Having now completed my PGCAP, this blog is now defunct and will be parked with no further posts added from this point on.

If you’re interested in any of my research work or my ramblings about my experiences in teaching, please follow my work at 

If you’re reading this having just started the PGCAP, good luck!  I hope you don’t repeat any of my numerous mistakes, but instead learn from them.

Categories: ALT Module, PGCAP

Exclusively inclusive?..

Software has the potential to be custom tailored and can be designed to integrate any special requirements needed from the users, either from the design of the interface through to the overall functionality of the software.  This can include the specific customisation of the interface to overcome certain disabilities (Keates, John Clarkson, & Robinson, 2002) such as visual or aural difficulties that the students may have, through to specifically tailoring computers for users with motor control difficulties such as cerebral palsy.

111:365 - Clever Clogs...

However when adopting proprietary software, such as Physion, we don’t always have this luxury to tailor the interface.  There are a wide multitude of disabilities and learning difficulties that students face (Phipps, Sutherland, & Seale, 2002), some of which I believe the use of Physion helps to overcome.  As Physion is a highly graphical and interactive space it removes most of the barriers associated with language.  This could be beneficial for dyslexic and international students who may struggle with comprehension and reading.  “Dyslexia is not associated with general cognitive impairment…” (Langdon & Thimbleby, 2010) and so by eliminating the reading component and replacing it with graphic modelling and interactive physics this should facilitate learning for students.  Similarly through the use of highly contrasting colours against a white background, this can eliminate issues with colour blindness, something that both of my brothers suffer from.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA, 1995) was created to remove barriers and social exclusion of people with various disabilities, this legislation and the development of appropriate ICT strategies (Abascal & Nicolle, 2005) have helped create a more inclusive education system.  Inclusiveness isn’t just about including people with disabilities, some people are introverts (Waite, Wheeler, & Bromfield, 2007) and studies have shown that the inclusion of ICT strategies in the classroom can help with learning and focus by creating less distractions and increasing focus on controlled activities.

077:365 - Memory...

In my lectures there are several students that have a wide range of learning disabilities and their support plans all spell out specifically how we as lecturers and as a University can support them in their learning: this level of planning makes the class feel very inclusive.  I make every effort to support the students in the classroom through the design of my lectures (HEA,2011 – V1) and by offering additional 1 to 1 sessions where I can.

On the whole I think the Physion TEL intervention will create a more inclusive learning experience that will break down some of the barriers to learning that some students may face.  When I began creating the original intervention I hadn’t specifically designed the session to be more inclusive, but on reflection there are a lot of components in there that have been made more inclusive subconsciously.  Part of this will perhaps be because both of my brothers are colour blind, so I tend to think about differentiating between red and greens automatically.  Also, because of the teaching I do with the British Red Cross I tend to design sessions to be inclusive without consciously setting out do so.

Whilst I feel that the intervention itself is very inclusive, this is in part because it is targeted at a small group of students and I’m physically present to help fix things during the session if things go off the rails.

The software is run from a CDROM so it’s hard for students to mess with settings and kill the program, but what about if I use remote delivery?  For this I could use pre-recorded screencasts to take the students through each stage in a step-by-step basis, or perhaps employ a technology I widely used in industry for real time screen casting such as Webex or Adobe Connect.  What about students who don’t use PC’s and so who can’t perhaps use Physion?

I think short term the use of Physion will be perfect for the development of the programme, but perhaps long term a more inclusive environment such as a web based experience could be beneficial, this will allow the lecture to be platform independent and also allow it to be run on systems that have been tailored specifically for students needs (HEA, 2011 – A4).

086:365 - Off road...


Abascal, J., & Nicolle, C. (2005). Moving towards inclusive design guidelines for socially and ethically aware HCI. Interacting with Computers, 17(5), 484-505. doi: 10.1016/j.intcom.2005.03.002

DDA. (1995). The Disability Discrimination Act.  UK: Department for Education and Employment,.

HEA. (2011). The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education   Retrieved from

Keates, S., John Clarkson, P., & Robinson, P. (2002). Developing a practical inclusive interface design approach. Interacting with Computers, 14(4), 271-299. doi: 10.1016/s0953-5438(01)00054-6

Langdon, P., & Thimbleby, H. (2010). Inclusion and interaction: Designing interaction for inclusive populations. Interacting with Computers, 22(6), 439-448. doi: 10.1016/j.intcom.2010.08.007

Phipps, L., Sutherland, A., & Seale, J. (2002). Access All Areas: disability, technology and learning. Oxford: Association for Learning Technology.

Waite, S. J., Wheeler, S., & Bromfield, C. (2007). Our flexible friend: The implications of individual differences for information technology teaching. Computers & Education, 48(1), 80-99. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2005.01.001

End of module…

May 7, 2012 1 comment

Now that the module has completed, the time has come to reflect on how I’ve found the module and what I think I have learned from participation on the ALT module and how this has impacted on my professional development and practice.  For the first part I think I’ve learned quite a lot of new technological based skills including the following:

The key to implementing these technologies though boils down to the same key principle of success when delivering any form of teaching: preparation.  This is where the structure of the PGCAP course as a whole has probably had the biggest impact on my teaching, I’ve always been one for following my hunch or gut feel and 9 times out 10 it’s lead me to the right solution but I’ve not always known why.  The background pedagogical literature that came from the core module really opened my eyes into that fact that whilst I feel that I’m an intuitive practitioner, a lot of my hunches were all backed up and entrenched within pedagogical theory and indeed a lot of my choices were well founded, I was just ignorant of the supporting literature.

