across the pond
A Column by Mike Clifford
As lecturers we seem to be wedded to the idea that what people want is to have more lectures. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good lecture, particularly when I’m the one standing up and doing all the talking, but to people outside of academia, the phrase “to lecture someone” isn’t often seen in a very positive light. Sometimes we dress up lectures (or maybe dress them down) as “talks”, which is all well and good but doesn’t really address the issue that public engagement needs to be, well, more engaging.
I’ve been involved in a range of education and outreach events and initiatives, including “Pint of Science”, which takes researchers out of the university into bars and pubs where the general public can listen to talks on research. I’ve also sat on panel discussions, most recently after performances of “Counting the Clouds”, a one-act play by Nigel Forde performed by Riding Lights based on the life of Job – a respected scientist whose work is wrestling with the unpredictable structure of the universe. And I’ve been into schools to talk about the interface and interaction between Science, Engineering, and Christian Faith. It’s always good to talk to non-traditional audiences, but it takes a lot of energy too, and there’s usually the feeling of flying by the seat of one’s pants.
A couple of years ago I was asked if I’d like to coordinate the Faculty’s Christmas Lecture – an event where about three hundred fourteen-year-olds come onto campus to hear about the university’s research. I agreed with one condition – that we didn’t call it “The Christmas Lecture” and that instead we put on a pantomime. The script focussed on a family trying to survive Christmas Day during a power cut – how could they light up the Christmas tree? How would they stay warm? And how could they cook the turkey? The result was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, and probably the only time I’ll find myself in a lecture theatre whilst wearing a dress and lipstick without opening myself up to a charge of bringing the university into disrepute (after all, pantomime has a long and noble history of men taking the role of women and vice versa).
Getting feedback from these sorts of events can be difficult but can come in unexpected forms and from unusual sources. I remember one particular outreach event where I’d talked to a class of ten-year-olds about appropriate technology cook stoves and explained how engineering could make a positive difference to global poverty. The following day, I bumped into a senior professor in my department, who greeted me with: “I heard that you were in school yesterday.” After a few minutes’ conversation, it transpired that his son was part of the class that I’d been talking to about my research. Nervously, I asked if his son had said anything about the session. “Yes,” came the reply, “He said that he never knew that engineering could be so much fun!” Reflecting afterwards, I wondered exactly what the professor’s son thought that his father did at work all day. I suppose I’m lucky in that I have varied and unusual research interests and I’ve been involved in all sorts of projects, including the biomechanics of bungee jumping, cooking on wood stoves, designing musical instruments, and so on. I remember a conversation years ago with my elder son, when he was about eight or so. After I told him what I had got up to at university that day, he chuckled in the way that only an eight-year-old can: “Daddy, you play at work!” And long may that continue.
Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.