Taking inspiration from the Transcontinental Railroad

Image, Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, Arizona, Sante Fe railway

A train pulls of the Santa Fe railway at Williams Arizona to join the Grand Canyon Railroad

As I tweeted earlier this morning, today at Think Up I have been working on Build Camp, a concept for a week-long hands-on learning event designed to encourage young people to take on a career in civil engineering. For some time now we have been proposing an event based around the idea of students designing and building their own railway in a week. Today we were looking at how to create a context for the event around which on-site role play activities can be built. Today’s idea was to use the construction of the first american transcontinental railroad as the context, for reasons explained in the following text, extracted from some my draft web copy for the soon-to-be-online Build Camp website.

Why the Pacific Railroad?
Learning about the construction of a railway line is an excellent introduction to the world of civil engineering because it embraces so many aspects of the discipline, including: planning and surveying: structural, geotechnical and fluid mechanics; construction management. This event is set in the context of the construction of the Pacific Railroad, the first railway to cross the United States. The construction of this pioneering railway line was led by a team of engineers operating at the railhead. Engineers were responsible for:

* Surveying and choose a route through the unknown territory ahead.
* Designing cuttings, embankments, bridges, dams, causeways and tunnels as needed;

* Sourcing local construction materials: fill for embankments; timber for sleepers; fuel for machinery;
* Overseeing construction works
* Organising the logistics of moving labour, materials and plant along the single-track line
* Establishing camps for workers, sourcing food, and paying wages.

These engineers were working in the unknown; it was 2000 miles back to headquarters, and so they had to rely on their own ingenuity and engineering judgement to solve the problems they encountered. By setting the role play for this event in the context of the Pacific Railroad we aim to harness that visionary and pioneering spirit, and demonstrates the potential engineers have to shape the world for the better. We are also providing a baseline against which the advances of modern railway construction can be illustrated.

At present we are hoping to run a pilot of Build Camp in October. Keep an eye out for updates on the Think Up website for more information.

Diary of a contact day

During my parental leave I am doing one ‘keeping in touch’ day a week. On that day, I deal with important queries on Think Up projects. Since my time in the office is very short, these keeping in touch days are an intense snap shot of lots of the stuff we are working on at the moment. Here are some highlights:

  • I was asked to put together a proposal for using web technology to help engineering students raise their levels of background engineering knowledge. Think Codeacademy meets Top Trumps, available through Workshed. I am particularly excited about this project because it will complement the work I will be doing at UCL as part of their teaching innovation scheme.
  • Today we finalised the detailed content of the Nuclear Island Big Rig. All the places on the event have now been allocated. We have been working on this project for over a year – it is fantastic to think that it kicks off on 1st July.
  • Following on from the sustainability teaching seminars that Think Up has been facilitating this year, I have been invited to speak at the Engineering Education for Sustainable Development conference in September.
  • We are gearing up to facilitate the next Imperial/Expedition Constructionarium week.
  • The lovely-sounding people at the Litmus Test got in touch to see if I would be the first engineer to perform at their show – I’d be happy to.

I’ve heard that becoming a parent makes you more productive in the office. So far, keeping in touch days prove this to be true.


Archive photos/early attempts at developing/les arcs

Ski lift, high contrast, les arcs

Probably the best module I studied during my year at ENPC was not engineering-themed – but photography. The module was run as an English language course: the subject of the lessons was photography, and the lessons were in English. Being a native English speaker I was not able to get any credits for the module, but I gained much more. I still vividly remember the magic of seeing images emerge on pieces of paper submerged in solution. In just a few short hours of teaching I learned somethings that have been much more valuable to me than the hours of lectures I sat through on other subjects.

These photos were taken on a weekend trip skiing at Les Arcs. Getting from Paris to the Alps by overnight train is easy by the way. The night train leaves from Gare d’Austerlitz, and arrives Bourg St Maurice, where there is a lift straight up to Les Arcs.

Using construction site notebooks as a teaching tool

Today the Expedition-Imperial team met to plan their week at this year’s Constructionarium.

The learning experience is intense on site at the Constructionarium, with students on their feet all day for five days building their projects. Along the way there is lots of background knowledge they can pick up about construction techniques, but it is easy for these nuggets to get lost in the blur of the overall experience.

My suggestion was that this year we give all students a site notebook in which they can plan their activities, note useful info along the way and write up their daily activities. Of course, giving students a notebook doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll use it, so perhaps we can guide them by showing extracts from real site engineers’ notebooks. These could be shared as a teaching resource on Workshed.

Earlier this year we bid for some innovation grant funding to develop methods for students to develop their general engineering knowledge. One of the ideas I was interested in exploring was the use of a site diary to develop this knowledge. This year’s Constructionarium looks like a good opportunity to test this approach.

The Return of Low Carb

Installation of solar-thermal water heaters on the Big Rig

Installation of solar-thermal water heaters on the Big Rig

Yesterday I was at the Big Rig facilitating the annual low-carbon skills challenge at the Big Rig. This is the fourth year in a row that Think Up has run the ‘Low Carb‘ event. I am very proud that since we came up with the Big Rig concept, 100s of students have taken part in Low Carb. Continue reading

Facilitating the Global Grand Challenges Student Day

Today Think Up facilitated the Global Grand Challenges Student Day at the Royal Academy of Engineering. The student day is a prelude to the main Global Grand Challenges Summit which starts tomorrow. Our brief for designing the event was to choreograph a day of activities in which students from engineering universities around the world would come together and collaborate to develop a solution to six of the Global Grand Challenges. Our response was a programme that sought to unpick the creative process, and to enable students to examine what skills they need to develop to be better designers, all in the context of solving a major societal challenge. Continue reading