Becoming a Lecturer 2 – Finding your Voice

Lecturers are performers. Like singers, your voice is your instrument and finding and using your ‘voice’ effectively is really important. I am fortunate that from a young age, I had the opportunity to sing in a choir and to take part in musical productions and plays. Although I was personally quite shy, I learned to ‘perform’ and act the part to portray different characters. Taking part in amateur dramatic productions, was something I continued through my University studies. I enjoyed the on stage side, there was a reassurance about being a team member and an exhilaration after a successful performance and production. I considered becoming a professional actress but had enough self awareness to know I didn’t have the talent or ambition to succeed. My range was limited and I didn’t want it enough. Instead, I took the opportunity to follow my engineering interests to degree, Masters and PhD level. I really enjoyed research and as I neared the end of my PhD studies, the idea of Becoming a lecturer had some appeal.

I was 29 and working in industry when I saw the role of lecturer in Manufacturing Engineering advertised at the University of Salford. I made some enquiries, put in my application and was called to interview a few weeks later.

The interview was very formal with a panel of six or seven illustrious academics seated across the boardroom table from me. I remember being daunted as the chair of the panel introduced the great men opposite me Professor X and Professor Y, Dean A and Head of Department. One of me and six of them, difficult to know who to answer when they asked questions. They took it in turns. The questions were along the lines of why do you want to be a lecturer? Why do you think you would make a good lecturer? I answered as best I could.

One of the panel surprised me when he said ‘you are quite softly spoken, do you think you would be heard at the back of the lecture hall?’ I assured him that I knew I would be heard because I knew how to project my voice. From performing in plays, I knew that I could be heard at the back of a packed theatre, so being heard at the back of a lecture hall would not pose a problem. The interviewer looked sceptical and I asked if he wanted a demonstration. He agreed. I got up from my seat, went to stand in the corner of the boardroom, took a deep breath and announced ‘THE BOY STOOD ON THE BURNING DECK……..’ to the very surprised interview panel. The questioner seemed taken aback at the volume, the other panellists laughed. The chairman asked me to sit down. The panel asked me some more questions but the atmosphere had changed. It felt as though I was accepted and had overcome the challenge.

Am I the only engineering lecturer to have ever recited poetry at my interview? Certainly, it wasn’t rehearsed or anything I could have foreseen. I don’t know why I chose that poem. It is not one that I am very familiar with and I have never studied it, but the opening line had made its way into my subconscious. Somehow, it was the right message and communicated to the panel that I had the right qualities to be a good lecturer.

Standing on a burning deck and being able to face a classroom of challenging students. Years later, I can see the similarities. Let me know your views.

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On becoming a lecturer






This week, I visited the University of Salford where I started my first lecturing post more than 25 years ago. Revisiting the lecture hall where I gave my first lecture brought back the jumble of feelings that I experienced as I faced the class to give my first lecture. Fifty minutes seemed like such a long time, how was I going to fill it? Would the class find it interesting? Would they even listen? I was armed with slides and had done my preparation, excited and nervous all at the same time, while trying to convey the impression that I was the all knowing lecturer, expert in the subject.

In recent years, I have worked more with new lecturers at the start of their careers. Sometimes, PhD researchers ask me for advice on becoming a lecturer. Top three tips are below:

1. Look for opportunities and take them.
As a 3rd year undergraduate, I was involved in delivering second year Fortran tutorials at the University of Galway. As a PhD student at the University of Manchester, I was able to build on this experience to facilitate undergraduate presentation sessions.  Both of these experiences were helpful in building my confidence and in getting a job as a lecturer. Start early and often, take the opportunities you are given and build on the experience.

Research students may get the opportunity to be a teaching assistant during their studies. Grab this opportunity with both hands! If you are intent on pursuing an academic career the experience is invaluable. If you are undecided, the experience will help you to make up your mind.