On the ALT module I’ve found it difficult to engage with the course literature and activities, this is primarily because I hadn’t appreciated that the course would be self taught when I enrolled, with just the occasional blackboard activity that on the whole has been poorly interacted with by not just me, but also by the majority of my peers.  Whilst I’ve clearly failed to engage in the structured activities and my Active Learning Set, I do feel that I’ve made the best of a bad situation and have read around the subject well and whilst I’ve not contributed to the activities I have read around the themes under my own steam. I’ve attended a HEA workshop specifically linked to my chosen area of study and this was really eye opening into the world of academics and to some of the work being undertaken in the evaluation of puzzles for teaching in STEM subjects.

The hardest thing that I’ve found on the module though is that it wasn’t what I thought I’d signed up for.  There was a change in programme at the last minute and as a result we lost 3 weeks or so at the beginning and the module I had intended on doing was cancelled.  Having completed the core module, I expected the ALT module to be of the same ilk, but unfortunately I should have investigated more before signing up as then I would have realised that there was very little taught component.

As what difference I feel that the module has made to my personal teaching I think there are a few lessons that I can take away:

  • Be clear about the expectations, format, and assessments of the course with the students from the very beginning. Set the ground rules.
  • The current IT facilities can be overcome with a little planning and strategy.
  • The students are adventurous and keen to learn, but like to have the strategy for the session explained.
  • Puzzles are a valid and useful teaching tool, particularly when paired with other methods.
  • Real time physics is more than a gimmick and can be used as a motivational and playful tool when implemented properly.
  • There is a strong history of simulations as learning tools in Civil Engineering.
  • The puzzles developed so far received encouraging feedback from the students and any time invested in developing them further can only be positive.

Hopefully as the program develops the puzzles and the use of real time physics will also mature. I’ll hopefully begin to see the puzzles expand into a broader teaching tool.  I’ve already begun drafting new puzzles and I’m currently learning Mathematica to create similar simulations that can be embedded directly within Blackboard and web browsers.  I’ve registered a domain and have started a blog relating to my teaching and research which I intend to continue beyond my PGCAP course, this can be found at

I feel the use of real time physics, puzzles, and simulations has brought about many benefits, from removing language barriers for our international students through to demonstrating the potential for increasing participation from the students by making the sessions more fun.  The longer I can keep chipping away at them as a teaching tool and developing the supporting technology to deliver them to the students, the more confident I’m sure I’ll become at implementing them.

I’m not sure I will do anymore of the modules on the PGCAP course, whilst I enjoyed the core module, I can’t say the same for the ALT module, and I considered walking away from the course at several points.  If it hadn’t been for Chrissi egging me on and offering support I think I probably would have just called it a day: for this, support I’m very grateful to Chrissi.  If the university can arrange for the other optional modules to count towards a further qualification such as an MA then I could be tempted to undertake some more of the modules, but as interesting as they are, I need to make sure that I focus in on my PhD from here on in as I’ve been incredibly time poor this past 12 months.  I do intend to stay in touch with some of the people on the PGCAP course both from my own cohort and some of the most recent cohort, there are some excellent lecturers out there and it’s been a pleasure to meet them.

EDIT following feedback: The future?

What’s the next step with this project?  I originally applied for a teaching and learning development grant from the HEA, but unfortunately I wasn’t successful with it.  This won’t stop the development of my idea though, although it may limit the extent of the integration of the physics into the curriculum and will definitely affect my ability to share it outside of Salford due to lack of funds.  By running this pilot study it is clear that this technology has some real tangible benefits and is a real positive hit with the students.  I intend over the next 12 months to expand and develop the puzzles into a programme that I can deliver in person at the University for teaching structural behaviour.  This may initially be a voluntary programme that is run as a supplementary session, complete with ethical clearance to allow me to publish my data.  Once this is established then I intend to create a competitive element where the students can make their own puzzles that can be peer evaluated.  The scoring mechanism for the competitive elements will need quite a bit of development to work out a fair way of scoring the puzzles, but I’m sure it can be made fair and fun and hopefully I can create a puzzle community and even share this with the public through some of the connections that I’ve made with MOSI and their up and coming science week.

By getting the students to create their own puzzles should have a profound benefit on their level of understanding of structural behaviour, and I fully expect some ambiguity within the puzzles they create themselves, but as the community grows part of the learning experience will be identifying and fixing these flaws until the puzzles are at a level of refinement that I can perhaps arrange to host them externally with some supporting literature to share them with other Universities.

Literature review…

May 6, 2012 1 comment

One of the key drivers of this project was the on-going observation by the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE) and industry that the quality of graduates has been on the constant decline for the past 40 years or so; specifically the ability for graduates to understand structural behaviour.  This is notable in articles, publications, and reports published by the professional bodies, starting with the highly graphical tests of (Brohn & Cowan, 1977a, 1977b) who concluded that graduates “…did not have a sound understanding of structural behaviour.”  This criticism has continued to be banded about within the structural engineering circles since this report with concerning regularity.  One of the key skills of a structural engineer is to identify the difference between a structure and a mechanism, and this skill was shown to be lacking by modern graduates through the tests of graduates undertaken by (Morreau, 1990).

Indeed during his time as President of the IStructE Graeme Owens dedicated (and still does) a considerable amount of time and effort to addressing these inadequacies in the teaching of structural behaviour (Owens, 2011).   Indeed (Owens, 2010) notes that “At worst, when tested on a qualitative understanding of structural behaviour, many students with good degrees from universities with strong reputation score zero!”

This is symbolised most recently by the paper competition arranged by Owens to identify best teaching practices from the UK universities.  Equally (Cook, 2011) correctly identifies that for a structural engineer to be successful they must have a core understanding of structural behaviour.  One could perhaps be forgiven for believing this to be a problem solely constrained to the UK educational system, but (Aparicio & Ruiz-Teran, 2007) also notes that this is a crisis affecting the industry far beyond just the UK and indeed could potentially expand to other portions of Western society.

