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!

Research Methods of Philosophers

Philosophy symposium 1

Philosophers sometimes use primary documents in ways not much different from the historians I mentioned in my previous blog. According to Yale:

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format.

For historians, primary documents include photographs, letters, news clippings and the like. For philosophers, I’d say they could include original texts where an idea first appeared in written form. As a social science researcher, I myself am collecting audio-taped testimonies of female students who have first-hand experience of first-year engineering education. All three of these examples–philosophy, history, and social science research–involve high levels of interpretation of documents, ideas, and stories contributed by others.

Whereas my historian friend, Cecilia Hartsell, is investigating phenomena that include both the 1916 Uprising as well as the return of soldiers from WWI, my colleagues in philosophy spent a recent weekend discussing the phenomena of intentionality and normativity. These historians and philosophers seek to understand the context of events and ideas arising in the past, and what the authors of various documents meant at the time they spoke, or wrote.


february-workshopI joined a group of philosophers for a February 19-20, 2016 seminar that explored various aspects of phenomenology. The event was hosted by the School of Philosophy at the University College of Dublin but held at Newman House, on Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

Attending the seminar, I learned much more about phenomenology. I also learned more about the way philosophers think, study, generate new knowledge and new understandings, communicate with each other, test ideas, and seek to uncover the complex meanings embedded in writings by philosophers throughout the ages.

I am indebted to Prof. Dermot Moran and Dr. Elisa Magrì for inviting the public to their event so that I could attend, and to DIT’s new PhD student, Diana Adela Martin, for notifying me about the event.

Much of the discussion focused on phenomenology, which is both a philosophy and a social science research methodology. I’m currently using the methodology to study women’s experiences of STEM education, and will submit later this week a manuscript on another phenomenological research study of teachers’ experiences working together to implement Problem-Based Learning at Dublin Institute of Technology.

Related to experience, I must admit that visiting Newman House was an exquisite one. In this house, John Henry Newman founded University College Dublin (originally called the Catholic University of Ireland). I believe that he later became a cardinal and was beatified by the Catholic Church, despite the fact that his views did not always match the official sanctioned interpretations of the Church. Today, one can visit Newman Houses on campuses world wide, like the one I attended while a student at Virginia Tech. I’ve attached photos of the formal entry hall at UCD’s Newman House, for your enjoyment. I got so caught up in discussions at each coffee break that I never made it all the way to the lovely formal garden behind the house. Maybe next time!

Mixing Soup Under a Fine Dublin Sky

Fulbrighting is in full gear here!

The weather is grand — chilly but sunny.  And, surprisingly, it was a day without rain.  That hardly ever happens.  We usually get at least a few drops every day.  As they say, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes” … it’s certain to change.  They also say Ireland has four seasons in a day.  Dave and I have definitely experienced that.

I’ve learned never to leave the apartment without a small umbrella and a waterproof jacket of some sort.  There’s little humidity in the air here in Dublin.  Gavin joked yesterday that humidity tends to fluctuate between 0% and 100%.  (Scientifically speaking it’s probably more like 30% and 100% since 0% would be unGodly dry, but the idea is right on.  A hundred percent is, of course, when the air can no longer hold the water and it rains or snows.)  I’ll include a few random photos of the Dublin sky, snapped as I walked to various buildings at DIT today (the buildings are spread out all over town).

In the past couple of days, Sima, Gavin, Brian Bowe (their doctoral supervisor), and I have been trading articles on design theory, design process, and qualitative research methods in preparation for our work.  We’re exploring differences and similarities between phenomenology and phenomenography.  Fascinating, eh!?  Well, fortunately, we think so!  (I’m trying to make time to read a stack of articles and chapters while also preparing to give a conference presentation next week and making final reviews of the article that will be published next month by SCUP, the Society of College and University Planners.)

Among other activities today, I met with Gavin to discuss definitions of “design” and their relationship to epistemology (the way individual understand “knowledge” and what it means “to know”).

Computer Science lecturer Damien Gordan walked past and joined the conversation (see photo).  I’m looking forward to talking with him again soon.  So energetic!

Chatting with Damian Gordon from Computer Science, who, like us, also does educational research.

Everyone here is amazingly welcoming.  Gavin’s office-mate, Kevin, gave me a his own personal HP printer (his wife has just purchased a new one).  The librarian at Bolton Street, Brian Gillespie, checked me out a book using his library card, since mine’s in the works. The Head of Mechanical Engineering and Product Design asked me to submit a paper for his upcoming conference.

I could go on… but there’s even more exciting news.

In a few days, Gavin, the Dean of the College, and I will all fly to Thessaloniki, Greece for a conference sponsored by SEFI (the society of European engineering educators).  Gavin will be presenting two papers and I will be presenting two as well.  One of the papers we wrote together, so we’ve got a total of three presentations to deliver between the two of us.  Strangely, all three of these presentations fall in the same time block.  We’ll get to see exactly how many places we can each be at one time!

When the conference ends, Gavin will zip back to Dublin mid-week to teach classes.  I don’t have to be in a specific class next week, and my flight choices all required a lengthy stop-over.   So… I took full advantage of the opportunity.  I chose Rome as my through destination and I scheduled a stop over for three nights on the way back.  I’ll return to Dublin in time to work Saturday and Sunday.

I have a huge amount of homework to complete for the following week (the same week my Mom and her two neighbors are arriving for a visit).  But I can’t fall behind in my work.  Gavin and I must stay on our toes in order to complete our study in time for the January 7 journal deadline.

Oh, yes, Sima phoned today to discuss lecturing schedules and research plans.  She’s been following the blog and she called with a very excited tone.  She’d not noticed the BYOF sandwich board right outside their building, and neither had the other lecturers.  They learned about it from my blog and got a big laugh.

I should have taken a photo in the window of that pub yesterday.  The students were just back and they hadn’t packed lunches either.  So, there were plenty of students in the pub, but few had BTOF (Brought Their Own Food).

On a parting note, I also had to stop for some produce today and I leave you with the following delightful image+thought=idea.  The veggie assortment pictured below was labelled as “soup mix.”  How cool!

‘Course I’m gonna steam my veggie assortment instead… and I think I’ll do that right now!  Apologies for any typographical errors… but I need to go eat… and work on that SEFI presentation… YIKES!

Soup Mix — Irish Style!