllerben P, The hidden life of trees, London, William Collins, 2017.

Blended learning environments

This is the last in the series of posts on Creating A Learning Environment (CALE).  The series has been based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell [of Campbell-Kibler Associates] and me in the UK and USA, except for the last one on ‘Learning problem-solving skills’ on October 24th, 2018 which was derived on talks I gave to students and staff in Liverpool.  In all of these posts, the focus has been on traditional forms of learning environments; however, almost everything that I have described can be transferred to a virtual learning environment, which is what I have done in the two MOOCs [see ‘Engaging learners on-line’ on May 25th, 2016 and ‘Slowing down time to think (about strain energy)’ on March 8th, 2017].

You can illustrate a much wider range of Everyday Engineering Examples on video than is viable in a lecture theatre.  So, for instance, I used my shower to engage the learners and to introduce a little statistical thermodynamics and explain how we can consider the average behaviour of a myriad of atoms.  However, it is not possible to progress through 5Es [see ‘Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate’ on August 1st, 2018] in a single step of a MOOC; so, instead I used a step (or sometimes two steps) of the MOOC to address each ‘E’ and cycled around the 5Es about twice per week.  This approach provides an effective structure for the MOOC which appears to have been a significant factor in achieving higher completion rates than in most MOOCs.

In the MOOC, I extended the Everyday Engineering Example concept into experiments set as homework assignments using kitchen equipment.  For instance, in one lab students were asked to measure the efficiency of their kettle.  In another innovation, we developed Clear Screen Technology to allow me to talk to the audience while solving a worked example.  In the photo below, I am calculating the Gibbs energy in the tank of a compressed air powered car in the final week of the MOOC [where we began to transition to more sophisticated examples].

Last academic year, I blended the MOOC on thermodynamics with my traditional first year module by removing half the lectures, the laboratory classes and worked example classes from the module.  They were replaced by the video shorts, homework labs and Clear Screen Technology worked examples respectively from the MOOC.  The results were positive with an increased attendence at lectures and an improved performance in the examination; although some students did not like and did not engage with the on-line material.

Photographs are stills from the MOOC ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life’.

CALE #10 [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] – although this post is based on recent experience in developing and delivering a MOOC integrated with traditional learning environments.

Wading in reflections

I have written before about Daniel Goleman’s analysis of leadership styles [see ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2017]; to implement these styles, he identifies, four competencies you require: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.  Once again, I am involved in teaching helping people develop these competencies through our Science & Technology Leadership CPD programme for aspiring leaders in Research & Development [R&D].  As part of the module on Science Leadership and Ethics we have asked our delegates to write a short essay reflecting on the ethics of one or two real events and, either from experience or vicariously, on the leadership associated with them.  Our delegates find this challenging, especially the reflective aspect which is designed to induce them to think about their self, their feelings and their reactions to events.  They are technologists who are used to writing objectively in technical reports and the concept of writing about the inner workings of their mind is alien to them.

Apparently, the author Peter Carey compared writing to ‘wading in the flooded basement of my mind’ and, to stretch the analogy, I suspect that our delegates are worried about getting out of their depth or perhaps they haven’t found the stairs to the basement yet.  We try to help by providing a map in the form of the flowchart in the thumbnail together with the references below.  Nevertheless, this assignment remains an exercise that most undertake by standing at the top of the stairs with a weak flashlight and that few both get their feet wet and tell us what they find in the basement.


A short guide to reflective writing, University of Birmingham, Library Services Academic Skills Centre, https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/libraryservices/library/skills/asc/documents/public/Short-Guide-Reflective-Writing.pdf



Image: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/589901251161855637/

Goleman D, Boyatzis R & McKee A, The new leaders: transforming the art of leadership into the science of results, London: Sphere, 2002.

Dickson A, Books do furnish a lie, FT Weekend, 18/19 August 2018.

Learning problem-solving skills

Inukshuk: meaning ‘in the likeness of a human’ in the Inuit language. A traditional symbol meaning ‘someone was here’ or ‘you are on the right path’.

One definition of engineering given in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘the action of working artfully to bring something about’.  This action usually requires creative problem-solving which is a common skill possessed by all engineers regardless of their field of specialisation.  In many universities, students acquire this skill though solving example problems set by their instructors and supported by example classes and, or tutorials.

In my lectures, I solve example problems in class using a pen and paper combined with a visualiser and then give the students a set of problems to solve themselves.  The answers but not the solutions are provided; so that students know when they have arrived at the correct answer but not how to get there.  Students find this difficult and complain because I am putting the emphasis on their learning of problem-solving skills which requires considerable effort by them.  There are no short-cuts – it’s a process of deep-learning [see ‘Deep long-term learning’ on April 18th, 2018].

Research shows that students tend to jump into algebraic manipulation of equations whereas experts experiment to find the best approach to solving a problem.  The transition from student to skilled problem-solver requires students to become comfortable with the slow and uncertain process of creating representations of the problem and exploring the possible approaches to the solution [Martin & Schwartz, 2014].  And, it takes extensive practice to develop these problem-solving skills [Martin & Schwartz, 2009].  For instance, it is challenging to persuade students to sketch a representation of the problem that they are trying to solve [see ‘Meta-representational competence’ on May 13th, 2015].  Working in small groups with a tutor or a peer-mentor is an effective way of supporting students in acquiring these skills.  However, it is important to ensure that the students are engaged in the problem-solving so that the tutor acts as consultant or a guide who is not directly involved in solving the problem but can give students confidence that they are on the right path.

[Footnote: a visualiser is the modern equivalent of an OverHead Projector (OHP) which instead of projecting optically uses a digital camera and projector.  It’s probably deserves to be on the Mindset List since it is one of those differences between a professor’s experience as a student and our students’ experience [see ‘Engineering idiom’ on September 12th, 2018]].


Martin L & Schwartz DL, A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking, Visual Studies, 29(1):80-93, 2014.

Martin L & Schwartz DL, Prospective adaptation in the use of external representations, Cognition and Instruction, 27(4):370-400, 2009.


CALE #9 [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] – although this post is based on an introduction to tutorials given to new students and staff at the University of Liverpool in 2015 & 2016.

Photo: ILANAAQ_Whistler by NordicLondon (CC BY-NC 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/25408600@N00/189300958/