Methods of teaching?

Traditional methods of teaching structural analysis are highly numerical, with little or no consideration given to the qualitative aspects of the structure (Brohn & Cowan, 1977a).  Modern software packages are incredibly powerful and the engineering design has become less about the analysis (MacLeod, 1995) and more about the understanding of the results being presented, but this can only happen when a strong understanding of structural behaviour is present in the students.

It is worth noting that typically structural engineering analysis is taken as a quantitive process, with the students determining numerical values to a series of problems, one of the recommendations of (Brohn & Cowan, 1977a) report and from (Curtin, 1991) was that equal measure should also be given to qualitative analysis: this was one of the reasons for the creation of my real time physics models as they allow the student to experience behaviour in its truest representation.  One of the challenges facing lecturers when trying to develop assistive learning technologies is that the nature of the technology changes quickly (Law, 2011) and the technology is difficult to describe in a meaningful manner due to it frequently becoming obsolete in a short period of time.


Puzzles are widely used in the teaching and learning of STEM subjects, most typically Mathematics (Levitin & Levitin, 2011) where they are used to improve logic skills.  Recent years have seen a development and expansion of these puzzles into the broader STEM disciplines (Badger, Sangwin, Ventura-Medina, & Thomas, 2012) to allow specific puzzles to be tailored into subject specific areas.  The success of a puzzle is largely dependent on having four defining qualities (Michalewicz & Michalewicz, 2008):

1.) Generality:

Educational puzzles should explain some universal mathematical problem.

2.) Simplicity:

Education puzzles should be easy to state and remember, if puzzles are easy to remember then this can increase the chance that the solution too will be remembered in the future.

3.) Eureka factor:

Puzzles should by their very nature be puzzling, and consequently frustrating to a degree.  The result should be interesting as sometimes it may feel counter-intuitive but should ultimately end with a Eureka! moment.

4.) Entertainment factor:

For a puzzle to be effective it should be entertaining, students may lose interest if puzzles are not fun!

Essentially the nature of my chosen intervention requires the use of a real time physics simulation of various different structures, initially to explore the behaviour, then as the student’s confidence grows to identify and solve a puzzle.  It could be argued that the use of puzzles has several similarities to Problem Based Learning (Dym, Agogino, Frey, & Leifer, 2005)  but it also has several distinct differences, in this instance for example the puzzle is a closed solution and does not necessarily require the user to acquire new information in order to solve the problem.  Also the student can work in isolation or as a group for my puzzles in an informal playful manner (Hodkinson, Colley, & Malcolm, 2003), but the advantages of group working are primarily for benefits through peer to peer reflection (Atkins & Murphy, 1993).


Civil Engineering courses have historically used simulations (Cullingford, Mawdesley, & Davies, 1979) and visualisation techniques (Bagchi, 2011; Townsend & Wood, 1978) in a wide variety of settings from blended learning (Wall & Ahmed, 2008), to business games (Pasin & Giroux, 2011), through to virtual environment simulations (Freitas & Neumann, 2009).  One of the key elements of these types of simulations is that they model something realistically, but in a simplified manner (Kolfschoten, Frantzeskaki, Haan, & Verbraeck, 2008) to provide summative feedback (Oraifige, Heesom, & Felton, 2009) as they respond to various inputs and stimulus provided by students using digital technologies (JISC, 2010) to help encourage their learning through accumulation of experience (Kolb, 1984; Moon, 2004).

The assessment of pedagogical benefit of games (Kebritchi & Hirumi, 2008) and puzzles has been frequently considered within STEM projects, but through combining these with a formal reflective process (Mawdesley, Long, Al-jibouri, & Scott, 2011) the benefits can be increased.   Indeed traditional teaching material is static, and through the introduction of dynamic content (Ploetzner, Lippitsch, Galmbacher, Heuer, & Scherrer, 2009) the behaviour of the structures should be better visualised by the students, particularly the removal of language barriers (Phipps, Sutherland, & Seale, 2002) break the simulations down to their simplest component: their behaviour.

It is hoped that by getting the students engaged within the puzzle environment that they may eventually feel comfortable enough to develop their own puzzles to test each other with, this level of collaboration (Triantafyllakos, Palaigeorgiou, & Tsoukalas, 2011) should lead to better reflections (Moon, 2001) on how they feel they learn structural behaviour and to identify tricky areas to test their puzzles with.

When using real time physics if a mistake is made then the puzzles will collapse in real time, one point to note is that (Huei-Tse, 2012) identified in large user games, specifically MMORPG’s that students were more actively engaged in ‘battles’ rather than problem solving areas.  This destructive type of behaviour could perhaps be capitalised on within the puzzles to get the students to identify the quickest way to make a structure fail through the removal of the fewest elements.  Indeed if a community could be constructed which required the engagement of the players in a multiplayer environment this could help create better engagement with the students and a more positive outlook to gaming as a valid method of learning (Hainey, Connolly, Stansfield, & Boyle, 2011) and increase social interaction as the community grows.

Even for non-engineers, watching the real time collapse of the structures can be seen to be quite fun, particularly as some of the Physion models can fail in quite spectacular fashion.  The benefits of fun should not be overlooked when teaching and learning.  Ebner (2007) found that the introduction of simulations into Civil Engineering lectures the outputs from the students improved and there was a distinct increase in ‘joy’ based on (Nielsen, 2002).

