One of my favourite things about the month of March is welcoming the new group of Engineering Science and Biomedical Engineering undergraduate students into the Department. Their energy and enthusiasm is always refreshing. As usual at the end of the second week of semester everyone piled onto three buses for a field trip. The trip started with visits to companies who employ our graduates. We often catch up with former students (now launching successful careers) on those visits. We all ended up Rotorua (after a great visit to Contact Energy's Wairakei geothermal plant in Taupo).
This year I added a new component to the trip with a visit toTe Puia. The group were welcomed onto the Te Puia marae, enjoyed a cultural performance and a hangi dinner, and then witnessed the awesome sight of the Pohutu geyser discharging as the sun set.
Once we returned to the backpacker accommodation that was home for the night I talked to the students about why the Te Puia visit was part of the trip. As the students start their journeys through our degrees I want them to remember that NZ operates under a principle of partnership - through the Treaty of Waitangi. We talked about the fact the Contact Energy and the Tauhara North No.2 Trust work as partners on the geothermal developments the students had seen that morning.
Kia mau Ki te whenua (hold fast to the land).
Whakamahia te whenua (make use of the land).
Hei painga mo nga uri whakatipuranga (for the future generations).
We talked about the key role of engineers in supporting sustainability - an example of which is the computer modelling work done in the Department of Engineering Science that considers the geothermal resource underlying the city of Rotorua. That model helps understand the impact of the closure of private bores in Rotorua which allowed the important Pohutu geyser begin to flow again.
For the next few years our new students will face the challenge of building their knowledge of a set of mathematical and computational tools that can help understand natural systems (as well as manufactured ones). However one challenge I would like to see engineers and geoscientists embrace is broadening their insights to acknowledge and value Matauranga Maori. Dan Hikuroa recently discussed this in a geological context on Maori TV - pointing out that events attributed historically by Maori to taniwha may well be attributable to earthquakes. There's definitely insight to be gained if everyone - regardless of their cultural heritage - integrates all forms of knowledge of the processes and forces that shape the earth. Those processes give us geothermal energy reservoirs which sustain us, and earthquakes which we must be resilient to.
The Geothermal Institute are currently hosting a group of Indonesian and Phillipino geothermal energy professionals (from a wide range of disciplines) for a 4 week project management course. This course is being as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade sponsored initiative. On Day 1 I wanted to "break the ice" (though the group are warm and friendly) and get the course participants working in teams. The course has plenty of time for "techy" group work so instead of a task with a geothermal focus I set everyone the "Marshmallow" challenge. This requires a group to build a structure to support some marshmallows using (dry!) spaghetti, and adhesive tape. Some versions also offer the participants some string - but none was to be found in my kitchen cupboards the night before! An outline of the challenge set up can be found here.
Some of the structures that resulted look like this.
Clearly specifying requirements matters in any project. I had forgotten to mention that the structures needed to be freestanding - so this group cleverly took their structure to the ceiling.
Group dynamics in the marshmallow challenge is the subject of a TED talk by Tom Wujec. So how do teams of various kinds do? Unsurprisingly it depends on the skills, and the mix of skills in the team. Tom Wujec's talk compares the performance of teams with different backgrounds in this graphic.
When I revealed this image to our course participants they found the first few bars entertaining! Personally I enjoyed seeing the finding that teams which are a mix of CEOs and Executive Admins outperforms teams which are only have CEOs. The organisation and facilitation skills Executive Admins bring are a very important part of delivering on the project goal. I know the work I do really benefits from the professional staff around me who diversify the skill mix in the Department and the Institute.
But why did the young children do so well? They experiment and prototype naturally - allowing them to test assumptions. That supports innovation and creativity. For more thoughts on being curious culturing creativity there's further discussion and advice here.
I haven’t been blogging for a while – and I have missed taking the time to jot down some thoughts on things that are happening in my various roles at the University. The end of the summer has been a busy time – lots of grant writing, and preparations to bring in a new class of both undergraduate and graduate students.
This week I’d like to focus on our new group of postgraduate students in the Master of Energy program. The program is an interdisciplinary program for students from Science, Engineering and Business. The program had around 40 students in various phases of their degree right now.
This week I’ve really enjoyed meeting the new intake of students. They are all extremely energetic (excuse the pun!) and have a real hunger for knowledge that they truly hope to “change the world” with. The majority of the students came from overseas – and literally come from every corner of the globe. We have students from North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific all in class together.
I travel a lot and believe that global problems – such as improving access to clean energy worldwide – are best solved through global collaborations. We kicked those collaborations off at an icebreaker event last week where the students worked on building models of energy related devices (such as wind turbines) from some kit-sets. I look forward to seeing what ideas the students build while they are with us.
I enjoy the fact that the staff and students I work with have tremendously diverse backgrounds but share a passion for common scientific questions. I am also proud that NZ’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade lists renewable energy as a priority area for their scholarship funding. That means some of the students in our new cohort are supported through this scholarship scheme – which is then a mechanism for exporting Kiwi energy “know how” offshore.
Access to reliable/affordable electricity is transformative in society. Most (but not all) New Zealanders can take that their access to grid-connected electricity for granted. Locally I was part of a team late last year which reflected on the state of the nation (in particular in my section access to clean energy) as part of the Habitat III report to the United Nations. Sharing ideas and experience via organisations such as the UN is important. However our postgraduate program is like a mini UN on a daily basis!