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Getting it wrong

Filming for the MOOC Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life

Last week’s post was stimulated by my realisation that I had made a mistake in a lecture [see ‘Amply sufficiency of solar energy?‘ on October 25th, 2017]. During the lecture, something triggered a doubt about a piece of information that I used in talking about the world as a thermodynamic system. It caused me to do some more research on the topic afterwards which led to the blog post.  The students know this already, because I sent an email to them as the post was published.  It was not an error that impacted on the fundamental understanding of the thermodynamic principles, which is fortunate because we are at a point in the course where students are struggling to understand and apply the principles to problems.  This is a normal process from my perspective but rather challenging and uncomfortable for many students.  They are developing creative problem-solving skills – becoming comfortable with the slow and uncertain process of creating representations and exploring the space of possible solutions [Martin & Schwartz, 2009 & 2014].  This takes extensive practice and most students want a quick fix: usually looking at a worked solution, which might induce the feeling that some thermodynamics has been understood but does nothing for problem-solving skills [see my post on ‘Meta-representational competence‘ on May 13th, 2015].

Engineers don’t like to be wrong [see my post on ‘Engineers are slow, error-prone‘ on April 29th, 2014].  The reliability of our solutions and designs is a critical ingredient in the social trust of engineering [Madhaven, 2016].  So, not getting it wrong is deeply embedded in the psyche of most engineers.  It is difficult to persuade most engineers to appear in front of a camera because we worry, not just about not getting it wrong, but about telling the whole truth.  The whole truth is often inconvenient for those that want to sensationalize issues for their own purposes, such as to sell news or gain votes, and this approach is anathema to many engineers.  The truth is also often complicated and nuanced, which can render an engineer’s explanation cognitively less attractive than a simple myth, or in other words less interesting and boring.  Unfortunately, people mainly pass on information that will cause an emotional response in the recipient, which is perhaps why engineering blogs are not as widely read as many others! [Lewandowsky et al 2012].

 

This week’s lecture was about energy flows, and heat transfer in particular; so, the following posts from the archive might be interest: ‘On the beach‘ on July 24th, 2013, ‘Noise transfer‘ on April 3rd, 2013, and ‘Stimulating students with caffeine‘ on December 17th, 2014

Sources:

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

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

Madhaven G, Think like an engineer, London: One World Publications, 2016.

Lewandowsky S, Ecker UKH, Seifert CM, Schwarz N & Cook J, Misinformation and its correction: continued influence and successful debiasing, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3):106-131, 2012.

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Pebbles – where are yours?

The picture shows a little collection of pebbles and a shell that sits on the desk in my office.  There are similar collections in various locations at home and some of my coats have a pebble permanently in one pocket – there’s even a shell on the dashboard of our car.  They have all been picked up during walks on beaches [see my post entitled ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on 26th August 2015] and serve as reminders of the ‘slowness’ enjoyed on vacation [see my post ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015].  Barbara Hepworth owned a similar collection of stones that you can see in the Hepworth Wakefield.  On the subject of this habit she wrote in 1961: ‘Many people select a stone or a pebble to carry for the day.  The weight and form and texture felt in our hands relates us to the past and gives us a sense of a universal force.  The beautifully shaped stone, washed up by the sea, is a symbol of continuity, a silent image of our desire for survival, peace and security.’  I could not express it better so I didn’t try.

The quote is from a contribution to the film Barbara Hepworth directed by John Read, BBC TV, 1961 and can be found in Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, edited by Sophie Bowness, London: Tate Publishing, 2015.

Anything other than lager, stout or porter!

While we were sitting in the Red Deer in Sheffield enjoying a couple of pints of Iron & Steel Bitter from the Chantry Brewery in Rotherham, my long-time Swiss collaborator, and sometime correspondent on this blog, asked me: what’s the difference between an ale and a beer?  And, I had to admit that I couldn’t provide a definitive answer to satisfy his curiosity.  So, I am going to have another go, now.  Beer is an alcoholic drink made from a cereal grain and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ale is any beer other than lager, stout, or porter!

However, ‘real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide‘ according to CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale.  So the Iron & Steel Bitter that we enjoyed at the Red Deer was a real ale.

My digital detox during July [see my post entitled ‘In digital detox‘ on July 19th, 2017] included  sampling bottled ales from local West Country breweries and the photograph shows my favorites ranked from left to right.  Many were enjoyed while overseeing the BBQ in the picture below; however, the time in the Red Deer involved some rather more productive brain-storming for the MOTIVATE project [see my post entitled ‘Getting smarter‘ on June 21st, 2017].

Details of beers in photograph: Pirates Gold from Wooden Hand Brewery; Jail Ale from Dartmoor Brewery; Original Beer from Butcombe Breweries; Rebel Red from Rebel Brewing and Summer Lightening Hop Back Brewery

Re-engineering engineering

More than a decade ago, when I was a Department Head for Mechanical Engineering, people used to ask me ‘What is Mechanical Engineering?’.  My answer was that mechanical engineering is about utilising the material and energy resources available in nature to deliver goods and services demanded by society – that’s a broad definition.  And, mechanical engineering is perhaps the broadest engineering discipline, which has enable mechanical engineers to find employment in a wide spectrum areas from aerospace, through agricultural, automotive and biomedical to nuclear and solar energy engineering.  Many of these areas of engineering have become very specialised with their proponents believing that they have a unique set of constraints which demand the development of special techniques and accompanying language or terminology.  In some ways, these specialisms are like the historic guilds in Europe that jealously guarded their knowledge and skills; indeed there are more than 30 licensed engineering institutions in the UK.

In an age where information is readily available [see my post entitled ‘Wanted: user experience designers‘ on July 5th, 2017], the role of engineers is changing and they ‘are integrators who pull ideas together from multiple streams of knowledge’ [to quote Jim Plummer, former Dean of Engineering at Stanford University in ‘Think like an engineer‘ by Guru Madhaven].  This implies that engineers need to be able work with a wide spectrum of knowledge rather than being embedded in a single specialism; and, since many of the challenges facing our global society involve complex systems combining engineering, environmental and societal components, engineering education needs to include gaining an understanding of ecosystems and the subtleties of human behaviour as well as the fundamentals of engineering.  If we can shift our engineering degrees away from specialisms towards this type of systems thinking then engineering is likely to enormously boost its contribution to our society and at the same time the increased relevance of the degree programmes might attract a more diverse student population which will promote a better fit of engineering solutions to the needs of our whole of global society [see also ‘Where science meets society‘ on September 2nd 2015).

For information on the licensed engineering institutions in the UK see: https://www.engc.org.uk/about-us/our-partners/professional-engineering-institutions/

Hurrying feet in crowded camps

Five years ago I wrote about the potential ‘Population Crunch‘ [September 15th, 2012] that could lead to a large increase in the size and number of cities – perhaps upto 1500 new cities emerging over the next few decades as the global population rises from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050 [see UN revised report, 2017].  It is a significant challenge to provide an acceptable quality of life to the citizens of these new cities as well as existing ones.  People have been concerned about the density of population in cities and its impact on individuals for more than a century.  In 1910, W.H. Hudson in ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ [Penguin Books, 1910] wrote, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, about London: ‘Some over-populated planet in our system discovered a way to relieve itself by discharging its superfluous millions on our globe – a pale people with hurrying feet and eager, restless minds, who live apart in monstrous, crowded camps, like wood ants that go not out to forage for themselves’  Nothing seems to have changed!