During a recent essay competition (Collins & Davies, 2009) one of the things noted by engineering students as to what made a good engineering lecturer was the use of real examples, indeed good teaching as described by (Ramsden, 2003) also notes that making the “material being taught stimulating and interesting” is a key contributor to good practice in teaching and learning, both of these positive qualities can be seen in the use of real time physics and the puzzles.


From this literature review it is clear that for modern graduates understanding structural behaviour is a problem within the industry that must be addressed by the universities.  One method worth considering is the integration of structural simulations that are fun and engaging in a real time physics environment, particularly when combined with the use of puzzles both created by the lecturers and also by other students.  The development of such a resource will be the primary focus of my ALT teaching intervention.


Aparicio, A. C., & Ruiz-Teran, A. M. (2007). Tradition and innovation in teaching structural design in civil engineering. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 133(4), 340-349. doi: 10.1061/(asce)1052-3928(2007)133:4(340)

Atkins, S., & Murphy, K. (1993). Reflection: a review of the literature. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 18(8), 1188-1192. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.1993.18081188.x

Badger, M., Sangwin, C. J., Ventura-Medina, E., & Thomas, C. R. (2012). A guide to puzzle-based learning in STEM subjects. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

Bagchi, D. (2011, 14-16 July 2011). Integrating Simulations to Increase Efficacy of the Teaching-Learning Process. Paper presented at the Technology for Education (T4E), 2011 IEEE International Conference on.

Brohn, D. M., & Cowan, J. (1977a). Teaching towards an improved understanding of structural behaviour. The Structural Engineer, 55(1), 9-17.

Brohn, D. M., & Cowan, J. (1977b). Teaching towards an improved understanding of structural behaviour. The Structural Engineer, 55(1), 496-515.

Collins, K., & Davies, J. (2009). Feedback through student essay competitions: what makes a good engineering lecturer? Engineering Education, 4(1), 8-15.

Cook, M. (2011). Engineers are not made in heaven. The Structural Engineer, 89(13), 12-13.

Cullingford, G., Mawdesley, M. J., & Davies, P. (1979). Some experiences with computer based games in civil engineering teaching. Computers & Education, 3(3), 159-164. doi: 10.1016/0360-1315(79)90041-1

Curtin, W. G. (1991). Qualitative analysis of structures. The Structural Engineer, 69(7), 157.

Dym, C. L., Agogino, A. M., Frey, D. D., & Leifer, L. J. (2005). Engineering design thinking, teaching, and learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 103-120.

Ebner, M., & Holzinger, A. (2007). Successful implementation of user-centered game based learning in higher education: An example from civil engineering. Computers & Education, 49(3), 873-890. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2005.11.026

Freitas, S. d., & Neumann, T. (2009). The use of ‘exploratory learning’ for supporting immersive learning in virtual environments. Computers & Education, 52(2), 343-352. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2008.09.010

Hainey, T., Connolly, T., Stansfield, M., & Boyle, E. (2011). The differences in motivations of online game players and offline game players: A combined analysis of three studies at higher education level. Computers & Education, 57(4), 2197-2211. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.06.001

Hodkinson, P., Colley, H., & Malcolm, J. (2003). The Interrelationships Between Informal And Formal Learning. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(7/8), 313-318.

Huei-Tse, H. (2012). Exploring the behavioral patterns of learners in an educational massively multiple online role-playing game (MMORPG). Computers & Education, 58(4), 1225-1233. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2011.11.015

JISC. (2010). Effective Assessment in a Digital Age: A guide to technology-enhanced assessment and feedback. Bristol: JISC.

Kebritchi, M., & Hirumi, A. (2008). Examining the pedagogical foundations of modern educational computer games. Computers & Education, 51(4), 1729-1743. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2008.05.004

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Kolfschoten, G., Frantzeskaki, N., Haan, A. d., & Verbraeck, A. (2008). Collaborative modelling lab to increase learning engagement. Engineering Education, 3(2), 21-27.

Law, S. (2011). Recognising excellence in teaching and learning   Retrieved from

Levitin, A., & Levitin, M. (2011). Algorithmic Puzzles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacLeod, I. A. (1995). A strategy for the use of computers in structural engineering. The Structural Engineer, 73(21), 366-370.

Mawdesley, M., Long, G., Al-jibouri, S., & Scott, D. (2011). The enhancement of simulation based learning exercises through formalised reflection, focus groups and group presentation. Computers & Education, 56(1), 44-52. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.05.005

Michalewicz, Z., & Michalewicz, M. (2008). Puzzle-based learning: An introduction to critical thinking, mathematics, and problem solving. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers.

Moon, J. (2001). PDP Working Paper 4 Reflection in Higher Education Learning  Retrieved 1st October 2011, from https://

Moon, J. (2004). A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. London: Routledge.

Morreau, P. M. (1990). Understanding Structural Behaviour. The Structural Engineer, 68(15), 299-300.

Nielsen, J. (2002). User Empowerment and the Fun Factor  Retrieved 6th May 2012, from

Oraifige, A., Heesom, D., & Felton, A. (2009). Technology supported learning (TSL) for formative assessment. Engineering Education, 4(1), 61-67.

Owens, G. (2010). Structural engineering education in the 21st century: the way forward. [Viewpoint]. The Structural Engineer, 88(1), 15.

Owens, G. (2011). Transforming undergraduate structural engineering education in the 21st Century. The Structural Engineer, 89(2), 18-20.

Pasin, F., & Giroux, H. l. n. (2011). The impact of a simulation game on operations management education. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1240-1254. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.12.006

Phipps, L., Sutherland, A., & Seale, J. (2002). Access All Areas: disability, technology and learning. Oxford: Association for Learning Technology.

