Month: May 2016

Engaging learners on-line

Filming at Quarry Bank Mill

Filming at Quarry Bank Mill

The Everyday Engineering Examples page of this blog continue to be very popular.  More than 70 engineering schools in the USA have signed up to use this approach to teaching engineering science as part of the ENGAGE project.  The lesson plans on that page assist instructors to deliver traditional lectures that are engaging and effective.  Now, we have transferred the approach to online delivery in a MOOC that was designed to support undergraduate learning as well as to increase public engagement and understanding of engineering science.

The MOOC entitled ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ was completed by more than 960 learners from about 35 countries who ranged in age from 13 to 78 years old with a correspondingly wide range of qualifications in terms of both subject and level.  I believe that this is the first MOOC to use Everyday Engineering Examples within a framework of the 5E lesson plans and it seems to have been effective because the completion rate was 50% higher than the average for FutureLearn MOOCs.

We also included some experiments for MOOC learners to do at home in their kitchen.  Disappointingly only a quarter of learners performed the experiments but surprisingly almost half of all learners(46%) reported that the experiments contributed to their understanding of the topics.  This might be because results and photos from the experiments were posted on a media wall by learners.  There was also a vibrant discussion throughout the five-week course with a comment posted every 8 minutes (or more than 6,500 comments in total).

More than half the undergraduates (53%) who followed the MOOC did not continue to attend the traditional lectures and roughly the same percentage agreed or agreed strongly that the MOOC could replace the traditional lecture course with only 11% disagreeing.  So maybe the answer to my question about death knell for lectures [see my post ‘Death Knell for the lecture?‘ on October 7th, 2015] is that I can hear the bell tolling.

I gave a Pecha Kucha 20×20 on these developments at an International Symposium on Inclusive Engineering Education in London last month, which is available as a short video.

A startling result

cowIn UK universities this is the season of project report writing for senior undergraduate students and report reading for their professors.   This year one of my students has been monitoring his personal ecological footprint and looking at ways in which he could use technology-based solutions to reduce it and then make recommendations to help others achieve the same [see my postings ‘Are we all free riders‘ on April 6th, 2016  ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014].  He found that his weekly contributions to greenhouse gases (GHG) due to energy consumption in his flat or apartment, transportation and consumption of meat were 12.73, 5.87 & 8.60 kg carbon dioxide equivalents per week.  The total of 27.2 kg carbon dioxide equivalents per week is relatively low compared to the UK average but then he does not own a car and is living on a small budget.  What startled me was the proportion of greenhouse gases generated as a result of eating meat!

He consumed about 1.2kg of meat each week in about equal proportions of beef (12.14 kgCO2e/kg), chicken (2.84 kgCO2e/kg) and pork (4.45 kgCO2e/kg).  The numbers in parentheses are the greenhouse gas emissions from the production of each of these commodities in the UK and they can be compared to green beens or wheat at 1.55 and  0.52 kgCO2e/kg) respectively.  So, you don’t need to become a vegetarian but you could follow the example of my student by dropping beef from your diet in order to  make a significant individual contribution to reducing GHG emissions, or you could become a weekday vegetarian (see Graham Hill’s TED talk).

BTW – the diary cows, like the one in the picture, are lovely calm creatures and milk has a relatively small footprint at 1.19 kgCO2e/kg


How low can we go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system end and the scope to reduce them by 2050. WWF November 2009.

Climate change and tides in Liverpool

image-20141201-20565-1eoo7rhIf you live within sight of the sea, as we do, then your life is probably influenced, to some degree, by the rise and fall of tides.  In Liverpool, we are lucky to have a particularly long historical record of tidal heights and one of my colleagues, an oceanographer, Professor Ric Williams has used this record to discuss climate variability.  The record was started and maintained between 1768 and 1793 by Captain William Hutchinson whose achievement is commemorated with a fountain in Liverpool’s historic docks, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A few weeks ago I listened to a talk by Prof Williams, in which he described how there is a rather simple relationship between surface warming and the effect of future emissions of greenhouse gases.  If the predictions of surface warming are plotted as a function of how much carbon is emitted to the atmosphere, rather than time, then a simple response emerges: the more carbon we emit, the warmer it will get. Associated with the surface warming, there is an expected sea level rise from the expansion of the water column augmented by the effect of addition of freshwater from melting of land ice. Watch Prof Williams’ Youtube video to find out more.


Woodworth, P.L. 1999. High waters at Liverpool since 1768: the UK’s longest sea level record. Geophysical Research Letters, 26 (11), 1589-1592.

Goodwin, P., Williams, R.G. & Ridgwell, A., Sensitivity of climate to cumulative carbon emissions dues to compensation of ocean heat and carbon uptake, Nature Geoscience, 8,29–34(2015).



Horizon therapy

A couWP_20160401_003ple of weeks ago I discovered a new expression: ‘horizon therapy’.  I came across it in an exhibition at the British Museum in London.  I had spent two days at a symposium on inclusivity in engineering education and when it finished, I sauntered into the British Museum for a bit of mind-wandering [see my post entitled ‘Mind-wandering‘ on September 3rd, 2014]  because the museum had late-night opening and I had a couple of hours before my evening train home.  I wandered into an exhibition called ‘Living and Dying’ that contained an installation called ‘Cradle to Grave‘ by Pharmacopoeia and funded by the Wellcome Trust.

No explanation was given for the term ‘horizon therapy’ that appeared under a snap-shot of a man admiring a sea-view.  However, I assumed it meant achieving that feeling of well-being that derives from looking at a distant horizon with a ‘big’ sky above it.  It induces a sense of oneness with the world and a sense of calm associated with the wide-open space.  I find it can happen at sea, on the beach, in the mountains or on the open plains.  I suspect that it’s part of the reason so many city-dwellers head out to these places at every opportunity.  We did during the Easter break and the photo shows one of my daughters soaking up ‘horizon therapy’ on the top of Stickle Pike in the English Lake District.

So, next time you are feeling hemmed in by the problems and pressures around you, seek out some horizon therapy; even if there is only time to climb to the top floor of the nearest tall building and soak up the view.

BTW the exhibition has induced other reactions, see for example: