Data Galore: Research on Engineering Education


Opening day of the Bridge project last fall.

I’ve collected oodles of data on this project where I’m studying women’s experiences in engineering education across Europe, and I admit it’s been a fierce new challenge for me to manage all the data and use it effectively. Last week alone, I conducted three new 60-90 minute interviews that will need to be transcribed, read and reread and reread, coded and analyzed in concert with others.

I’ve had quite a bit of help getting as far with this project as I am–having completed 47 initial interviews in three countries (Ireland, Poland, and Portugal) and about 15 follow-up interviews (in Ireland) to date.


Two of the teachers for DIT’s bridge project.

Many thanks go to Allison Wagner, who did a two-month internship with me last spring, for her help conducting and transcribing five of the follow-up interviews with Middle Eastern women. Additional thanks go to Bill Williams and Raquel Barreira for their help with the Portuguese interviews, as well as to Tais Carvalho, Ivan Garcia, and Michael Carr who assisted with translation. In addition to this, my past PhD supervisor, Pam Eddy, is (still today, seven years post-PhD) always ready and willing to offer astute advice and for that I am extremely grateful. DIT’s Brian Bowe was instrumental in early work on this project, and my colleagues at DIT have provided insight and enthusiasm on a daily basis—most recently Ted Burke and Claire McBride.

img_3438It’s a lot of work and a big team effort, but it has its benefits. What I am learning directly improves my teaching and it also helps me advise my colleagues, with whom I often discuss teaching strategies.

On other fronts, I have a long way to go. Although I’ve presented findings to policy makers and researchers, I still struggle to finalize manuscripts for publication. This is a focus on my current fellowship at UCL–developing proficiency in publishing. I have made really swift progress though, and I look forward to showing you some results soon!

Learning London: Tower Bridge Museum


Defying gravity at Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge is well worth a visit. A long visit at that!

Last weekend’s weather was dreary in London and we almost passed on the activity–a result of not knowing what we’d see inside and an entry fee of nearly 10 pounds sterling each. Missing this experience would have been quite a mistake!

Our visit to Tower Bridge and the museum that spans the overhead walkways and plunges into the engine rooms far below, lasted far longer than we’d expected.

Aongus and I explored had the surrounding area a bit first, after walking to Tower Bridge from Shoreditch. We’d found Dead Man’s Hole but had failed, for the time being, to locate the entrance to the “subway” that, once upon a time, facilitated walking by foot under the Thames from the north to the south bank.

The bridge lured us away from that pursuit.

We’d read about its gear system and, well frankly, at least one of us is a gear-head. Although we had expected see a steam engine, we had not expected to walk along the top of the bridge–the part that stay stationary when the drawbridge below is opened. But, happily, both sides of that walkway are part of the museum and open for exploring.

We spent a couple of hours studying the signs about bridge design and construction, this bridge’s history, and famous bridges from around the world (many of which I’ve visited). The mirror above the glass floor (of the walkway soaring high above the river and street) proved to be a delight. It’s a great source of entertainment and photo fun.

The museum also provides a short historic film, an animation of this bridge’s construction, and many alternative bridge designs that didn’t make the cut. There are informative plaques and drawings of the design that was ultimately constructed. There are also plaques and taped interviews with folks who built and operated the bridge.

The tour ended in the engine room on the south bank, where we learned about the giant steam engine that once powered lifts and lowerings of this formidable drawbridge.

We had hoped to visit the bascule chamber and witness the gigantic gears ourselves, even though we knew the drawbridge would not be opening that day. Unfortunately, the chamber isn’t open to the general public, so I’ll have to investigate how to get in with a group some day. It seems you can book in for a group to visit, but I’ll probably look for a group of engineers to join.

The photo gallery shows the surrounding area and parts of the museum itself.

Collecting Data


Wednesday’s RoboSumo class was going a-ok!