Ploetzner, R., Lippitsch, S., Galmbacher, M., Heuer, D., & Scherrer, S. (2009). Students’ difficulties in learning from dynamic visualisations and how they may be overcome. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(1), 56-65. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2008.06.006

Ramsden, P. (2003). The nature of good teaching in higher education Learning to Teach in Higher Education (Third ed., pp. 84-105). London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Townsend, P., & Wood, R. D. (1978). Learning an appreciation of structural behaviour using interactive computer graphics. Computers & Education, 2(3), 213-220. doi: 10.1016/0360-1315(78)90013-1

Triantafyllakos, G., Palaigeorgiou, G., & Tsoukalas, I. A. (2011). Designing educational software with students through collaborative design games: The We Design & Play framework. Computers & Education, 56(1), 227-242. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.08.002

Wall, J., & Ahmed, V. (2008). Use of a simulation game in delivering blended lifelong learning in the construction industry – Opportunities and Challenges. Computers & Education, 50(4), 1383-1393. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2006.12.012


May 4, 2012 2 comments

Today it was finally time for me to deliver my pilot intervention using real time physics for the students.  I asked for a small number of volunteers from the first year civil engineering students to come along for an additional 1 hour lecture on structural behaviour.  The lecture was based around the lesson plan that I’ve published in an earlier post, with Physion being run from CDROMs which also contained a folder with a number of exercises. In total there were 6 students, with the group comprised of the following proportions:

  • 5 male, 1 female student.
  • 4 UK, 2 International students.

This was the first time that I’d run a session like this, one that switched between traditional PowerPoints and interactive exercises (Townsend & Wood, 1978) and puzzles (Levitin & Levitin, 2011): surprisingly it went pretty much to the timetable.   It could be argued that given the different types of learning environments that were created that this was almost a blended learning experience similar to that used by (Wall & Ahmed, 2008) in introducing a simulation game into civil engineering.  The theoretical components for the internal and external determinacy of a structure was introduced using traditional lecturing techniques, but with limited examples.  Once this section of the lecture had finished, a series of Physion puzzles were worked through, each of which carefully designed to show that sometimes the mathematics will suggest that a structure can be analysed, however when subjected to loads, the structure will behave very differently.

Creating examples that shown the maths isn’t always correct was purposefully done, not so that the mathematics could be rubbished, but more so that the students could start to build their intuition and see first hand that sometimes there are exceptions that don’t follow the mathematical rules that engineers are so keen on. As this was a very early pilot study I was primarily looking for volunteers to give high level feedback on the success of the session and to capture their thoughts afterwards.  I created a questionnaire using Google Docs which was available for the students to give their feedback, this gave them an option to answer a selection of questions scored 1-6 (low to high) and an opportunity to include feedback and suggestions relating to the improvement of the programme.  This was a very easy process for me to create the questionnaire using Google Docs and really allowed me to focus on asking tailored questions, for those that are interested click the previous link to read the questionnaire.  The students commented that they found this questionnaire easy to work through and I can see me using this particular technology more in the future rather than the traditional survey monkey.  One of the advantages of using Google Docs over say Survey Monkey is that it gives you a spreadsheet at the end that you can manipulate as you see fit.  From this spreadsheet I’ve tried to create a s oferies infographics using tableau public to represent the feedback from the students in the Google doc, this is shown below in figures 1-3.  For each of these figures I have subdivided the infographics by nationality and gender of the student.

Figure 1 – Comparison of students understanding of structural behaviour before and after.

On the whole, the students all noted that they felt they understood structures much better after the session and found the use of Physion very enjoyable as part of the learning experience.  The puzzle element was also well received (see figure 2), perhaps this was because the puzzles were straightforward and could be determined through trial and error in a low stakes environment and the repetition of the common structural forms will have helped with developing pattern spotting skills (Ebner & Holzinger, 2007).  The ability to interact and see the behaviour immediately was valued by the students and this is one of the reasons that we run structural engineering laboratories to help give this kind of instantaneous learning feedback in the first year, but it can be a challenge to engrain them within the classroom.  Anecdotally it was plain to see a few ‘Eureka’ moments (Michalewicz & Michalewicz, 2008) during the session which I wasn’t expecting as the puzzles were almost exercises rather than a traditional puzzles (Badger, Sangwin, Ventura-Medina, & Thomas, 2012), I felt this showed a real benefit in helping the students to realise the structural behaviour they were learning.

Figure 2 – Comparison of enjoyment of puzzles and willingness to create puzzles for others.

Observing the students working together in the class it was clear that they were interested in how their peers had solved some of the puzzles and they were all encouraged to share their solutions with each other as indeed a couple of the puzzles had multiple routes to solution, this is perhaps reflected in the high values for the fun factor as shown in Fig 3.  I think this also brought in a component of reflective learning, an opportunity rarely afforded to engineering students and perhaps this too helped the students understand the behaviours and could be argued to be part of (Kolb, 1984) learning cycle.


Figure 3 – Student feedback on usefulness of Physion and overall fun of the session.

There were several options that I could have selected with regards software, but from the feedback of the students, it would appear that Physion was a hit with most of the students, with one exception being the Mac user as he was disappointed there was no equivalent version for him to carry on playing at home.  Some of the specific feedback given from the students below gives a good insight into the value that they have taken from the session, clearly experiential learning (Moon, 2004) and the instant summative feedback that the real time physics environment has to offer went down well particularly with one of the students based on the following quote.

Seeing examples of the structural elements in action, in lectures it is hard to visualise what actually happening, but this programme really helped. The list of exercise increasing in difficulty helped to build my knowledge.

Another of the student’s peers also noted that watching how the structures behaved (with or without the correct elements in place) was a valuable experience and noted:

The physion program helped greatly with seeing how structures actually work.

