Dr Gary C Wood is an experienced educator, recognised for developing and delivering innovative, enterprising learning experiences that challenge students intellectually while preparing them for the workplace. During his time at University of Sheffield he has built inclusive communities for learning through technology and supported student transition into and out of higher education. We caught up with Gary recently to find out more about Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy, how we can use social media to encourage students to contribute in class and what the disruptive forces in education are likely to be over the next few years.
Hi Gary! Firstly, what is Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy?
Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy is a programme we run within the University of Sheffield for high potential undergraduate engineers. It’s a selective programme and about 1,200 students are eligible to apply, so each year we open applications and select up to 40 students to join us. Once accepted, they work with us over a period of two years alongside their normal degree studies to develop their leadership potential.
Activities include working on group projects, taking part in workshop sessions that focus on leadership skills and working with industry partners. Our partners come in and help to run workshops, deliver guest speaker sessions and support and mentor the students throughout the process. The programme is relatively new; we launched it in 2014 and I was involved in establishing it before taking on the role of Head in 2016.
Tell us about a bit more about how you became involved in engineering education.
I actually have a PhD in Linguistics – that’s where I started out. I had a full-time lectureship alongside the PhD and through that experience I became increasingly interested in learning and teaching; in particular how people learn and how we can best facilitate learning.
By the time I got to the end of the PhD, I wanted a role that focused more on learning and teaching than on academic research. I made the decision at that point to move into an education and academic development role as an enterprise educator.
That role really focused on working with academic staff, particularly in engineering, to help them think about how they could make their learning and teaching more contextualised and related to the world outside academia, to get students ‘doing’ engineering rather than learning about it in a very theoretical way. This involved partnering with industry to make it happen and helping academic staff to design courses and modules that involved real engagement and authentic learning, often using technology to facilitate it.
There was an academic development aspect as well: we would ask staff to use different styles of learning and teaching than they had before and I mentored and supported academic staff to develop their practice so that they were able to use these approaches.
"The expertise that I bring is not in engineering, but in pedagogy – helping people understand what it means to design an effective course in 2019."
Since June 2017, I’ve been working really closely with our Faculty of Engineering and Mechanical Engineering specifically as they’ve been going through a curriculum review. This is a process we go through periodically to check that the programmes we’re offering are still the best they can be. I was concentrating in particular on developing professional skills for engineers.
As my background isn’t in engineering I’m not teaching the technical aspects of engineering, but honing in on how we can teach skills like understanding team dynamics, communication, project management – those broader capabilities an engineer is going to need to be successful.
My work at the moment is about designing and integrating a spine of professional skills training into the new degree programme, that students will participate in throughout. The expertise that I bring is not in engineering, but in pedagogy – helping people understand what it means to design an effective course in 2019.
How do you think your role would differ if engineering was your background?
In a lot of ways it’s helpful not being a subject specialist because it means that I have to ask lots of questions about engineering when I’m working with colleagues to really understand what it is they’re trying to teach. The fact that I ask naive questions really prompts both of us to think about what it’s like to be a student in an environment where you might not know the answer, and think about how we can teach effectively.
So as someone coming in as an educational specialist, I find it really helpful not to have that in-depth knowledge; it means I don’t make assumptions and think about how we might need to break information down so that everyone can access it.
Do you think universities are doing enough to prepare people for the workplace, especially compared with, say, five to ten years ago?
I think there have always been pockets of it. One of the reasons I’ve ended up where I am is that I always had an eye on this in the teaching that I was doing. When I was teaching linguistics I was aware that the subject wasn’t vocational in the way that engineering is and people go in lots of different directions after graduation.
So whilst we couldn’t prepare people for a specific career, what we could do was give them the skills that would make them really effective as they transitioned out of their degree and started to seek work. The way that I was teaching was designed to help students not only learn in depth about linguistics but be able to develop those broader skills that would make them more employable.
"We have to be mindful that students are using their degree as preparation for their working life, without watering down the academic side."
I think focus on employability became more of an interest in recent years and that’s been prompted to some extent by changes in fees – people have different expectations. The student body has also changed. If you look back 20 years or even less, there were more options available for students post A-Levels and even instead of A-Levels. There was a drive in the 90s to get more students going to universities and that’s given us a more diverse student body. University nowadays isn’t just about inspiring a love of a particular discipline – it’s very much become a stepping stone for where you’re going to go to next in your career.
We have to be mindful that students are using their degree as preparation for their working life, without watering down the academic side. In my role, I’m thinking about how we can keep students focused on their discipline, but infuse the development of broader skills within it.
You’re championed on Jisc for using Twitter to make learning more inclusive by encouraging students to contribute to discussion and debate. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
Twitter had been around for a while when I started doing this, but I’d never really engaged with it. I sort of looked at it and thought, ‘well I don’t really care what people are having for breakfast, so why would I want to use it?’. Then I went to a conference that was focused on student engagement and how we can support it. There was a lot of talk about how people had tried to use discussion boards in Virtual Learning Environments. Everyone agreed that they had potential but they just couldn’t get the students to engage with on that platform.
