Month: May 2015

Engineers sustain society

Tim Butterfield receiving his prize from Incorporation of Hammermen Deacon Professor David Harrison

Tim Butterfield receiving his prize from Incorporation of Hammermen Deacon Professor David Harrison

A few weeks ago I wrote about tag-lines for promoting engineering [see post entitled ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd, 2015]. A young undergraduate student, Tim Butterfield from the University of Sheffield has produced possibly the best one that I have come across: ‘Engineers sustain society’ in his outstanding video made to complement his awarding winning essay on the subject ‘Can engineers make a beneficial contribution to society?’ It won first prize at the 20th Anniversary Student Awards of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council last month.

Prince Philip wrote on almost the same subject earlier this year in the New Scientist. He said that ‘engineering has made a greater positive difference to human life than almost any other human endeavour’.  I don’t think that’s an exaggeration but then I am biased. So, ‘engineers sustain society’ is a good paraphrase.

Now watch Tim’s short video.

Sleep reinforces connections

alarm clockFor many students this is examination season and the temptation to study twenty-four hours a day is high.  However, recently reported research has implied that an extra three to four hours of sleep over as little as two days can restore memories.  This implies that a good strategy for exam preparation is to reduce revision in the 48 hours before an exam and sleep instead.

Researchers report that sleep helps the brain to reinforce connections between brain cells, which encode important memories, and to remove connections associated with useless information. Of course from an exam preparation perspective, this does imply that you need to have been studying during the course and hence have memories to reinforce. If you haven’t then stop reading this blog and carry on revising –  if necessary, all night!

For the older folks amongst my readers who sometimes feel they are suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, having an early night or a late morning lie-in might really restore memories.


The Hindu, Saturday 25th April, 2015, page 12

Keene AC & Joiner WJ, Neurodegeneration: Paying it off with sleep, Current Biology, 25(6):R234-236, 2015


Meta-representation competence

toasterdrawingOk, it’s a challenging title and a strange thumb-nail diagram but stick with it!  Last week I was giving revision lectures for my first year class in thermodynamics which is why my post was about problem-solving.  I mentioned the difficulty in persuading students to represent problems pictorially.  It is called meta-representational competence.  It is a knowledge of when visual representations are likely to be appropriate, how to create them and how to interprete them, according to Disessa and Sherin (2000).

It is hard because you need to become comfortable with the slow and uncertain process of creating representations and exploring the space of possibilities, to quote Martin and Schwartz (2014).  This is achieved through practice. Oh, and now we are back to students testing their skills against problems set by their tutors.  It is what engineers learn to do as part of their formation.  They might not realise it but their meta-representation competence is one of the attributes that make them so attractive to employers.

Now, what about that thumb-nail.  Well, it is my picture drawn as part of the staff answer to the Everyday Engineering Example below, which was given to our new engineering students in their first week at university and subsequently discussed with their personal tutor. Can you solve it with my sketch?  Answers via the comments…

Dynamics Example:

A two-slice toaster is switched on by depressing a slider which causes the slices of bread to fall downwards into the toaster between heating elements and also extends a pair of springs at each end of the toaster. When the toast is ready a pair of triggers releases both springs simultaneously, which in turn cause the toast to ‘pop’ up. If the toast is to just not jump completely out of the toaster when it is ready and in the ‘off’ position rests with two-thirds in the toaster, calculate the force that must be applied to the slider when switching on the toaster. Neglect the weight of the mechanism and assume that there are no losses.


Disessa AA & Sherin BL, Meta-representation: an introduction, J. Mathematical Behaviour, 19(4):385-398, 2000

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.

Problem-solving in thermodynamics

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSUDuring November and December I was handing out a sheet of problems every week in my first-year undergraduate thermodynamics class so that students could evaluate and refine their understanding and problem-solving skills as the course progressed. Of course, most students will not have done this and those problem sheets will have been part of their list of good intentions, which have now become part of their revision schedule. Well, perhaps?  Anyway, to help them is attached ‘Professor Patterson’s Patented Problem-solving Procedure (PPPPP)’ for entry-level thermodynamics problems.

PPPPP is written in the context of thermodynamics but actually it is what engineers tend to do when faced with analysis problems, i.e. draw a sketch including all the known information, identify some simplifying assumptions then apply and solve the relevant physical laws. There is plenty of research that shows most of us are visual problem-solvers [e.g. Martin & Schwartz, 2014] but it is remarkably difficult to persuade people to summarize a problem pictorially.  It takes practice and that’s why we give students lots of problems on which to hone their skills.

See my post entitled ‘Love an engineer‘ on September 24th, 2014 for about creative problem-solving engineers.  Or ‘Mind wandering‘ on September 3rd, 2014.


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

Painting from Okemos High School Art Collection at MSU