One component that I hadn’t really considered when designing the lecture was that the modelling and playfulness of the puzzles actually removed the need for the students to follow the written or spoken text and instead simply enabled them to witness the physics in action, thus reducing the language barrier and potentially making the process far more inclusive.  This was highlighted in the quote below from one of the International students.

It is very clear to understand for a non fluent in english to realize

On reflection the removal of language altogether from the puzzles will help those native English speakers too who are dyslexic (Phipps, Sutherland, & Seale, 2002, ch6), and indeed their is no auditory component which will make it equally relevant for our deaf students (Phipps, Sutherland, & Seale, 2002, ch5), the use of the computer as an environment rather than physical models will remove some of the difficulties in access for physically disabled students (Phipps, Sutherland, & Seale, 2002, ch7).  One area that this may struggle with is students with sight impairments (Phipps, Sutherland, & Seale, 2002, ch4), although the model can be zoomed in and panned to help those with partial eyesight, at the moment I am unclear how this would help the students who are completely blind.  At the moment we have no such student on our course, but perhaps some simple physical tactile model could be constructed to replicate the exercises conducted in Physion.  It is accepted that the use of technology cannot always remove the learning barriers to those students with specific needs, but when aligned with sound pedagogic intent and carefully crafted they can be real enablers for the learning experience.

One element that I was unsure of was how the students may prefer to approach the puzzles, from experience with creating BlackBoard self assessment tests we know the students keep even more unsociable hours than the lecturers, with the tests being completed primarily in the evening and very early morning (2-4am).  I was fairly sure that the students would have followed this pattern and may have expressed a preference to work at home in isolation, but interestingly there were a variety of responses but each of the students noted that they would like to approach the puzzles as a group.  This social aspect of the puzzles was very unexpected, but could be a real blessing given that I’ve been unable to locate a room on campus with 100 PC’s.  By booking a room with fewer PC’s but encouraging the students to work in groups, this could ease the pressures of delivering the material in multiple sessions.  Perhaps running the sessions for them to work in pairs presents an opportunity for greater peer to peer learning, reflective learning (Mawdesley, Long, Al-jibouri, & Scott, 2011), and a the creation of greater social interaction.

On the whole I feel that the intervention has been received very positively by the students, their openness and frank feedback has given me some really good direction on how to expand and develop these puzzles for the coming term.  Clearly the results from the feedback are only the students own perceptions of how they’ve benefited, in future studies it may well be beneficial to conduct a series of self assessment tests to measure the real effectiveness of the programme, but it has to be recognised that this initial phase was just a pilot study.  Although taking a constructivist perspective on learning (Ausubel, Novak, & Hanesian, 1968) this type of assessment “is appropriate for means of experimentation, discovery and inquiry-based tasks” (JISC, 2010).  Indeed one of the key intentions of creating the puzzles is that the student must find the solutions, if they’re solved for them by others then by their nature they’re not very puzzling, (Michalewicz & Michalewicz, 2008).  The combination of the real time physics and the puzzles help drive enquiry based learning and as defined by (JISC, 2010) this will provide “Interactive discovery environments with opportunities for self-testing”.

With regards the evaluation of the puzzles success and the students being able to see if they’ve correctly identified a solution as the structure will not fall down, indeed it is this “action instead of explanation” (Kebritchi & Hirumi, 2008) that is one of the primary benefits of the use of Physion with instant, visual, realistic feedback on why solutions may be incorrect that allow the user to take corrective measures.  Indeed as the session progressed I was witnessing that the students were becoming much more adept at spotting weaknesses in the structures they were presented with and were making fewer mistakes as the session progressed as they were learning from their mistakes (Pasin & Giroux, 2011).

One thing to consider for the future will be consider how to provide feedback to the students with regards the assessment of their puzzles, via peer assessed learning I would be inclined to adopt the Google document and then convert these to Tableau diagrams, but I appreciate that many students do not like their feedback to be made public, so this would need to be considered carefully during the feedback process.  If I was clever about the process, perhaps this could be done via an elaborate mailmerge… although it will be interesting to see how this could perhaps be linked to some of the new features in BlackBoard 9.1 when released over the summer.

Reviewing the designed outcomes from the session with regards (HEA, 2011) and comparing these to the feedback of the students, I feel that I’ve successfully integrated several of the key indicators, particularly A1-4, K1-5, V1-3.  The session has engaged the students, provided instant feedback, encouraged them to reflect on the material and see how this will affect their future career and learning plus exposed them to a new and developing area of technology: all of these points I feel are evidence of good teaching practice (Law, 2011).

Also very importantly I’ve learned a great deal about how to execute these kinds of mixed technology sessions, I’ve learned a few new technologies for capturing feedback and presenting the information as infographics, but most importantly I’ve learned that the smallest of opportunities can make the largest of differences for some of our students and that they’re more than willing to experiment and try new things providing someone takes the time to explain to them why we are doing things this way.  It all boils down to good communication skills, which if the session is designed properly should be straightforward to highlight to them.

(EDIT:) Lessons learned.

On the whole I feel this intervention has been largely successful as a pilot study and has highlighted the following.

  • Physion can be used as a learning tool, particularly for experiential and puzzle based learning.
  • Puzzle based learning is valuable for teaching civil engineering.
  • The students are open to all methods of learning providing that someone takes the time to explain reasoning.
  • Some of the international students are insecure in their English speaking abilities and the puzzles can help remove these language barriers.
  • Puzzles can make for a more inclusive learning experience.
  • Personal and group reflection about the solutions is encouraged through ‘playing’ with the structures.
  • There is opportunity to create a puzzle based community with the students.


