“I read and read, and glowered; then read and read again” (Thomas Telford): A Civil engineering Book Club
Mike Murray, Teaching Fellow, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
There are many groups who define as non-readers and Mike Murray is a passionate one man pedagogical whirlwind whose aim is to explode that stereotype of Civil Engineers and enrich the learning, careers and indeed lives of his students by getting them to read.
Murray takes as his exemplar the great Scottish poet-engineer Thomas Telford, to show the precedent for a mind that delighted in literary expression as well as computation. He contrasted the outlook of the Georgian polymath with today’s students who may or may not be “reading” for their degree.
Murray’s book club projects enrich the Civil Engineering student’s practice and experience in a number of ways. For the first year students it is very much about enabling them to understand the context of their work. Murray gets them to read Presidential Addresses to the Institute of Civil Engineers from the last 200 years and then write their own. They gain a history of Civil Engineering and the profession’s response to social change. As the new generation they can position themselves “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Encouraging students to read outside academic journals also helps them to understand their role in contemporary society and the real landscape. National Geographic articles cover many of the big societal issue for engineers: Murray argues that Brunel today would be working on the space programme. The New Civil Engineer highlights local projects which students can observe in real space and time.
For all students Murray has run different permutations of the book club format, refining the process over the years. Selecting books on a range of topics and styles to stimulate his students to consider not only how but why, to broaden their ambition and show the impact of their work: from dramatic historical narratives to detailed explanations of technical innovation.
But it is not simply passive reading: through reflective journals, readings, discussions, “Jigsaw” groups – where students read e-book chapters and feedback to each other, Murray upholds a model of active and responsive engagement with books that develops useful skills of analysis, summary and communication as well as creating the context for peer learning. He enables the students, who did not sign up to Civil Engineering to read, to discover the benefits of reading alone and in a group.
Murray’s reading group events always come back to people: inviting authors – who might be engineers, journalists and alumni – is a way of building networks for students, showing them how books can build relationships. The wine and pastry that accompanied a session on the Eiffel Tower, as well as trips connected to reading material like visiting the Kelpies with their engineer, remind the value underlying the projects – that learning should be fun.
Murray asks if we are not readers ourselves how can we get our students to be? He took us through his own biography in books sharing with humour and enthusiasm that must be infectious for his students, his experiments and discoveries. By leading by example it is likely his vision will come true and a generation of Civil Engineers will indeed be striding with pride across George Square, a book tucked under their arm.
Review by Cassy Sachar