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By Professor Peter Goodhew, Director of the UK Centre for Materials Education

"Scientists and engineers are, by and large, a rather earnest mob. Most of us (and I admit to being in the club myself) believe that our chosen profession is intrinsically interesting and of huge importance to society. Small wonder that we think that others should take it seriously too. Oscar Wilde had a few words to say about the importance of being earnest, and among them are a couple of my favourite aphorisms. "Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow" and "Dullness is the coming of age of seriousness" i .

Science and engineering are important - far too important to take seriously, so what is the alternative? Obviously they should be fun. Why, after all, do many academics enjoy practising their profession? Surely not because it makes them rich - it must just be fun. However our idea of fun is seen by the outside world to be limited to a separate category of activity, sometimes called, rather pompously, "The Public Understanding of Science" or "Science for Schools" as if the fun is reserved for external public consumption to counter the fact that the real thing is dry as dust. On the contrary - surely the fun should permeate every scientific or engineering activity, including education.

If we were, radically, to map this attitude onto current University teaching and learning, how might things be different? For a start we know (don't we?) that the effective attention span of a student in a lecture is about 15 minutes. The even more radical solution to this (don't have lectures) is rarely countenanced, but the cheap, feasible alternative is to break the lecture up into quarter-hour chunks. What better way to signal the end of each period of concentration than with a laugh (preferably with the lecturer not at him or her). I try to do this at every level from international conference presentation, through undergraduate lecture to schools demonstration. Indeed, as my wife will tell you, my mood after a lecture is largely defined by the number of laughs I have managed to elicit. Am I shallow? I don't think so (or at least no shallower than the next academic).

Then there is the problem of titles. Not the problem that my knighthood seems to have got lost in the post but the brief titles we give our modules in materials science. If you had to find the antithesis of fun you could scarcely do better than "Metallurgical thermodynamics" or "Strength of solids" or "Microstructure 1" or "Electromechanics of drives and actuators" or "Introduction to the finite element method" - I quote from a programme handbook lying on my desk. Why not "Why reactions work" or "How far can we bend a beam?" or "The microscopic world" or "Zipping and zapping" or "How to model a successful design". In choosing the dull titles, we betray our essentially shallow nerdishness and deny the serious fun we and our students could, and should, be having.

So what can we do about this sad state of affairs? First - lighten up. Accept that science and engineering have to be fun, or in twenty years time they will have no practitioners. Here is a suggestion list for you to enact. If your colleagues defy you to make these changes over their dead bodies, just do it anyway.

  • change the title of every module you teach. I'm offering one next year called "What's it made of?"

  • resolve never to go more than 15 minutes in any teaching situation without raising a laugh. If you have no sense of humour, get out of academic life - or at least out of teaching.

  • use familiar examples to illustrate the (important) principles you are teaching. There is just as much engineering in a mini-scooter or an in-line skate or an MP3 player or a condom as in a turbo-fan jet engine or a lift motor or a return valve seal.

  • poke fun at pompous statements in the text books you recommend to your students. I have a lovely example of a diagram from a common text book which conveys absolutely no information - so I show it to the students and say so. (Then I call this "developing critical thinking skills").

  • don't feel that, because your module is listed as "24 lectures" you have to give 24 lectures. You don't! You need to convey enough enthusiasm to encourage and enable your students to understand the key concepts associated with your topic. If you are good at it, and succeed in motivating the students well and defining clear goals, this might take 4 or 5 sessions followed by a lot of motivated work by them, supported by a couple of drop-in sessions and a good assessment scheme.

  • experiment.

  • laugh a lot with your colleagues - it's infectious.

OK, you are doing all these things already. Tremendous. Materials education is in excellent hands and recruitment will begin to rise next intake."

Peter Goodhew, January 2001

  

i Academic footnote: Both of these aphorisms are widely quoted. However, detailed research in my "Penguin Plays" edition of five Wilde plays actually reveals only ".. but you must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about their meals. It is so shallow of them." (Algernon in the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest) and "…I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it" (Lord Darlington in the first act of Lady Windermere's Fan).

  

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This area of the website contains articles intended to stimulate debate amongst the Materials community. Some of the articles are deliberately provocative. Please feel free to express your own opinion, or suggest other topics for discussion, by contacting the UK Centre for Materials Education.

 

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