Ausubel, D. P., Novak, J. D., & Hanesian, H. (1968). Educational Psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Badger, M., Sangwin, C. J., Ventura-Medina, E., & Thomas, C. R. (2012). A guide to puzzle-based learning in STEM subjects. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

Ebner, M., & Holzinger, A. (2007). Successful implementation of user-centered game based learning in higher education: An example from civil engineering. Computers & Education, 49(3), 873-890. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2005.11.026

HEA. (2011). The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education   Retrieved from

JISC. (2010). Effective Assessment in a Digital Age: Aguide to technology-enhanced assessment and feedback. Bristol: JISC.

Kebritchi, M., & Hirumi, A. (2008). Examining the pedagogical foundations of modern educational computer games. Computers & Education, 51(4), 1729-1743. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2008.05.004

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Law, S. (2011). Recognising excellence in teaching and learning   Retrieved from

Levitin, A., & Levitin, M. (2011). Algorithmic Puzzles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mawdesley, M., Long, G., Al-jibouri, S., & Scott, D. (2011). The enhancement of simulation based learning exercises through formalised reflection, focus groups and group presentation. Computers & Education, 56(1), 44-52. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.05.005

Michalewicz, Z., & Michalewicz, M. (2008). Puzzle-based learning: An introduction to critical thinking, mathematics, and problem solving. Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers.

Moon, J. (2004). A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. London: Routledge.

Pasin, F., & Giroux, H. l. n. (2011). The impact of a simulation game on operations management education. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1240-1254. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.12.006

Phipps, L., Sutherland, A., & Seale, J. (2002). Access All Areas: disability, technology and learning. Oxford: Association for Learning Technology.

Townsend, P., & Wood, R. D. (1978). Learning an appreciation of structural behaviour using interactive computer graphics. Computers & Education, 2(3), 213-220. doi: 10.1016/0360-1315(78)90013-1

Wall, J., & Ahmed, V. (2008). Use of a simulation game in delivering blended lifelong learning in the construction industry – Opportunities and Challenges. Computers & Education, 50(4), 1383-1393. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2006.12.012

5/6 – Pick a winner…

April 29, 2012 1 comment

A key aspect of using technology successfully in any problem, is ensuring that you not only understand what it is that you wish to achieve, but that you also select an appropriate technology to evaluate the problem. This blog post aims to demonstrate (briefly) the evaluation process that I’ve been through when selecting what tools to consider for my ALT module. I’ve spent a lot of time on this and I get the feeling that perhaps others have just selected a piece of software and run with it and have been out of the blocks much quicker, perhaps I’ve wasted time ensuring that I not only understand my problem at a pedagogical level but also that I’ve selected the correct technology to answer these challenges, but I get twitchy if I don’t fully understand something before I implement it.

There is a plethora of simulation and modelling software options available in the market, each package varies in complexity, cost, capabilities, and user experience.  The ability to be able to correctly assess physics in real world engineering problems brings huge financial savings to a project and can save time through the reduction of physical prototyping: fundamentally it’s a cornerstone of engineering education.  This blog post is going to take a very quick whistle stop tour of a selection of available options that I’ve considered for my ALT project to use for the teaching of structural behaviour through using puzzles.

I think its important when selecting technologies to consider what outcomes you want to ensure that the technology solves the problem seamlessly rather than becoming the problem itself.

Autodesk Inventor:

Autodesk provide free licences for the majority of their software for students during their academic life.  Autodesk is a market leader in CAD and modelling software and this free licencing offers the students the ability to learn industry standard modelling and analysis environments whilst at University.  Autodesk Inventor is widely used throughout industry and can be used to model mechanisms and a wide variety of multi-physics.

Given that the Inventor can model very complex arrangements with a variety of physics (mechanical, stresses, thermal, magnetism, etc…) it almost goes without saying that it has a steep and complex learning curve and it is for this reason that I feel that it is perhaps not suitable for use in teaching early undergraduates structural behaviour.

Pros: Free for students, extensive, multi-physics. 

Cons: Complicated to learn, needs a powerful PC, lack of real time physics.



Solidworks is similar in some ways to Inventor, using a modelling environment to create geometries that can then have their physics behaviour modelled in a simulation environment.

The University has several licences scattered around the campus of Solidworks, with product designers and the mechanical engineers making strong use of the package.  It offers many of the benefits of Inventor, but comes with an additional negative component in that if students want to work through the puzzles or learn the environment at home they must buy a student licence which costs £89 per annum.

Pros: Available on campus, extensive, multi-physics. 

Cons: Complicated, needs a powerful PC, costs £89 for a student licence for 12 months, lack of real time physics.



COMSOL is a multi-platform piece of software available for both PCs and Macs which has extensive modules for considering different physics environments.  Whilst the level of modelling available for multi-physics problems is as comprehensive as it is impressive, trying to obtain licences for students is complex with very little information being available.  Other users within the department have used COMSOL within their PhD’s and through discussions it would feel well suited to this environment, however it is perhaps overkill with regards complexity for Year 1 students.

Pros: Extensive, multi-physics.

Cons: Not widely available on campus, difficult to learn, potentially expensive, lack of real time physics.



ANSYS is used extensively within CSE on a wide variety of courses from Civil Engineering through to Aeromechanical courses.  It is a powerful FEA software that is used throughout industry and can be used to simulate a large variety of engineering problems.

It has multi-physics capabilities, but they do not happen in real time.  ANSYS is normally taught in the final year of our degrees due to the complexity of the modelling process, whilst the initial creation of the models is fairly straightforward, experience has taught us that students can struggle to debug and fix their models when errors occur.

Pros: Available on campus, multi-physics, mechanisms.