2 Put in the Work
Like many other disciplines, teaching is 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration, not the other way around. Many researchers seek to become lecturers because they want to inspire others but may expect this to come automatically. In reality it takes effort to master the tools and techniques involved in generating the inspiration. Twenty five years ago, lecturing involved writing on transparent slides for the overhead projector (yes really!). Now, there is inevitably PowerPoint and extensive use of learning management systems such as Blackboard. Getting experience with different learning management systems as a teaching assistant is valuable. Take any opportunity offered to work alongside staff already using them. You can learn from their experiences and avoid the pitfalls.

3 Think outside the box
There are many voluntary activities that can help build skills useful as a lecturer. For example, organisations which set out to involve scientists in public engagement. These can help you in developing skills in engaging people, which will help you in engaging students in your lectures.

You could also get involved with your local amateur dramatic society. This can teach you stage presence (commanding your audience), voice projection (reaching the back of the lecture hall), the importance of preparation (rehearse, rehearse, rehearse) and attention to detail (costume and props).

Watch others teaching, what works for them, what does not work? Are there techniques you can use and adapt? Don’t be afraid to develop your own style, we can’t all be Hamlet and it would be very boring if we were.

To be or not to be…. a lecturer, that is the question. When faced with the classroom, you will be glad of the effort that you put into preparation and learning the craft. These days, there is a realisation that the lecturer is not ‘all knowing’ but someone who is further along on the learning journey, signposting the way for others. Not so much ‘being’ as ‘becoming’ an expert and helping others to find their way.

In reality, I was not ‘all knowing’ in my first lecture and years later, I am still learning more about the subjects that I teach. Questions and observations from students have helped me to learn and contribute to the teaching.  We all learn together and I appreciate the students and staff who have accompanied me on the learning journey.


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Top Tips for your Poster Presentation

Here are five top tips for presenting a project poster. The ideas were developed in discussions at the Presenting with Confidence sessions in 2014 and are based on experience in assessing student poster presentations. Keep these points in mind when preparing and delivering your presentation.

1. Why should anyone care? You need to convey your enthusiasm for your project. Spell it out for your audience, why is your work important or significant? In fact, why bother doing the project? Try to reconnect with your original motivation for getting involved with this project and explain it to someone else. If you have lost motivation and have no enthusiasm for your project, it’s time to refocus and find an area that you are interested in. Meet your supervisor and discuss.

2. Tell the project story. What did you set out to do? What did you do? Where are you now? What remains to be done? Do you have a Plan B? Don’t assume the audience knows this. This is your project journey, what have you learned along the way? A story captures the audience interest and keeps them engaged. You may not have completed the project but let them know the direction you are heading in. Remember it is your journey, take ownership. Portraying yourself as a ‘passenger’ waiting for someone else to sort it out means that you still have a lot to learn. Start steering the ship!

3. Direct the audiences attention.
Think of yourself as the director rather than the object of attention during the presentation. If you make no reference to your poster, it is difficult for the audience to connect what you say to the information on the poster. You can connect and use the poster as a visual aid for your presentation so you are talking through the different elements of the poster. Your poster has room for graphics which are useful to illustrate points.

4. Be friendly and approachable.
Stay near your poster. If someone shows an interest, smile and be prepared to chat about it before your ‘official’ presentation. First impressions count, if you are ‘lurking’ in the distance while someone waits to ask a question, it suggests you are not really engaged with your project/poster. Be prepared for the ‘unexpected guests’ people who may show up for the presentation because your poster looks interesting. It’s a good sign and helps other students to learn about your subject area.

5. Timing is everything
Be aware of exactly how long you have to present and rehearse your presentation so you can complete in the time. If you overrun and the audience needs to be elsewhere, you may have to stop your presentation part way through. Obviously, not a good idea. Leave time for questions, and invite them, questions show interest and will help you to relax. It’s fine to ask people to elaborate on their question if you don’t understand. If someone genuinely points out something new, acknowledge this and be prepared to do more research.

For advanced presenters, a surprise 6th top tip – consider the element of surprise. Your audience may become rather jaded seeing several presentations in one morning, what can you do to make your presentation stand out? Last year, Matt brought home baked biscuits or as he preferred to call the ‘BIMscuits’to supplement his presentation. There were no extra marks for these but they did show imagination and preparation and made the audience smile. A smiling audience is a good start to any presentation!