I’m gearing up for the new research fellowship by collecting data here in Ireland–data that I can analyze once I’m situated in London.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing women who are studying engineering in Dublin. Most of the women I’ve interviewed in this country have completed the design projects that you’ve seen in my prior blogs (RoboSumo, bridge design, and Energy Cube). Although I can’t show you the actual participants in my study for reasons of confidentiality, I’ve included a photo from this past Wednesday’s RoboSumo lab. Our big tournament is in two weeks, and excitement is mounting.  I’m asking students who took these courses three years ago about their experiences with engineering and with working in teams.

I truly believe that interviewing women from DIT over a period of years has helped me become a better teacher, particularly since I started teaching on these projects last autumn. In prior years, I was lending a hand occasionally in Energy Cube, RoboSumo, and bridge design, but most of my time was spent observing classroom and team dynamics.


Trinity College’s main courtyard in all its mid-day splendor.

Today, I got to sit down and talk with a lovely young woman who started in DIT’s program four years ago, and who transferred to Trinity’s engineering program half-way through. To do this, I hiked across town to Trinity’s campus and the two of us chatted for 80 minutes, over coffee at Trinity’s Science Gallery. I hope the audio recording is clear enough, as I normally work in a much more controlled environment. There were far more distractions today than usual, yet the content of the interview was fascinating.

I interviewed all these women in the past as well, when they were first year engineering students, and now I’m catching back up with them after they completed several years of study. This is what’s referred to as a “longitudinal” study, and I am looking at changes and development over time. I have three more interviews lined up for next week, and I can not wait to hear about these students’ adventures in education and engineering.


Back to School: Engineering Induction at DIT

The first year students have arrived at DIT and are getting orientation this week. Today, the whole group of incoming engineering students were at our Kevin Street campus to learn about electrical and electronics aspects of their first year curriculum. Dr. Ted Burke led the introduction.

I really enjoy the chance to teach in various programs and on multiple campuses of DIT. I’ve posted images from my morning walk from DIT Bolton Street to DIT Kevin Street.

Research Methods of Forensic Engineers

 Catherine Simpson is here at DIT tonight describing the research she does as a Forensic Engineer. You can also call her an expert in thermal modeling and a Building Services Engineer.

She can make digital models of buildings and predict their future energy performance. She can also go into a functioning building to identify, analyze, and rectify errors in thermal performance. She says that very often, buildings do not end up performing the way experts predicted. These are skills she uses:




Catherine says Forensic Engineers must avoid using clues as if they were actual evidence (of the problem and its causes). These are clues: complaints, anecdotes, consultant reports, BMS data, ad hoc solutions, staff theories, and staff observations. On the other hand, these are useful forms of evidence:


Catherine models problems digitally and physically. She also develops theories that she can combine to test her theories:


Catherine gave an example of a shopping mall that had a very windy atrium and a very steep heating bill. No one could identify the causes of these problems. But after six years experiencing these problems, the owners called her in.

With careful analysis of data she collected (using dozens of different routes, including studying air flow by blowing bubbles in crowded spaces where smoke tests couldn’t be used) she identified a number of problems. One was a poorly placed rotisserie oven that was triggering vents to open. Another problem was that the building controls “thought” the building’s vents were completely closed when many were only partially closed.

Catherine devised a £50k solution to closing the vents in winter that is saving the owner £60k every month, in heat alone. There were reduced wind drafts and reduced tenant complaints. She says it saved about £500k in capital and restored people’s confidence in the facility.

Here’s one tool she uses to measure air speed:

She also uses thermal imaging to study air infiltration, like so:



We use this kind of technology in our Energy Cube project. This is a picture from that class last week:

Catherine’s work involves fixing problems and also providing expert witness testimony. Forensic engineering seems fascinating! Catherine is a veritable Nancy Drew.

Forensic engineering, she says, is like a jigsaw. You’re given clues, you find evidence, simulation gives context, you test theories, and ultimately prove a solution. She obviously loves her job!

