Learning London: University College London

During a recent workshop for development of research skills, the facilitator warned that people from other universities might approach us to work as a collaborator simply because they want to associate with UCL and they might not have genuine interest in actually working with us as individuals.

Funny enough, I was too naïve to have joined UCL just for its reputation. I’m only now beginning to understand the prominence of this institution and understand its very long, egalitarian history. As noted on the university’s website, “UCL was founded in 1826 as a secular alternative to Oxford and Cambridge by prominent intellectuals such as James Mill and Henry Brougham. UCL was the first university to be established in London, and the first entirely secular university to admit students regardless of religion. It was also the first university to admit women on equal terms with men.”

UCL’s surrounding neighborhood, Bloomsbury, hasn’t been portrayed as a center of equality and social reform in the various books, webpages, and exhibits I’ve consulted, but I see roots here. Near UCL’s main/Bloomsbury campus you’ll find the Quaker Meeting House, a symbol of religious tolerance (it has a lovely restaurant underground that offers discounts to UCL staff, and it has a cafe at street level) . You’ll find that huguenots and other religious minorities arrived in this neighborhood as immigrants seeking freedom from oppression in their homelands. You’ll find a former residence of Charles Dickens, whose tales show a deep concern for improving the lives of the oppressed.

IMG_7554As for breaking my naïve on the reputation and standing of UCL: QS’s most recent “world university rankings” ranked this institution seventh… in the world! Up there with MIT, Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge.

I’d applied to work here after meeting some folks from the  university’s Centre for Engineering Education (CEE) and traveling over from Dublin for the launch of the CEE. Back in the States, I had heard of the Bartlett, UCL’s world-famous school of architecture, but not of UCL itself.

I applied to work here because I wanted to learn from movers-and-shakers and highly-accomplished teacher/researchers like Nick Tyler, John Mitchell, and Emanuela Tilley.

As explained in a case study of Nick’s past work overhauling engineering education published by MIT, this institution encourages quick and decisive action. It behaves more like a business than a typical university, and implements changes swiftly. The results can be impressive, as demonstrated with the increase in grades and diversity of students at intake and at graduation among students in civil engineering at UCL following the implementation of major curricular changes. And, who wouldn’t want a chance to observe in action a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), Nick’s current title? An article in The Sun describes the British ranking system.

Today, I am enjoying learning my way around UCL. The photos in today’s gallery were taken on and near campus, in my adventures seeking out workshop, library, and lunch locations.

 

 

Learning London–one month in!

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Tower Bridge selfie in the mirror above to the bridge floor and Thames River, far below.

Learning the lay of the land in London—the best way to spend the cold, wet month of January. I’ve been in my new position as a Marie Curie Research Fellow at University College London’s Center for Engineering Education for one month.

In this time, I’ve also settled into a new apartment, where I’m flat-sitting for some friends. They travel quite a bit, so it all works fine.

I’ve been getting to know Shoreditch and its surrounding areas. Turns out, Shoreditch is one of London’s hippest addresses and my place is surrounded by local markets, many dozen vintage clothing stores, and Boundary Estate, the world’s first social housing community, which is architecturally stunning. I’ve joined Nuffield Gym and have been enjoying its pool and yoga classes. I got a wonderfully positive health screening when I joined and will soon meet with a personal trainer to get anti-aging tips!

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One of the many vintage shops off Brick Lane, buzzing on Sunday afternoon. Surprises at every turn–here a photo booth at the back of the shop and selling vintage clothes by the kilo downstairs.

Mostly, though, I’ve focused on making headway with my fellowship work. In the four weeks I have been working at UCL, I have:

Completed UCL induction/orientation

  • Got my employment contract, work visa, and bank account set up and obtained my British Residency Permit
  • Completed including face-to-face and on-line training and earned certificates in (1) Safety, (2) Green Awareness, and (3) Green Champion
  • Updated my research profiles, including UCL Engineering, IRIS, and LinkedIn

Contributed to peer reviewed conferences

Provided leadership in evaluation

Made two research trips to Dublin

  • Conducted four research interviews, and successfully scheduled five more for February
  • Was invited to collaborate on a policy project with 6 civil service professionals in Dublin
  • Met with several dozen DIT colleagues about current and future projects
  • Transcribed two interviews
  • Was invited to present at DIT research event on March 2nd
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UCL workshop on “Leading Collaborative Projects.”

Completed researcher development workshops at UCL

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A slide from architect Ken Yeang’s lecture on eco-architecture, delivered at the Bartlett.

Attended lectures at the Bartlett School of Architecture

Scoped research funding programs

  • Attended an information session on opportunities to collaborate with UK-based researchers, hosted in Dublin by the Irish Research Council
  • Identified promising funding program for gender studies and downloaded guidance materials

Reviewed literature pertinent to my research projects

  • Three PhD dissertations using phenomenology
  • Seminal texts in epistemological development
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Professor Nick Tyler (left) at PAMELA (Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory) aiming to improve transport and access to transport for people with barriers to mobility.

Studied art and design

  • Met twice with Kindall Brantley, NYU grad student in sustainable urbanism
  • Attended transportation design class at PAMELA, UCL’s transportation research hub
  • Joined the Tate and visited three times
  • Studied the special exhibition on Modigliani
  • Studied the special exhibition on “Impressionists in London” at Tate Britain
  • Studied bridge design topics at Tower Bridge Exhibition
  • Studied transportation and product design topics in two visits to London’s Science Museum
  • Even learned a bit of history by watching The Post at the RichMix cinema near my home, with a new membership to help support local culture and arts.
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Tower Bridge as see from below. The glass-floored walkway joins the two, tall middle tower (nearly visible to the left of this image).

