Learning London: Birthday Celebrations with Weekend Excursion to Oxford

Last week at UCL’s Engineering Front Office we celebrated birthdays, for my colleague Inês, and for me as well. A group of us had lunch out together on Wednesday and we also enjoyed lunch in the office together on several other days of the week.

It’s really not so bad getting old when you’re surrounded by loving friends! Even if they keep rubbing in my nearly-senior status….

At the end of the day, Friday, Aongus and I darted out of the city for a weekend away in historic and picturesque Oxford. This blog post recounts these birthday adventures using pictures.

Birthday Lunch at Sagar

On Wednesday, a group of us enjoyed a south-Indian lunch together at Sagar, which our lovely colleague, Sital Thanki, has introduced us to. In addition to a few photos of the birthday lunch, I show below some of the many kind cards and gifts I received from colleagues, friends, and family. The packages, calls from parents, and online messages I received from friends via Facebook and LinkedIn were also heartwarming.

Weekend in Oxford

As a birthday present, Aongus booked a weekend away in Oxford. We left London after work on Friday by bus (cheaper than the train, but with its own unique pitfalls). Overall, we enjoyed two nights in one of the world’s loveliest university cities before re-boarding a bus back to London.

Exploring the City

We ventured out briefly for dinner on Friday but focused on resting up for Saturday.

On Saturday morning, we wandered through the city fairly aimlessly. We wanted to see the high street areas, visit some of the shops, and get a feel for the University of Oxford.

Natural History Museum

On Saturday afternoon, we visited Oxford’s museum for Natural History, which I’d read about in one of Bill Bryson’s books. In addition to the exhibits on dinosaurs, mammals, birds, and insects, we also took in the special exhibit on bacteria. I’d need an extensive blog to tell you what I learned about bacteria, and I held off posting all the photos I took. But you’d be surprised to learn how bacteria created oxygen, photosynthesis, and cell-splitting that enabled human life to form.

Really amazing stuff!

Visiting this museum, you see the huge value that researchers add to our knowledge of everything in the physical world. Curious minds want to know! And many of these curious-minded people become life-long researchers–exploring the world to find answers to questions we didn’t even know we had, as well as questions we knew!

History of Science Museum

We narrowly missed the departure of the morning “Footprints” tour on Sunday, but we booked in for a later tour and headed into the History of Science Museum, originally a stockpile of curiosities, and now spread across three floors. My favorite parts covered sundials, photography, and penicillin–crucial research on penicillin was done at Oxford. Also fun were the measuring devices, calculating machines, and astronomical gadgets. Again, thank goodness for curious minds, figuring all this stuff out over time!

Blackwells Bookstore

To escape the cold–and take a little rest between the science museum and the planned walking tour–we stepped inside Blackwell’s Bookstore. A mindboggling collection indeed! It’s multiple floors and the basement sprawls far under Trinity College. Incidentally, at Oxford, the colleges are residential–they are where the students live, eat and sleep. Every student belongs to a college, and every student studies in a department.

Thankfully, Blackwell’s also features a coffee shop, which is optimal for a welcome and well-deserved rest.

Footprints Tour of Oxford

The Footprints company offers free walking tours as well as paid ones. To ensure we were part of a small group and could enter some Oxford sites where there are entry fees, I purchased tickets for the two-hour walking tour at £15 each. Although the plan seemed ideal, the weather turned ugly. Just before the tour started it got very cold, and shortly after the start, hail pounded down. The tour guide had to skip the first two sites and run straight into a library. Aongus was frozen solid by the tour’s end.

Divinity School

The large hall with its ornately carved stone ceiling at the Divinity School is featured in all sorts of films–from Harry Potter to the recent Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite. Our tour guide brought us inside for a stop off–and I was thrilled to see this space.

New College: squares, dining hall, chapel and cloister

Of the 38 colleges at Oxford, we peeked inside only a few–they have entrance fees, and what you are permitted to see varies from one to the next. I wasn’t sure how to manage all that without insider knowledge, so we hired a guide! There were only ten of us in the tour group.

Our tour guide brought us to her favorite, the New College. You’ll likely recognize the dining hall, which is featured in movies. Of note, the cloister and the tree in it appeared in Harry Potter, but the dining hall used in that series of films was custom built, a near replica of a hall on campus that has only three actual long tables for the students. As Hogwarts had four schools, they made the studio version a bit wider to accommodate the extra row. Most college dining halls at Oxford also have a high table where the privileged sit and eat superior food.

The chapel in the New College is exquisite, and we heard a bit of organ practice while seated in there. Many colleges destroyed their historic old chapels and replaced them with more modern ones. What a waste. This Gothic one is stellar, though the ornate end wall was a somewhat recent addition.

Bodleian Library

Perhaps the most iconic building at Oxford is the round Bodleian Library, a reading room for students. Turns out, a cylinder isn’t quite conducive to storing books. It’s better for studying, we hope!

