Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bailing out

I'm moving to wordpress with immediate effect. I don't like the new blogger, or the unreliability of the new server.

Find me at:


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Week 1: The Lifeline

As part of this focus on reflective learning, I'm apparently supposed to be learning more about myself. Fair enough.

The tool offered is the 'lifeline' (find an example here) where you plot major events in your life against your view of how positive or negative an experience they were.

Mine looks a bit like a seismograph! The past ten years have been a bit of roller coaster ride.

Looking at the pattern of events, I'm reminded of the following:
  1. I'm a social animal: I can work well on my own, but I need human interaction to be happy/fulfilled. That doesn't need to be in a work context, but I need to have that balance in my life.
  2. Even if I'm doing a job well, if I don't feel that my strengths are being used I'm not going to be satisfied. That said, I don't seem able to give less than 100%, even when (as now) I truly hate what I'm doing.
  3. I don't cope at all well with insecurity

Funnily enough, my current role is hitting all three of these bad points.

Something that didn't come up in the lifeline exercise, but which I'm sure is relevant, is my tendency to over-analyse and over-research before making any decision. I hate being wrong.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Week 1: Reflective Learning and me

Having worked out, at least in part, what reflective learning is supposed to be, we start our learning process....

Stop and think about the ways in which you have approached your learning in the past.
Were you very reflective?
Can you think of any incidents when you used reflection well?

Well. Even as a chemistry student during my first degree we were sent out with a problem and expected to come back with a solution. Not necessarily a perfect solution, but one which had a chance of working.

A typical scenario would be an exercise in what was grandly termed 'retrosynthetic analysis'. You were given a fairly complicated organic (carbon-based) molecule, usually one isolated from nature, and asked how you would go about making it. Never mind that entire PhDs had been spent trying to do that! You were expected to deconstruct the molecule mentally, using bonds that you had learned how to form, and making suggestions on the order in which it would be best to do the reactions. All of this was discussed in a tutorial situation, and every-so-often someone would come up with a truly brilliant solution.

Not me, I hasten to add. I did well enough, but I didn't have the driving need for knowledge that characterised those who were excellent.

Outside of the formal learning environment, the internet has provided a wonderful learning opportunity for me over the past decade or so. My hobbies include edible gardening, knitting and sewing. All of these areas have thriving online communities where problems can be discussed, discoveries shared, and friendships made.

Most recently, I have learned an enormous amount about fitting a pattern to a particular body (mine!) using techniques I otherwise could only have picked up in a face-to-face classroom situation. The site I am on is Pattern Review and it has both free and paid-for options.

My learning here definitely seems to follow the reflective model.

I will try something new, come up against a problem, stop and think, try again, stop and ask for help, and try yet again. Each time, I move closer to the 'correct' solution, and never mind whether my approach is a traditionally accepted one or not.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Week 1: Reflective Learning

Educational theory often leaves me with the feeling that if you try to summarise it, the whole concept will implode. However, as part of this course we, the students, are expected to become 'Reflective Learners'.

Our first task is to work out what this is, and to that end, a number of papers have been provided for us to read and consider.

If you can't face wading through the reams of text below (and that's a summary!) I think the basic idea is that you have two options when you are learning: you learn by being taught, or you learn by going out and finding out for yourself.

Reflective Learning in Science Education

As a research scientist by training, I started with the paper on Science Education, hence my opening statement. I very much doubt I can link to the paper here, but I will try and summarise my understanding of the concept.

At its simplest, there are two contrasting methods of educating scientists: one where the focus is on gaining knowledge by teaching, and one where the focus is on gaining knowledge by experience.

The first is seen most commonly in science courses: lots of information is provided during lectures, students study the information, and are able to answer questions based on the information provided during exams. The student ends the course with a large body of knowledge, but little or no experience of how to continue learning outwith the structured environment of the course.

The second has been gaining ground, particularly in the training of doctors, in Scotland (in my experience). It appears to focus on teaching a student how to learn, rather than on how to be taught. There is more discussion, and less lecturing. Students are given a scenario, access to reference material (both formal and informal) and the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other and more experienced individuals. Each stage of the learning process involves both information gathering and decision making, and absolutely requires the student to reflect on both the question being asked and their knowledge of the field.

The difficulty with this approach seems to be that it can be very difficult to assess the technical competence of a student. It is more suitable for self- or small group-study than for the traditional lecture-style course, and in purely practical terms requires an entirely new building design aimed at fostering interaction between students.

For an example of this, see the new Medical School at the University of Glasgow.

This kind of learning appears to be more easily continued outwith the formal study environment.

Decision making and design

The second paper we are asked to read linked here is in the field of mechanical engineering design, and focuses on the decision making process.

According to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, design is
"a decision-making process (often iterative), in which basic sciences, mathematics, and the engineering sciences are applied to convert resources optimally to meet stated needs." The natural conclusion is that to be good designers, engineers should be skilled decision-makers.

The article goes on to describe various ways of decision-making: some very technical and structured.

Pugh Concept Selection seems to be a more structured version of the old PMI decision-making tool (plus, minus, interesting) where each feature of a proposed design is rated against set criteria, and the results used to choose the best of a number of competing designs.

Interestingly, the authors note that this method does not allow for interaction between different features: where two good features may result in an undesirable product (how about a people-carrier with sport-style seats and steering and alloy wheels...?)

Good decision-making, according to the paper, will acknowlege both uncertainty and risk as well as eproduct characteristics and profitability. The final decision will depend both on the intrinsic value of a product and on the manager's attitude to risk.