So, good luck with your presentation and it’s surprising how much good luck you have with good preparation.


Matt, supervisor and BIMscuits waiting for the start of his poster presentation

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Presenting With Confidence


With Tony Walsh after the Presenting with Confidence session, students at the ready!

Every year, we run a poster day in the School of MACE where third year engineering students display posters and present the results of their individual projects. There is usually some apprehension as the time approaches. Last year, we organised sessions to help prepare the students. These were led by an expert presenter – Tony Walsh, a Manchester based performance poet. We ran three sessions and allowed up to 15 students to ‘sign up’ for each.

From the start, the sessions were quite different to the usual presentation skills course. Tony took inspiration from Maya Angelou’s quote ‘ they may forget what you said, but they never forget how you made them feel…’

Tony is a very skilled facilitator and helped the students to deal with their unconscious fears about presentations. Some warm up exercises focused on speaking in public, initially using tongue twisters. I guess this was to overcome our fears of saying something silly and being laughed at. We all laughed at each other and survived, even enjoyed the experience.

The next point was tackling the fear of being judged by our audience. Anxiety about presenting makes us imagine an audience of ogres ready and waiting to shoot down our well-rehearsed presentation. Tony emphasised that the audience wants to enjoy the presentation and we are on the same side. The students realised that lecturers are actually happy when students show their enthusiasm and knowledge in their subject area.

After some warm up exercises, Tony asked the students to write some notes about what really inspired them about their projects. The question was ‘why do you care about your project?’ And then ‘why should anyone else care?’ The session ended with each student giving a short presentation (3 minutes) about their projects. I was astounded at Tony’s ability to engage and inspire the students. At first, the students were reticent about speaking about their projects. However, with the encouragement and support of the group everyone participated and there were some amazing transformations.

I enjoyed seeing the students growing in confidence as they explained their projects. It was inspirational to realise the range of projects going on in the school, from concrete foundations for buildings to micro-satellites in space. All engineering life was there. All the students seemed relaxed and seemed to enjoy the sessions, just look at the photo!

On the poster day itself, I met several of the students and their obvious confidence shone through. Two of them won prizes on poster day. One for the best poster presentation and the other for the best engagement with social media. Students realised that staff were under time pressure on poster day but not unfriendly. They seemed more inclined to be creative and experiment with their presentations. The session will definitely be repeated. Who knew – presenting can be fun!

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Gamification – the Awesome Approach


Team DINAY one of the student teams competing in the Enginuity Business Simulation

Gamification is a buzz word in education, meaning encouraging people to learn through ‘playing’. Recently, the Association of Project Management published this report about gamification and its ability to increase motivation and teamwork. For the past two years, we have used a business simulation called Enginuity as part of the coursework for our second year Project Management for Civil Engineers unit. In this simulation, the students take on the roles of the new management team for a simulated business in the construction industry. The teams make decisions relating to finance, overheads, marketing, bidding for new work and resource allocation on projects. Decisions are submitted weekly, each week representing a trading period for the simulated company. Each week they get a set of KPIs reflecting their company performance based on their decisions.

Since adopting the business simulation, I have seen a step change in the students motivation and engagement with the course. Previously, students kept their distance from staff and did not show much enthusiasm for the subject. A frequent question was ‘why do we have to study management?’ The belief behind the question was ‘management is not relevant for engineers’.

Making decisions in the business simulation, clearly shows the students how different areas of the business are related. Performance on projects drives the Key performance indicators of the company. These are published weekly in a league table of competing teams. Instead of trying to convince students of the relevance of financial concepts, I found the students coming to me to ask for explanations. Providing the information on demand led to a different and improved course dynamic. There is quite a steep learning curve associated with the simulation. once the students are ‘up and running’ they find it quite easy to use and have a sense of pride in their achievement. there is a friendly rivalry amongst the teams, aided by prizes for the team at the top of the league table in each trading period.