The Brains Building Technology: Meeting the Greats at Inspirefest 2015

Shannon Chance with the founders of STEMettes (Anne-Marie Imafidon, center) and Black Girls Code (Kimberly Bryant, right).

Shannon Chance with the founders of STEMettes (Anne-Marie Imafidon, center) and Black Girls Code (Kimberly Bryant, right).

Silicon Republic hosted the first ever Inspirefest last week in Dublin, celebrating women’s achievements in STEM. A world-class line up of speakers of all ages from across Europe and the Americas graced Dublin’s Bord Gais Theater stage for two information-packed days proving many inspirational and eye-opening discoveries for an architect and educational researcher like me. Many thanks to Ann O’Dea for creating Inspirefest for us to enjoy!

Kerry Howard described women codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

Kerry Howard described women codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

Offering lessons from history, Kerry Howard talked about women codebreakers at Bletchley Park, and in the evening we viewed the documentary “Code-Breakers” and had Q&A with its director.

Kathy Kleiman described the women “computers” who helped break the German codes in WWII and developed *the* first programmable computers.

Dr. Nina Ansary presented the new book, The Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran.

Hamming it up on an evening tour of Merrion Square with Intel VP Margaret Burgdorff.

Hamming it up on an evening tour of Merrion Square with Intel VP Margaret Burgdorff.

Margaret Burgraff, a VP for Intel discussed leadership, Bethany Mayer (CEO of Ixia) gave pointers on navigating the “glass maze,” Shelly Porges talked about working with and for Hillary Clinton, and Carolan Lennon shared experience from her work as Managing Director of eircom Wholesale.

At this conference, 30% of the audience — and the speakers — were men. They included panelists like Prof. Brian MacCraith, the president of DCU of whom I’m a fan due to his knowledge about pedagogy.

The keynote by Steve Neff of Fidelity Investments pinpointed the ways diversity pays. His points were extended by panelists John Basile (Fidelity), Ryan Shanks (Accenture), Marie Moynihan (Dell’s Diversity Chief & VP of Talent), Prof Mark Ferguson (SFI), and Fionnuala Meehan (who leads a team of 450 at Google).

Lauren Boyle, EU's Digital Girl of the Year

Lauren Boyle, EU’s Digital Girl of the Year

Then some truly amazing young people joined the stage.

Ten-year old Lauren Boyle, EU’s Digital Girl of the Year, demonstrated her new website, Cool Kids Studio, for developing new life skills.

Emer Hickey and Ciara Judge, who founded Germinaid Innovations

Emer Hickey and Ciara Judge, who founded Germinaid Innovations

High school student Emer Hickey, along with her classmate Ciara Judge, recently launched Germinaid Innovations. This company provides “agricultural solutions for a brighter future.” Emer and Ciara developed technology that is drastically increasing crop yield using natural bacteria and won a global science competition.

They were on a panel with Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of STEMettes, who is running a summer program for which I recently recruited participants. I’m thrilled that at least five girls who I connected to the program (from Ireland and Poland) have been accepted for the upcoming Outbox Incubator business development program in London. In all, 118 girls ages 11-22 will participate in this 5 week program.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered pulsars

Can you believe that we heard about all this in just the first 5 hours of the conference?!

During a break I had the chance to meet Anne-Marie, Mary Carty (a major contributor to the Outbox Incubator), and Kimberly Bryant (the founder of the Oakland-based Black Girls Code).

Later in the conference we heard from Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist who discovered pulsars and Susan McKenna Lawlor (of Space Tech Ireland) who developed equipment that is collecting data on a comet that is hurling through space at this very moment. MC Leo Enright and panelists Dr. Lucy Rogers and Ariel Waldman (who once worked for NASA and later founded rounded out the session on space exploration and science.

Highlights from the second day included:

Ireland’s Taoiseach (i.e., prime minister) Enda Kenny, who described Ireland’s position in the tech world.

Robin Hauser Reynolds who described the life of Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.