When I was going to these conferences, people were using hashtags to communicate with each other and and that’s when I started to see the value of it. It wasn’t people talking about what they had for breakfast, I was actually seeing what people were saying about the conference and was able to engage in a broader discussion than I could by talking face-to-face with people at the conference.
I did a poll with my students – to see whether any of them were using Twitter. Almost all of them were. On reflection I realised that when people were trying to use discussion boards, they were trying to build the sort of community that I was seeing on Twitter and at the conferences. But the problem was that students weren’t going to those boards for any reason other than as part of their studies.
To experiment, I used a hashtag for a couple of my modules and started by using it in the classroom. I did a short ten minute introduction for students who didn’t have an account and reassured the dubious among them that they didn’t have to use it for any other reason or put any personal details on it.
At that time I was teaching Linguistics classes with upwards of 100 students. Very few students have the confidence to put their hand up in that kind of environment and ask questions. My style of lecturing isn’t to stand at the front and talk to students for an hour; I like to infuse activities along the way and get them talking to each other. The downside is you can’t get every small group to feed back because you’d spend the whole lecture hearing feedback. Also, when you’re circulating around the room you don’t have the opportunity to help everybody.
So as they were working in their teams, I encouraged them to Tweet questions using the hashtag and to feed back by sharing two or three points. I projected the Twitter thread on the screen at the front of the lecture theatre. Instead of having to go around the room to gauge what the common questions, themes or misconceptions were, I could see them and everybody else could too. This allowed us to do quick summaries at the end of group activities based on what people were Tweeting. It also meant that students could go back to it after the lecture and see what the discussion was – it was all documented there.
I also asked students to use the hashtag to ask me questions instead of emailing me. You’ll often get lots of questions from students by email before a seminar class and they’re often quite similar. I was spending time answering the same questions multiple times, whereas with the hashtag, someone would ask a question, I’d answer it and then other students could see it. In that way, I was helping to build the community that other people had been grappling to establish in a VLE.
Students would also start to answer questions which started to build a community among peers. It also meant that I no longer received long emails where students had saved up questions that might take me 20 minutes to reply to! Instead, we’d end up with a bit more of a dialogue, which had value in allowing me to check and build their understanding.
Did Twitter have an impact on the way students interacted in the classroom?
Yes. I found that students who might have been a little quiet in class and wouldn’t have been very vocal unless I prompted them became more confident. To build confidence, we enable students to check their idea on a small scale first. Once they've had some positive feedback, for instance when I’m circulating to support, they’re more likely to share it with the rest of the group. As a facilitator in that environment I can invite them at appropriate points in the conversation to share what they’ve been thinking with everyone else.
"Having the chance to ask questions before they come to class really facilitates better conversations when [students are] in the class."
Twitter enables me to short circuit that process; students describe it as being less threatening because they’re not having the ‘spotlight’ on them. I found this really interesting actually because when you think about it, they’re actually saying it front of the world! Anyone can see what they’re saying, but they feel more comfortable with that because it's not like all eyes are on them while they’re saying it. They’d then be more willing to share what they were thinking in a classroom context. Having the chance to ask questions before they come to class really facilitates better conversations when they’re in the class.
What does a typical work day look like for you, if there is such a thing that is!
It’s quite varied and will typically involve meetings with colleagues and academic staff to plan and prepare teaching and delivering teaching to groups of different sizes. Sometimes I’ll lecture in engineering to up to 300 students or a smaller group tutorial with anything between five and 20 students.
In the context of Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy, a typical day involves conversations with people in industry to set up workshops, arranging guest speakers and liaising with partners who are hosting our students on industry placements, particularly at this time of year when students are working towards their placements in summer.
I also attend meetings and support students in tutorial groups or on a one-to-one basis. With my leadership academy students, that might involve mentoring them, securing their placements for the summer, checking their CV, giving them feedback on covering letters, and helping them more generally with the projects they’re working on.
What do you believe will be the disruptive forces that will transform higher education over the next five to ten years?
I think technology will continue to be disruptive in the sense that, as I’ve done with Twitter, we’ll come up with new ways of using technology that already exists – and obviously there will be new technologies along the way. I think there will be an increasing focus on supporting students to move out into a professional environment and thinking about different models of doing that. In engineering, we’ve already started to see degree apprenticeships and there are different approaches to higher education being explored across the UK.
I think there will be disruption in the way that we’re teaching if we continue to ask ourselves questions like: What does it mean to be an engineer and graduate? And to some extent, although I say this cautiously, a shift away from teaching engineering in a purely academic sense to equipping students with the skills to apply that knowledge: to be engineers, not just know engineering.
Having said that, we’re really keen as a research-intensive institution not to give up completely on the academic aspect. We hear from our industry partners that our students come out of our degree programmes technically well prepared to face challenges. At the moment, industry is asking Russell Group and research intensive universities to help students that bit more to transition their strong technical knowledge into practical applications in the workplace.
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