As a by product of the simulation, students learn more about communication and working in teams. As new social media tools emerge, students use them to support their working. Facebook groups remain a popular choice, in 2014 these have been supplemented by instant messaging groups. Simulations can be run with very large classes of students, in 2011 we ran a simulation with a year group of 320 students, the results are reported here.

I was pleased to read this blog post by one of the students on the Project Management course, Hamna Mohammed. In her post, Hamna refers to the simulation as ‘Awesome’ coursework. Students are working really hard, learning and hopefully having some fun. Some are choosing to carry on and form a team to compete against graduates from industry. Really inspiring commitment and determination. Awesome, definitely, Awesome.

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Engineering our Future

Under the watchful eye of Tony, the winning team reads their poem 'Engineering our Future' event

Under the watchful eye of Tony Walsh, the winning team reads their poem ‘Engineering our Future’ event

This week the Tomorrow’s Engineers initiative hopes to inform and inspire young people to consider engineering as a career. As engineers, we can become very focused on details and this affects our ability to communicate about engineering to the outside world. This year, we ran a workshop with our students to develop new communication skills. This was a poetry slam event facilitated by local performance poet, Tony Walsh. The idea behind a poetry slam is that teams compete to write and perform poems in a fun workshop environment. The theme of our workshop was ‘Engineering our Future’ – how can we as engineers contribute to the world in the future?

So, on a wet Wednesday afternoon, a small but enthusiastic group of students arrived to our first poetry slam. Tony set the scene by introducing some of the notable achievements of University of Manchester scientists and engineers. Then he read some poems about the impact of engineering on the world around us. After some warm up ‘tongue twisters’ students worked in teams writing about their route into engineering and what they hoped to contribute through their work. I was amazed at how dedicated and hardworking the students were in the session. This was really a tribute to Tony’s ability to engage and motivate the students, for many of them English was a second language. The short poems that the students came up with showed how far they had come and their hopes and dreams for the future. It was inspiring to realise that students had come from all over the world and made us realise what a great opportunity we have to learn and work together at this University.

Students commented that they had surprised themselves by writing poems about engineering. It gave them confidence about their writing ability and they enjoyed the variety from their usual work. One of my students, Hamna, blogged about the event. Afterwards, we worked together with the EPS elearning team to produce this short video. We hope it helps to inspire tomorrow’s engineers. Thanks to Tony for helping us to get our ideas across and to focus on the ‘big picture’. There are lots of opportunities for young people in engineering, together we are engineering our future.

Watch the video about the Engineering our Future event here.

The winning poem was written by ‘Team Force’ with their thoughts on the motivation behind an engineering career and their journeys in engineering.

I used to play with Lego blocks,
The first stage of my career
They said I have imagination!

Brunel, Smeaton, Tesla, they all rock!
I wanted to be an inspiration.

Let’s solve and build,
Let’s bring some help
It’s not only calculations!

It’s a dream,
it’s hope,
it’s passion,
It is sheer determination.

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What a Waste!

I recently went to a Blockheads concert and was reminded of this song from 1978. It’s about life choices and how confusing it can be for young people. It was a popular song when I was making life choices about what next after secondary school. The phrase ‘What a waste’ was exactly how some of my teachers describe my choice of studying engineering at degree level. I previously wrote a post about Stepping in to Engineering describing someone else’s journey. Mine was rather different. I had no clear view growing up of what direction to choose for a career. I was pretty much lost when our career guidance teacher started to talk about University application. In the Irish system, all the school results generated ‘points’ and the number of ‘points’ dictate what courses you could gain entry to. I could apply for any University course and admission was purely ‘points based’ not requiring personal statements or interviews.

I felt more drawn towards ‘science’ subjects and was interested in how things worked. I gleaned from the newspapers that there was a shortage of engineers and courses were expanding. I read about industrial engineers being able to improve the efficiency of industry to make it more viable. I lived in the West of Ireland  and in our town the sugar factory was a huge local employer. Many of my schoolmates had parents who worked in the factory. In late Summer, the town would be very busy with the railway busy shipping the sugar beet in throughout the ‘campaign’ season. The cooking sugar smell from the factory hung low in the air and permeated the whole town.

