After over three years working on the project, it was a great feeling to finally launch the first editions of Engineering in Development at EWB’s Massive Small Change conference today. Both the Pre-departure and Transport books were available in proper printed book form and were selling like hot cakes. The original print run of 20 Pre-departure books has now completely sold out, with almost all the books given to this years outgoing EWB-UK placement volunteers, who attended EWB’s Pre-departure Course earlier this month. 8 of the Transport volume were sold today and whilst the Energy volume was only available to demonstrate in pre-print form, we were really impressed with the amount of people who were already wanting to get hold of it. Not only were people interested in reading it, but also in contributing to it, as these are just the first (of hopefully many) editions of the ongoing Engineering in Development process, which is designed to capture and disseminate the huge range of knowledge that EWB-UK has acquired during the last 12 years. Both the Transport and Pre-departure books are now available to download for free in pdf format on the Engineering in Development web site and it is hoped that the Energy book will be joining them in the next couple of months.
Last Wednesday I had the privilege of sharing my work with a multidisciplinary audience as part of the Climate Histories seminar series hosted by CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) at the University of Cambridge. The audience included social anthropologists, civil engineers, people working in policy and everything in between.
I was given the mammoth task of summarising my entire PhD thesis into a 45 minute presentation. Not easy when you consider that the original thesis was 110,000 words. However condensing it down into something more digestible was inevitable if the knowledge it contains was ever going to make it beyond my supervisors’ bookshelves.
It really was a pleasure to be able to share my work with such an engaging audience – I’m sure I learned more than they did from the experience, as the questions they asked and the debate that ensued took the research in new directions that I never would have imagined with my blinkered engineer’s brain!
Listen to the other talks or find out more about the CRASSH Climate Histories Seminar Series. Particularly recommended is Richard Fraser’s account of the the impact that large scale wind power in Inner Mongolia has had on both traditional and modern ways of living.
This last Tuesday I attended the 5th Annual SIID (Sheffield Institute for International Development) Postgraduate conference. The theme of the conference was “multidisciplinary insights into international development”, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to reflect on my experience working across the social sciences and engineering during my PhD.
For me, taking a multidisciplinary approach was a decision taken out of necessity. Although I had been set up for interdisciplinary PhD work by the E-Futures Doctoral Training Centre (DTC), I had always seen myself as a mechanical engineer that would perhaps dabble in other disciplines as and when necessary.
However, after a year or so of engineering focussed research on the optimisation of small wind turbine blades for manufacture by hand, I discovered that I was barking up the wrong tree. The message from the field was loud and clear: many small wind turbines had been installed in remote communities, but were failing to deliver the improvements in quality of life that they had promised. Many of these machines were failing just months after they were installed, so was it really relevant to spend three years improving the efficiency of the blades by a few percent if the blades were going to spend the majority of their life standing still (or worse, smashing into pieces)?
In order to discover why so many small wind turbines that had been installed in development projects around the world were spending so long out of service, it was essential to understand both the context in which they were installed (social science), as well as the technical details of the design and possible failure modes (engineering). So I set out to answer this question, drawing on techniques from both disciplines to dig deeper into the underlying reasons that were causing the technology to succeed or fail in each specific context.
The range of methodologies I ended up employing covered the full spectrum, from quantitative to qualitative, from engineering to social science. This wide range of techniques allowed me to pick the most appropriate tool for the job whenever a new construct popped up. However, it was the overlap between techniques that really illustrated the merit of the multidisciplinary approach, as findings could be triangulated between techniques, adding much greater weight to the resulting argument (assuming that the findings agreed, of course!).
What is more, even though the findings of the different techniques may have been the same, the way in which they portrayed the evidence was often very different; for example, the rich qualitative anecdotes revealed by participant observation were frequently used to contextualise the hard numbers revealed by quantitative techniques such as power performance measurement.
Of course, the multidisciplinary approach isn’t without its pitfalls. Becoming the “jack of all trades, but master of none” was a significant worry for me throughout the research, and although it sounds trivial, translating between the vocabulary used by each discipline was also a major problem, as it took almost a year before I realised that both my engineering and social science supervisors were often saying very similar things, but simply using different language to describe them.
All in all, choosing the multidisciplinary path was ultimately far more rewarding than staying within my comfort zone as a mechanical engineer. Not only did it allow me to find a much more complete answer to my research question, but it was ultimately much more enjoyable, as I was able to spend time talking to people in the field, as well as build models on the computer and play around with machines in the laboratory. I think that doing any one of these three things for three years straight would certainly have been enough to drive me crazy!
If you’d like to know more, take a look at the presentation I gave at the conference or stay tuned for my thesis, which will hopefully be available here very soon…
This time its a full cinematic debut in Technicolour! An entire day of filming at Sheffield University condensed down to just 6 minutes and 20 seconds for your viewing pleasure. My personal favourite is the shot in the student workshop where I have safety glasses on over my already huge and extremely nerdy glasses – with geek-chic currently the height of fashion, its a good time to be a PhD student!
Disclaimer: Although it seems to suggest that these are my designs for small wind turbines, they certainly are not. They are the hard work of Hugh Piggott (big machine with wooden blades) and John Simnett (smaller machine with plastic blades), who have spent decades refining the technology and making it available to those who really need it. Thank you to both of you for the incredible amount of work you have put into these machines.
We’ve been using Logic Energy’s LeNet to remotely log wind speed/direction alongside power & rpm data from turbines up on Scoraig with much success. The logger transmits data every 10 mins across the GSM network and allows me to watch what’s going on with Hugh’s turbines from the comfort of my office here in Sheffield. Great piece of technology – Thanks Logic Energy!
Read the article they wrote on our project here.