Another interesting point, and one that has been made before, is how well our instinctive decision-making process works.

People use simple heuristics—the experience of trial and error—to make decisions under uncertainty. What is surprising is how well these simple heuristics work.

Too many choices, as anyone in a wallpaper shop will be able to tell you, can make a decision impossible to reach!

The final point in the article is that experienced decision makers use a "recognition-primed" method: put simply, this is using prior experience and knowledge to make a rapid decision which can appear instinctive. Their level of experience is such that they do not need to consciously think about a situation in order to make the correct decision, or carry out the appropriate action.

Gut reaction is not infallable: merely one tool for an experienced professional.

My understanding of this article is that you should trust your gut reaction in areas where you are experienced, and develop your knowlege and experience in other areas in order to make good decisions.
When I search online for T160, the Open University course identifier, what I actually find is a motorbike!

The 1975 Triumph Trident T160.

What I was hoping to find, was the Open University prospectus description.

Just thought you'd be interested.

Note keeping

From Chaminade, a school in St Louis I have taken the simplest explanation I could find of a good lab write-up.

I've cut out a few paragraphs where they are clearly practical-specific, but will leave the rest as a reminder of how I plan to structure my thoughts.

1. Title:
The Title of the experiment should describe the experiment in 5 to 7 words so someone searching on the web or looking in a file could know what your lab is about quickly.

2. Purpose:
What is the reason for doing the experiment or what is there to be learned from doing the experiment?

3. Hypothesis:
What "you think" will be the final outcome of the experiment. This is generally based on prior knowledge or observations. In other words, you are not just pulling this "out of thin air"; you have some logical reason for thinking this. If you have no prior knowledge of the concept, you will need to do research before making a hypothesis. Also, explain exactly "why you think this". There is no right or wrong answer. It's strictly what "you think" and "why you think this".

4. Materials:
A list of equipment and supplies that will be needed to complete the lab procedure.

5. Procedure:
The step-by-step process that is followed in carrying out the experiment.

6. Observations:
Scientists record observations in journals or logs. Observations are never destroyed once recorded.
Observations are of two categories:
  • Qualitative: information gathered through the senses such as smell, taste, touch, hear, shape, etc.
  • Quantitative: information gathered due to precise measurements, such as height in cm, width in cm, mass in g, volume in cm3, density in g/cm3, time in seconds, speed in kph, etc.

7. Conclusion:
The conclusion is a written summary of what was actually learned from doing the experiment. The conclusion will either support or reject the proposed hypothesis. The conclusion should consist of at least three paragraphs and be a synopsis of what occurred in the experiment ultimately describing what happened and what you learned. If the conclusion is weak pointless and without understanding, I will assume your lab experience was weak, pointless, and without understanding.

  • Paragraph one of the conclusion:
    In your own words describe the purpose of the experiment. Discuss any new terms that were relevant to understanding and conducting the investigation.
  • Paragraph two of the conclusion:
    Restate your hypothesis and your reasoning for this prediction. Summarize the lab procedure. Explain the setup of the lab, control/variable, etc. Describe safety precautions.
  • Paragraph three of the conclusion
    Describe the outcome of the experiment and how it relates to your hypothesis (supports or rejects).
    Refer to your data tables, graphs, etc. in assessing the data because actual data from your observations is a "must" in forming a conclusion.
    From your analysis, point out certain trends or patterns that support your conclusion.
    In conclusion, explain exactly what was/was not accomplished or learned from doing the lab.
    Give a detailed description of how you were able to determine the above.
    Were there any hidden variables that may have affected the reliability of the data ... explain?

To begin....

I'm going to treat this course in the same way I would have treated a risky experimental approach in the lab.

Take Notes!
Lots of them. I have found that I'm far more likely to spot patterns and make use of them if I write everything down:
  • What am I doing?
  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • Why did I decide on this approach?
  • What were the results?
  • What might work better?
  • When do you decide that the approach you're trying on hasn't a hope of working and you need to try something completely different?

You get the picture, I hope.

My lab books weren't always perfect, but the information was there when I needed it: everything to repeat the experiment without recourse to memory.

So for this course, the standard lab book layout will do as a start.

What the...?

I have registered for the T160 course at the Open University. This is a course aimed at women who wish to return to work in the field of SET (Science, Engineering, Technology).

I'm still not sure that this course is for me. I'm not a typical 'returner': I am currently self-employed and working harder and longer hours than ever. The course documentation does seem to focus, at least initially, on the whole 'returning to work' idea - things like time management, study methods, and developing a CV have come up in my initial reading.

This course is for women who want to return to Science, Engineering or Technology (SET) careers after a break. The primary aim is to help you build your skills and confidence so that you can successfully achieve your ambitions. During the course you will develop a set of tools that you'll be able to use when you start the next phase of your journey in your SET career. These include a CV and a personal development plan. The focus of the course is on Personal Development Planning as a tool to enable you to take control of your career. The activities that you will be asked to do during the course will help you decide and plan your next step as well as clarify your long term goals.

I've written to my tutor to check that I'm not wasting either my time or hers. I can't attend tutorials as they are at weekends (our busiest time). The course has funding to provide for travel, accommodation, and childcare or eldercare costs. What it can't do, and what I need, is to provide me with some way of paying another person to do my job while I'm away studying.

It does seem to be a common misconception: the idea that if you are self-employed your time is your own. I suspect that most, if not all, self-employed people would liken their job to having an infant - you never know when you will be needed, and cannot be away without leaving someone you trust absolutely in charge!

I will be using this blog to chart my progress through the course.