Met with colleagues at UCL

I’ll say that of all this, the interviews I conducted in Dublin were probably the most fun. Two of the participants provided two-hour interviews that were chock full of insight. These are follow-up interviews with students I’ve previously interviewed. They are women studying engineering at DIT and hearing how their stories unfold from year to year is fascinating.

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A reflection from the Liffey River in downtown Dublin, taken during one of my two January overnights to the city.

I’m working hard to get participants in Dublin scheduled for follow up interviews in February — before the final-year students get too busy with final exams and graduation.

Stay tuned for more work photos from the places I visited this past month.

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UCL’s central library building.

Life as a Roving Academic

Shannon teaching at HU Point

Flashback: Teaching architecture students about sun angles at Hampton University, circa 2007.

I keep shifting roles in higher education so I can learn new skills. I spent 15 years teaching in the USA (advancing my way up to Professor of Architecture in 2014) before coming to Ireland as an education researcher and now Lecturer.

Transitioning from teaching to researching was more difficult than I had anticipated, partly because the work is more sedentary, but mostly because I missed interacting with students every day. And while I do enjoy engineering, I also miss discussing architecture and urban design on a daily basis. Fortunately though, I also enjoy interviewing engineering students.

As part of my Marie Curie Individual Fellowship to Dublin Institute of Technology (2014-2016), I conducted 60-90 minute interviews with 47 women in Poland, Portugal, and Ireland. The interviews I conducted as a researcher allow me to connect with students in new ways.

 

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Flashback to Portugal, where my colleagues and I have interviewed 11 women studying engineering.

Since the end of that initial Marie Curie fellowship, I’ve continued this research project alongside new responsibilities. I’ve recently conducted follow-up interviews with 11 of the 47 women in my study, for instance.

After that Marie Curie fellowship ended, I also found work as a Lecturer on the teaching staff in DIT’s School of Multidisciplinary Technologies and found my way back into the classroom. Today, I get to work with wonderful teaching colleagues, and to teach undergraduate as well as Masters-level students. I’ve included a photo gallery at the end of this blog, showing a typical week of teaching.

So these days, I divide my time between teaching in-class 16 hours per week, learning new content for the classes I teach, advising thesis students, serving as a year tutor in our MSc program in BIM technologies, and doing research. (I’ve taken a break from grant-writing this semester and have enjoyed the respite.)

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Planning for future studies in London.

I enjoy exciting new adventures, though, and so I’m preparing to transition back into full-time research for a while, so I can develop new skills by working for two years at University College of London. UCL’s website provides more details  via a press release about the fellowship).

I’ll look for opportunities to teach informally while I’m at UCL, as well, and I’ll look forward to my return to DIT’s classroom in two year’s time to apply what I’ve learned through observation and research.

DIT has granted me a Career Break so that at the end of the fellowship I’ll be able to come back to my current lecturing post. I’m excited about this because I feel I’ve found my feet and my voice teaching here. Aongus (my partner) says it’s clear I selected the right profession since my passion for teaching and for students comes through in the stories I tell at the end of the day.

Now, in the month before I leave for London, I’m trying my best to track down the 10 students from my DIT cohort who I haven’t yet met for follow-up interviews and move to this research project ahead.

 

 

Down the Rabbit Hole, from Bath to London

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Beautiful “ferry” trees at Avebury in the UK’s Wiltshire region.

Last week I crossed the threshold into a brave new world. I traveled over to the UK, my soon-to-be home, twice to learn more about the place.

First, to celebrate Ireland’s bank holiday weekend, my partner Aongus and I flew to Bath. We rented a car so we could visit Stonehenge, the flight of locks at Devizes (the Caen Hill flight of the Kennet and Avon canal), Avebury which is similar to Stonehenge but larger, and the picturesque village of Castle Combe. In the city of Bath, we toured the ruins of the old Roman baths, the bell tower of Bath Abbey, Royal Crescent and the townhouse museum at One Royal Crescent, and weir and the Putney Bridge, as well as getting Watsu treatments and a night time soak with spectacular views from the rooftop pool at the Thermal Spa.

Stonehenge was spectacular, but Avebury had an even more mystical feel. The majestic old fairy trees with their thick boughs and knotted roots make it feel as if you’re stepping foot into C.S. Lewis’ Narnia or the Wonderland Lewis Carroll created for Alice. (Both of these were English writers, who could well have stood beneath the same magical trees we found here.) Wikipedia provides a quick reference to the meaning of ferry trees: “Many types of trees found in the Celtic nations are considered to be sacred, whether as symbols, or due to medicinal properties, or because they are seen as the abode of particular nature spirits. Historically and in folklore, the respect given to trees varies in different parts of the Celtic world.”

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Meeting with UCL’s Professor Nick Tyler.

After flying home, I flew back to London on short notice for four meetings on Wednesday–because my new colleagues at University College London had time to meet me and it was “review week” at DIT.

These meetings were in preparation for the start of my new Marie Curie research fellowship in January. The EU is providing funding for me to work at UCL for two years, to further upgrade my skills in educational research. During my short visit, I met with my primary supervisor Professor Nick Tyler who has an amazing record of research in transportation engineering and educational innovation. I also met with my secondary supervisor, Professor John Mitchell, who directs UCL’s Centre for Engineering Education (CEE). I also got to meet with the newest member of CEE’s research team, Dr. Inês Direito, who I’ll get to collaborate with in projects. All this in addition to visiting UCL’s European Office and quick chats with two other colleagues, Emanuela Tilley and Dr. Arnie McKinley, both originally from my own side of the Atlantic.

Overall it was a very productive day, and I even got two grant proposals read in route.

Across the span of the week, I had great experiences at work and at play. I can’t wait to get back to London, Bath, and the Wiltshire region of England for more learning, and more novel adventures.