Overall, Oxford has a massive collection of books. This library is second only in size to the British Library (a copy of everything published in the UK goes there, similar to the Library of Congress in the USA, which is the world’s largest library collection). Like these other two libraries, you can view books only on-site here–it’s not a lending library.

Famous Folks

Oxford provided inspiration for C. S. Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Hobbits. Although I must admit I know little of Harry Potter, I did read some Hobbit stories and all of The Chronicles of Narnia.

Near the end of our tour, we saw the door that inspired Lewis’ lion, witch, and wardrobe. We also saw the Oxford lamp post he made famous.

We also learned about some very destructive and badly behaved boys who attended Oxford (David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and their political cronies). We learned about others who misbehaved in the town less aggressively (Bill Clinton) and we learned of people burned for political crimes on Broad Street, where our tour had started.

Look for the Footprints office there on Broad Street, near the shop Boswells of Oxford. Pick up some new luggage and an Ameribag while you’re there! It will take your mind off the stories of deviant behavior.

Constructing a Student-Centered Studio

The incoming second year architecture studio cohort at Hampton University.

The incoming second year architecture studio cohort at Hampton University.

Today I applyed what I learned about problem-based learning (PBL), group learning, and student-centered pedagogies while I was on my Fulbright fellowship at Dublin Institute of Technology. I met the students in my second year architecture studio for the first time. Studio looked unlike Day One of this class (ARC201) ever looked before!

We started outside, with team building activities and a name game. Then we formed the teams (i.e., learning groups) that we’ll use for the first five weeks of this semester.

Next, we conducted initial site analysis in a way that was much more engaging than normal. We held a “scavenger hunt” to identify qualities of our project site (the Hampton University Point) that have to do with water.  The students managed to generate a much more interesting list of factors than I’ve ever been able to get them to achieve before; 63 about water alone!

For Friday, each team (of three students) has two assignments due.

Assignment 1 is to draw a plan of our project site to an architectural scale to fill an 18″x24″ sheet of paper.

This problem prompt is pretty specific (close-ended), but it still leaves a number of variables for students to consider and make choices about.  I hope they’ll get a bit competitive and prove they have pride in their work!  I asked the groups to follow a standard PBL format in starting work on this assignment. I asked them to figure out:

  1. What is this assignment asking?
  2. What will we need to know to do this?
  3. What do we already know about this?
  4. What will we need to learn/find out?
  5. What resources will we need?
  6. Who will do what and when?
  7. How will we check for accuracy before it’s due?

Assignment 1 is more straightforward than you might expect for an architecture studio. However, it will lay groundwork for upcoming activities, and it will help me assess where the students are skills-wise and with regard to collaboration. The second assignment is much more open-ended.

Assignment 2 is to make a beautiful object that reveals the essence of water.

I asked the groups to start by watching one of the YouTube videos listed below, and assume that the astronaut/scientist had made the video in response to this assignment. I asked the students to consider the questions above (which are intended to foster “self-direcetd learning”) and to bring to our next studio meeting a final, beautiful object as well as at least three study models that investigating the “essence of water”.  I’ve got my fingers crossed!

The students were more  active, engaged, and enthusiastic about learning than is typical on Day One of this course and I have high hopes for this new method of teaching.

NASA: Amazing Experiments with Water in Zero Gravity – YouTube

NASA: Amazing Experiments with Water Balloons in  – YouTube

New “RoboSlam for Facilitators” Workshop

Ted, Damon, and I have been gearing up for future RoboSlam workshops.   We have been looking for sponsors to help us continue and scale up our work.  For now, we’ll have to keep things fairly small and simple.  We’re not letting the lack of funds hold us back too much!  We’ve got to keep our momentum going!

During my Fulbright fellowship, I had several official projects. Along the way, I adopted a number of other projects–like RoboSlam–where I could learn and also contribute.

Ted and Damon are so talented and passionate about what they do that it’s impossible not to want to contribute to the success of their project.

While I was away studying in Rome, Ted and Damon hosted a workshop for people we hope will want to become facilitators of RoboSlam.  It’s part of our strategy for getting more people involved in the project.

RoboSlam Ratings

The organizer of last week’s events at DIT wrote to those of us who conducted the RoboSlam robot hacking workshop. She said:

In fact, in the survey I conducted at the end, 61.8% of 34 participants said it was ‘excellent’ and 35.3% said it was ‘very good’. One student said it was ‘good’ (2.9%) and that was the lowest score Roboslam got. It even beat Wednesday’s visit to the Aviva Stadium which, in the week of the Heineken Cup, is saying something! A whopping 67.6% of participants said it was their favourite on-campus activity and, interestingly,  11 students now say that electronic engineering would be their preferred choice of engineering discipline, up from 8 students at the start of the week…

To read more, please see the RoboSlam blog on this topic.

Group-Based Learning in Action

I’m becoming a bigger and bigger believer in collaborative learning!  Last semester I did lot of research about how engineering professors (i.e., lecturers) here at Dublin Institute of Technology worked together to develop new ways of teaching electrical engineers.  I was amazed to discover how incredibly much they learned by working together.