In 1978, there was a shock announcement and a proposal to close the railway line. Local people were very worried as it seemed this would eventually lead to the closure of the sugar factory and nearbly Erin food factory. A threat to the sugar factory was not to be taken lightly. Three local politicians went on hunger strike. They set themselves up at the Town Hall and announced they would not eat until the threat had been removed. One of these politicians, Joe Burke, was the father of my school friend. My friend was worried, as were her seven younger siblings. The local hunger strike was called off after a week with the government agreeing to review the issue about the closure of the railway line. However, the review concluded it was not viable. The railway line closed and after some time, so did the sugar factory and food factory. There was a loss of jobs and a depressed local economy, many people had to leave the town to find employment. This Sawdoctors song expresses well the feelings of many youth from my home town unable to find employment. Every day the same and little to look forward to.

This series of events probably brought home to me in a dramatic way how dependent the town was on engineering and industry. I hoped that by becoming an engineer, I could be part of a better future. The town never regained the ‘boom days’ of sugar factory employment. However, by the time I graduated, high tech jobs were becoming available in electronics companies requiring a different skill set from the next generation. Multinational companies were attracted to Ireland by the availability of a young, educated workforce. Engineers from my degree course directly contributed to the electronics industry and medical device industries after their graduation.

Now in recessionary times again with widespread emigration, the same questions arise. How best to react to these circumstances? Education brings options.

Definitely not a waste.

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Seven Roles of Highly Effective Lecturers


Atmospheric Set and Lighting for the Royal Exchange Production of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’

At a recent visit to the theatre, I reflected about how theatre and performance can help to develop skills necessary for lecturers. There are many roles involved in producing a performance – it’s not just the actor on stage. Some roles are behind the scenes, but all are essential. I know a bit about this having been involved in many theatre productions over the years. So, here is a quick guide to the seven roles of highly effective lecturers.

1. Scriptwriter – the playwright determines the material delivered to the audience. However, there are many ways that the same content can be delivered. Some lecturers use active methods, getting the students to do things and discover for themselves. Other lecturers are more formal where students sit and listen to a lecture. Knowing your audience is vital. How many students in the class and What do you know about them? What previous knowledge do they have? This information will help you to structure your lecture and organise the material to tell a story and keep the students’ interest. The output of this stage is the ‘script’ which you use to run the session. The script could be a session plan backed up a set of PowerPoint slides or a written task for students to complete in class.

2. Stage Manager. The job of the stage manager is to make sure all the resources are available and that everything runs smoothly during the performance. Being your own stage manager means specifying or booking the room required, checking out the room in advance to familiarise yourself with the layout. Testing any equipment that you plan to use (e.g. Computer and software) is also essential. You also need to think about the props or resources needed during the lecture. Remember to bring a timer so you can keep to the session time. If you do being a phone, make sure it is silent. With all of this, you may need something to transport your equipment and ‘props’ to the classroom. Wheely bags have prove particularly useful for ferrying handouts for 300 students.

3. Wardrobe and Costume. This is a simple reminder that what you wear creates an impression on your audience. Most lecturers that I know wear semi-formal business clothing for lectures. These create a professional image. Others find an informal style works for them. Whatever costume you choose, it should be one that you feel confident in and allows you and your students to focus on the message you want to get across. Remember that first impressions count and your clothes will help establish that first impression. Don’t run into the classroom dishevelled unless this is actually part of the performance.

4. Usher – theatres usually have a couple of these to direct people to their seats and deal with any latecomers. Managing the space of the classroom is very important. If you have a large classroom and all your students sit at the back, it is difficult to establish a rapport from the front of the room.  Give some thought as to how you will manage the arrival of latecomers so as to avoid distracting other people in the classroom. How are you going to distribute any notes? How will you manage the interaction with the students? Do you stand at the front or roam around the room? Ultimately, there is no single ‘right’ answer on this, it is a question of personal preference and style. However, being aware of the policy of other lecturers is useful and helps to manage expectations.

