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 UP CLOSE

BY THOMAS K. GROSE

TOP HATS, TOY PISTOLS, AND FLAIR

When class becomes theater, even Numerical Methods capture students' interest.


UP CLOSE image: Mike Clifford Says Characterizations and Stories Enliven Lectures and Deepen DiscussionsA striking Victorian figure can at times be spotted striding across the campus of the United Kingdom’s University of Nottingham. With his jaunty top hat, high-necked collar, and long, dark greatcoat, he clearly resembles Britain’s much-revered 19th-century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose tunnels, bridges, railways, and ships helped drive the Industrial Revolution. But this is no apparition: It’s Mike Clifford, a flesh-and-blood associate professor of mechanical materials and manufacturing engineering at Nottingham. Clifford regularly dons the Brunel getup to spice up Professional Studies, his first-year mechanical engineering course.

Clifford is not the first engineering professor to dress theatrically for class, but he’s one of the few to make such energetic use of costumes, the arts, and wacky props. For the past few years, he has been perfecting his performances in his engineering courses, which include Numerical Methods and Composite Materials. Brunel is not his only incarnation; he’s also appeared as a Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, a cowboy, and even a banana. Beyond the costumes and props, he regularly employs storytelling, poetry, film clips, and music to enliven classes that he admits can otherwise be “a bit dry and dull.”

“But it’s more than just fancy dress,” says Clifford, using the British term for costumes. “It’s characterization, and it’s always related to what I’m lecturing.” He impersonates Brunel to celebrate one of the most storied engineers in British history and to help first-year students to feel proud of the discipline they’ve chosen to study. Engineers are as important to society as doctors or lawyers, says Clifford. “Engineers can make a difference.”

About his fancy dress, Clifford notes that “it’s been a gradual process; it was not a conscious decision, initially.” Around four years ago, he was struck by an account of an old Wild West shootout in which a gunfighter’s silk bandanna trapped an incoming slug and saved him. Clifford’s Composite Materials class had been discussing the ballistic properties of composite fibers in bulletproof vests, so he showed up in class the next day bearing two 10-gallon hats and toy pistols. “It went down really well,” says Clifford, who has continued to use the reenactment as a particularly striking memory aid for students.

Though his performance art is meant to be fun, Clifford takes it seriously – to the point that he’s taken a few acting classes to hone his techniques. And the stories he tells often push students to deeper consideration of issues. Characters of the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows may lazily drift down a river in their boat, but in Clifford’s retelling, as Toad reads poetry, Ratty muses on the physics of the refraction of light, while Mole ponders building a dam on the river. How do we reconcile competing societal needs – production of energy, preservation of the environment? – Clifford asks. In another session, he recites poetry by Israeli engineer Mordechai Vanunu, imprisoned for 18 years for making public secrets of his country’s nuclear weapons: “I am a little man, a citizen, one of the people, / but I’ll do what I have to do. I’ve heard the voice of my conscience, / and there’s nowhere to hide.” Students are challenged to consider the allegiances we owe to government, employers, and society at large, and to debate which should – and do – take precedence.

Students certainly seem to appreciate Clifford’s effort and passion. Third-year student Khalil Rhazaoui admits he was stunned when his professor appeared dressed in a top hat, but the shock effect worked. “I’ve got an attention span of two and a half minutes, worse than a goldfish,” he admits. “But [Clifford] always kept me interested in Numerical Methods.”

As for his department colleagues, “They think I’m very brave,” Clifford says with a chuckle. None, so far, has been persuaded to don costumes or read poems. Nevertheless, Clifford thinks his methods could be used more widely to help keep students engaged, particularly storytelling. “That’s probably the easiest technique to adopt, to put teaching material into context.” Wig, cloak, and wizard’s hat optional.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism's chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.

 

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