On the front line

February 7, 2003

What is your experience of teaching? Pat Leon asks teachers how they manage

Name: Caroline Baillie

Age: Definitely five, sometimes 100.

Job: Deputy director of the UK Centre for Materials Education and senior lecturer in engineering, Liverpool University. I am on secondment from Imperial College London.

Salary: Senior lecturer scale.

Qualifications: BSc, PhD materials (Surrey University); Master of higher education (University of New South Wales); diplomas in Gestalt therapy and pyschodrama.

Experience: I was inspired in my teens by The New Science of Strong Materials: Why Don't You Fall Through the Floor by J. E. Gordon. He talks about the links between science, art and nature. Science and technology have huge potential but are taught in a way that tells you how the world is, not how to change it.

As part of my PhD I did a placement in Sydney, Australia. In 1992, I was invited back to lecture in the mechanical and mechatronic engineering department. Soon after I decided I did not know that much about teaching. When you have about 180 students, mainly men, staring down from tiered seats, it's pretty daunting. I took a part-time masters in higher education and returned to the UK in 1996 to lecture at Imperial. While there I ran the education development programme for staff.

Hours spent teaching: My teaching now is linked to subject-centre activities. For example, I train student representatives from university materials departments. We take them to a youth hostel and immerse them in challenges designed to make them think about first-years, course design, assessment and the role of staff-student liaison committees.

These students will sit on university committees, where their power to influence teaching is stronger than they realise. If they can back their views about why a laboratory class isn't useful with barcharts, data and PowerPoint presentations, then perhaps it will be scrapped. The weekend has helped develop a national network of students. Students love it and often go on to peer tutoring.

Hours on research: I'm doing a small amount with PhD students on natural-fibre composites and biomimicry. I'm also working with six postdocs on engineering education, which could be called research and development.

Teaching bugbear: Stereotyping of science and engineering. If you tell people at a party you're an engineer, it puts them off. How can we attract more students, particularly women?

How would you solve it: Get the message across to students that they can contribute to science and engineering knowledge and still be themselves.

Education can turn people into "things".

Career highpoints: I was invited with Chris Wise, a civil engineer, to front four BBC programmes late last year on reconstructing the first submarine and airship, a Roman catapult and the closing of an ancient Egyptian tomb. We problem-solved in front of camera. We had to ask: how did they do it? What would they have known? It gave a huge insight into history.

I have just published a book, Navigating the Materials World, with Linda Vansupa. It's like a Lonely Planet guide to materials for students.

Outside interests: I run a theatre company in London ( www.criticalstage.co.uk ). I fly planes. Oh, and I ride motorbikes.

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