5. Performer. Now, your preparation done. The students in the classroom and your audiovisual material loaded up, it’s time to make a start in giving your lecture. lights, camera, action….. If you struggle with this part, then training in public speaking may help you. The best training is practice and getting feedback on your performance. Always take the opportunity to get feedback from students or colleagues. Try to do this early enough in a course so you can change and improve. Consider introducing variety in the lecture to maintain interest, using activities and video clips for example. A one hour monologue can be challenging to the best of performers.

6. Producer / Director With a ‘flipped classroom’ approach, students study the online material then come to the classroom with the necessary background knowledge. In the classroom, they can then engage in active exercises. It no longer needs to be a solo performance in the lecture time. Perhaps your skills are more in organising tasks and directing the students, so they can learn themselves.

7. Administrator. Whereas a theatre will have admin staff in the booking office, you need to deal with this yourself. This may include taking a classroom register and responding to student queries outside of lecture times. Responding to enquiries promptly and in an appropriate manner is part of your role. Some queries are best dealt with face to face or in class. Being approachable means the students can bring queries to you and can help clarify difficult issues for all students.

Juggling all the seven roles – Exhausting? Yes, but also exhilarating. The variety keeps you on your toes and it is always challenging and engaging. I would also recommend going to the theatre, not just to relax and unwind but to get ideas and see how the experts do it.

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English Summer Micropoem14

An article that I came across this week talks about the benefits of side projects and creative activities. We can get weighed down by day to day work and creative activities replenish us and improve our performance in other areas of our lives. It can be difficult to find time for these creative activities but we benefit when we engage in them.

Recently, I rediscoved that I enjoy writing as a side project – one which is just for leisure. I entered in the Centre for New Writing’s Micopoem competition. This was a competition for a Tweeted poem on the theme of ‘English Summer’. Poems were tweeted between July 7th and 14th with the hashtag #micropoem14.

I was delighted to learn (via Twitter of course) that my micropoem had won joint third prize. The winning poems are published in the excellent online journal the Manchester Review. I enjoyed reading the other entries and the winning entries are really excellent in conjuring up images of Summer. Interesting that two of them feature rain and the other two include pools.

I have really enjoyed reading the other poems and making contact with the poets. Josephine Corcoran put together this hilarious recording of her micropoem – as in ‘how not to record a poem’. It really shows that there is no substitute for hearing the poet reading their own work.

Inspired by this, I have created a video of my micropoem here. Only 17 seconds – Enjoy!

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Wonderful Science Poetry

I am fortunate to work in an environment where communication between arts and science is valued. My colleague, Peter Fenn has run a ‘Science Poetry’ competition for the past three years. This is a poetry competition for students in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University. Every year, it attracts more than 160 entries. Peter’s experience with this has led him to question whether the Science / Arts ‘two cultures’ divide actually exists and look for new ways of fostering links between them. Peter is supported in this initiative by three poets: John McAuliffe at the Centre for New Writing Wendy Cope and Lachlan McKinnon.

In 2012, I worked with some of the student poets to record their poems here. The poets are students of Engineering, Maths and Science at the University of Manchester. Although the poems written in English their readings are strongly influenced by the cultures of the poets. The voices  remind me of what an international environment we work in. It is inspirational to think these students are writing poetry in what may be their second or third language. The styles are very different and I had some great conversations about the meaning of the poems.

One of the Science Poets, Tom Day-Goodacre  identifies ‘wonder’ as a common root of Science and Poetry saying: ‘Science is Wonder understood, while poetry describes it as nothing else could.’ This conversation between engineers, scientists and poets is definitely something wonderful, long may it continue.

This year, students were allowed to view and comment on the other poems – on the custom built website here. Some of the student poets also submitted recordings of their poems. The winning entry was by Holly Jones, who as well as being a scientist and a poet is also a talented cartoonist. Her illustrated poem is a tongue in cheek take on the trials and tribulations of postdoctoral life and can be found here. She’s got a little list…. I would like to hear someone record this poem.

Tony Walsh and Peter Fenn with the sponsor and winners of the EPS Poetry Competition 2014

Tony Walsh and Peter Fenn with the sponsor Michael O’Shea and winners of the EPS Poetry Competition 2014

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