Such impressive knowledge gain is the premise behind Project-Based Learning and other group-based learning formats.

Orla and Shannon in the throws of course planning.

Orla and Shannon in the throws of course planning.

My day today was filled with meetings about collaborative research and teaching projects.

With the help of five different tech guys, I got SPSS up and running so that I will be able to help analyze data on that Mike Murphy and I collected from engineering and engineering technology students. We asked them what they saw themselves doing in the future, how well prepared they feel to start work, and what kinds of things they’ve focused their efforts on over the past few years.

After lunch I met with Orla Hanratty of DIT’s Learning, Teaching and Technology Centre (LTTC) and introduced her to Brian Bowe. She’ll be co-teaching a course (i.e., module) with us in May.  We aim to increase the usage and visibility of Problem-Based Learning at DIT by teaching more teachers to use Problem-Based Learning in their own classrooms.

And now, tonight, I’ve been working on a proposal for funding with Ted Burke and Damon Berry.  It’s an opportunity that the college’s head of research, Marek Rebow, told me about yesterday and it has to be completed immediately.

I rallied the troops. Ted drafted some text. Then Damon and I were adding our own contributions to it using Google Docs.  It was so strange… Damon and me editing the same document at the same time.  It turned into a bit of an academic chat session.  We tossed ideas back and forth, discussing budget, objectives, and ways to improve what we’ve already got in place.

We’ll do more of that tomorrow, when the three of us meet to hash this out… and have some fun learning in the process.

Why Winter is Comfy in Dublin

The red dots on this map show the locations of Portsmouth (left) and Dublin (right). (Base map was downloaded from a Regnum Christi blog post.)http://live.regnumchristi.org/2011/07/where-are-you-from/

The red dots on this map show the locations of Portsmouth (left) and Dublin (right). (Base map was downloaded from a Regnum Christi blog post.)

Winter weather in Dublin is often much like that in the costal region of Virginia where my house is.  The nearby water helps mitigate temperature extremes in each location.  (That’s partly because water heats up during the day and releases that energy slowly at night — keeping costal areas warmer than inland areas during winter.)

Like Portsmouth, Dublin rarely sees snow.  When a dusting comes, it quickly dissolves.

Both places near the brink of calamity with the slightest hint of ice or snow. The cities and drivers simply aren’t prepared to deal with it.

What’s interesting about all this is that Dublin is so very far north. It’s much farther north than, say, Fargo, North Dakota, where my friends have reported recent wind chills of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit!?!! Yet it never gets that cold here!

In summer, however, Dublin doesn’t get nearly as warm as Portsmouth.

In 2003 Dave and I were in Ireland for the extended “heat wave” where temperatures reached 75 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two weeks.

This chart shows the blend of temperature and humidity that most people in the States find comfortable. (Image from Shiller, M. (2004). Mechanical and electrical systems. Chicago: Dearborn Financial Publishing.)

This chart shows the blend of temperature and humidity that most people in the States find comfortable. (Image from Shiller, M. (2004). Mechanical and electrical systems. Chicago: Dearborn Financial Publishing.)

These factors affect human thermal comfort. (Image from the book Shiller, M. (2004). Mechanical and electrical systems. Chicago: Dearborn Financial Publishing.)

These factors affect human thermal comfort. (Image from the book Shiller, M. (2004). Mechanical and electrical systems. Chicago: Dearborn Financial Publishing.)

The humidity is terrible at home in the summer.  But here, the level of humidity is always quite comfortable.  The air doesn’t tend to hold a lot of water.  When it reaches the point of saturation that would be uncomfortable to most people, it drops the water in the form of rain.  So, Dublin gets some rain most days, but the shower doesn’t usually last long.  I don’t carry an umbrella because a lightweight coat and hat do a fine job keeping me dry.

Based on the chart above (that I use in the Architectural Ecology classes I teach at Hampton University), the humidity level in Dublin must stay between 20-75%.  Mother Nature must naturally remove the water as rain when humidity reaches a point over 75% here.  How generous of her!

Overall, Dublin enjoys a pretty good balance of the factors show in the drawing to the right (humidity, temperature, sun, and wind).

The weather was chilly this morning as I boarded the bus at O'Connell Street to go interview potential Fulbrighters -- but it was much warmer than in much of the USA!

Incidentally, the humidity in this picture is from the warm, wet breath of people riding the bus this chilly morning. The wet air tends to get trapped inside the bus.  And, it seems to be a bit more humid up top on the double deckers, perhaps because heat rises.

A great benefit of all this is that my laundry almost always dries within the day when I hang it inside the apartment — I have a clothes dryer here, but thankfully no need for it!  The air is dry enough here to absorb the water in the clothes as soon as I hang them.  It takes much longer for laundry to dry in my house in Portsmouth, even when the air conditioner is running overtime to such the water form the air.

Here, there’s no need for AC (except, of course, in buildings that were designed without regard for climate… who would overlook that!?!).