Dr. Sue Black who wrote the book Saving Bletchley Park, actually saved this historic campus, and founded TechMums.

Suraj Shah with Intel's

Suraj Shah with Intel’s “She Will Connect” project

Intel’s Suraj Shah who works in Africa on the “She Will Connect” project.

Louise Kenny founder of the Irish Centre for Fetal and Neonatal Translational Research in Cork.

Panelists Mary Moloney head of Coderdojo, Sheree Atcheson founder of Women Who Code, and Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code, who all shared their passion for coding.

Prof Linda Doyle and panelists Kathryn Parkes (SWRVE), Dr Annie Doona (President of the art college IADT), Susan Schreibman (Irish Research Council) coined a new term that I’ve adopted to describe the union of Design and STEM. D-STEM! Ain’t it grand?!

We learned about objects and wearables that collect data to help planners, policy makers, and designers from Gaia Dempsey (CEO and co-founder of DAQRI), Philip Moynagh (VP of Intel’s Internet of Things group), Jessica McCarthy, and students Laura Browne, Alex Casey, and Oisin O Sullivan.

Brianna Wu (co-founder of Spacekat Games) discussed intense challenges (and opportunities) for women in the digital game industry.

Niamh Bushnell, Dublin Start-up Commissioner

Niamh Bushnell, Dublin Start-up Commissioner

We also heard from business founders Elena Rossini and Elian Carsenet (of GapGrader), Laetitia Grail (of MyBlee Math), Ciara Clancy (of Beats Medical), and Niamh Bushnell (who is now the Start-up Commissioner for Dublin).

Investors and venture capitalists provided advice: Sharon Vosmek (ASTIA), Adam Quinton (Lucas Point Ventures), Nnamdi Okike (645 Ventures), and Julie Sinnamon (Enterprise Ireland).

Cindy Gallop, founder of Make Love Not Porn, provided a riveting final keynote on Making Money while Doing Social Good. She also has a TED talk.

Inspirefest 2015 lived up to its promise. It sent us back into the world full of new ideas and networks and knowledge!

Vantage Points

What you see depends upon where and how you look....

What you see depends upon where and how you look….

In engineering, the teaching-from-the-podium-by-manual-and-textbook approach simply isn’t working.  It’s not attracting enough students to study engineering.  It’s not engaging and fascinating enough of them.  It’s not spurring their creative thinking skills in enough ways.

I’m clearly not the only one who has noticed this.  The National Science Foundation and oodles of engineering scholars agree.  And now that the engineering profession — as a group of individuals bound by common knowledge, education, and language — has come to acknowledge these shortcomings, it is time to address the problems head-on.

Fergus Whelan commented that I need to think outside this box....  Thanks to Frank Daly for the fabulous photo.

Not liking to be trapped inside the box….

Making such a change is difficult.  It’s messy and complex.  It requires thinking outside the vocabulary and methods that created the profession in the first place. In line with the old cliché: engineering has to starting thinking outside its own box.  Most people today agree: We need engineers to see and think in new ways.  And indeed, many teachers are:

  • working to prompt the needed type of thinking in engineering
  • testing new teaching methods
  • working to evaluate results

I am one of them.

I have two sets of skills that I am hoping can help in positive ways.  First, I’m an architect and seasoned educator.  Second, I’m an education researcher.  From this vantage point, I see that engineering (programs and pedagogies) can benefit from what architecture programs do.

The architecture profession, for instance, has always used hands-on teaching.  Architecture schools are full of students and full of creative energy.  Architecture and engineering aren’t so different, yet our ideas about what they “are” differ, and the way they are taught differs as well

“Engineering,” I insist, can benefit from design thinking, from techniques used in design education, and from sharing ideas with architects as well.  Upcoming blogs will explain how.

Below is a little gallery of recent research activities, including a short promo video (shot with my iPad in a single take) for our RoboSlam exhibit this weekend’s Dublin Maker event.