Cons: Difficult to learn, lack of real time physics, ITS are unable to source the student licences for our students.



Algodoo is a real time physics environment that can be used to teach students in STEM related disciplines.  It has a simple environment that is easily learned, complete with interactive lessons that have already been created.

The education licence has the added ability to attach graphing output and traces to show the behaviour of the components.  This package has lots of potential in teaching structural behaviour and the interactiveness and general playfulness of the software will encourage students to explore and tinker with the puzzles and exercises.

Pros: Specifically designed with pedagogical intent, simple to use, encourages playfulness, can graph and plot movement and behaviours in real time, student puzzles can be created.

Cons: Not widely available on campus and comes at a cost that varies depending on number of seats purchased. 



Physion is a free piece of software that is created with the intention of creating fun mechanisms and other physics based environments.  It has a simple interface, which whilst not as playful as Algodoo is more than functional.  The learning curve needed is minimal and students can be up and running quickly with the software.

The level of hardware required is minimal which fits well with the IT provision on campus, although this may need to be run from USB sticks or a custom CDROM.  The software has a strong community growing which shares and creates their models and this could be an opportunity for the students to interact and contribute.

Pros: Free software, existing community, simple to learn, real time physics, allows the students to create puzzles and models of their own.

Cons: Environment is not as friendly as Algodoo, ability to copy and paste components can take longer to create models.



Mathematica is a maths based piece of software which encourages the creation of CDF documents which can be opened by anyone who has the CDF player software which is free of charge.  This is a similar concept to PDF’s except that CDF’s are live documents that can be interacted with by the user, typically through the use of sliders.  I wanted to include one of these simulations within this blog post, but unfortunately this isn’t allowed with the free version of WordPress, although it can be easily achieved using Bloggr or another blogging platform through the use of <iframe> tags, this is a little disappointing in fairness.  I’m hoping to run similar tests once Blackboard gets upgraded to v9.

CDF documents are created by proficient users and then contained within a simple module that allows students to adjust parameters and view the effects of these changes through interactive graphics.  The creation of the simulations requires a lot of effort from the lecturer, but this can create a fun experience for the student and several textbooks have now been written using CDF format with positive feedback.  Indeed one mathematics textbook now sells more copies in the CDF format than it does in the equivalent paper version.

Pros: Free CDF player software, simulations can be tailored to suit the pedagogical aims.

Cons: Lecturer requires a full licence of Mathematica (£895), puzzles and simulations are bounded and whilst are still playful they are not as interactive as Physion and Algodoo.



There is a growing market in Physics and simulation software available on the market, ranging from freeware through to pieces of software that cost tens of thousands of pounds.  The use of real time physics is becoming more common in the classroom and is allowing students of all levels to visualise what the influencing factors are when designing, modelling, and learning the given topic.

Inventor, COMSOL, ANSYS and Solidworks all offer comprehensive analysis environments, but due to their steep learning curves and complexity they are not suitable for our first year students.  It would take longer to learn the software than it would to learn the actual physics behind the structural behaviour that we are attempting to teach.

However, due to the existing licences of ANSYS and the ability for students to access free copies of Inventor, these are both strong candidates for expanding some of the final year material either within structures or perhaps more appropriately through specifically tailored dissertation topics.

For the purposes of teaching first year structural behaviour there are three strong contenders within the technologies considered: Mathematica, Algodoo, and Physion.  For the initial pilot study which is what this ALT module is considering Physion has been selected due to its free costs, simplicity to learn and ease of distribution.  However I am also in the process of writing several CDF documents with intention of embedding these within our BlackBoard VLE and I continue to evaluate the Algodoo for Education that I’ve purchased during their 50% off Easter sale.


April 23, 2012 1 comment

I’ve spent some time reviewing the literature, speaking with other IStructE members, employers, and lecturers about what the inadequacies are relating to the modern civil engineering graduate and this keeps coming back to the same point that: modern graduates from all UK Universities don’t appear to have the grasp of structural behaviour that perhaps their equivalents from 20 years ago had.  GIven that the understanding of the graduates from 20 years ago was more comprehensive when the use of technology in teaching was in its infancy, what role can modern technology have in addressing the improvements in learning?

What follows below is my outline thoughts and lesson plan with regards my teaching intervention and how I intend to use technology to improve the learning of structural behaviour.

Intended Learning Outcome: To appreciate and differentiate between the structural behaviour of determinate and indeterminate structures.

Lecture Duration: 1 Hour.

Lesson Schedule:

0-10 Mins: Introduction to determinate & indeterminate structures, introduction to the Physion.

10-30 Mins: Students work through Physion models and questions under supervision.

30-40 Mins: Reflective discussion about the behaviour witnessed in the exercises.

40-50 Mins: Puzzles worked through as a group.

50-60 Mins: Debrief/Feedback.

Methods of Delivery: Multiple methods will be used, including:

Show & Tell, worked examples, powerpoint slides, printed notes, exercises, reflective discussion, group working, puzzles.  The breadth of opportunity should increase the ability for the students to engage.  Through the experiential nature of the real time physics models the students will be to engage with the structures and obtain instant feedback from their decisions, giving formative rather than summative feedback as part of the learning experience.

Location: Newton Computer Suite

Number of Students: Approximately 6

Equipment needed: Laptop, Projector, Computers, Physion installed to CDROMs to be run locally from drives.

Measurement: The students learning will be measured via completion of the puzzles and the completion of a short test.  This will be followed by a discussion where the students can identify what they enjoyed about session, what they would change if possible….

UKPFS Relevance: A1-A4, V1-4, K4-5 (HEA, 2011)


HEA. (2011). The UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education   Retrieved from

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