Laura Dickinson




The fact that Dr Laura Dickinson became a teacher does not surprise her. From a young age she loved learning and trying to understand how the world works.

"When I was little my mum used to say that education is the most important thing in the world because everything else springs from it," said Laura. "For me, teaching and learning are really the same thing."

What did surprise Laura was that she ended up teaching in engineering. Her first degree was in maths. At the end of this she chose to specialise in fluid mechanics and continued in this field studying an MPhil at Cambridge and a PhD at Dundee. After a job teaching hydraulics to civil engineers, Laura joined Bristol University in 2011 as a Senior Associate Teacher in Civil Engineering.

Laura’s time is split between teaching the MSc in Water and Environmental Management, and teaching water engineering to undergraduates, while also supervising some of their research projects. Her main responsibilities include personal tutoring, lecturing, writing lecture courses, setting and marking exams and coursework, and supervising MSc dissertations.

Seeing her students develop and grow in confidence, and working out solutions for themselves is the very best part of Laura’s job. Being an effective teacher is very important to her, learning how to engage her students with the subject and how to encourage them. Her role at Bristol allows her to explore this.

"The Teaching and Learning in Higher Education programme that all new Bristol academics undertake has given me exposure to lots of teaching techniques," said Laura. "Talking to my students and continually asking for feedback has helped me to understand their motivations, interests and the different ways in which they learn. I try to feed what they tell me into the way in which I deliver my lectures and tutorials."

This dedication to her students was recognised in June 2013 when Laura was awarded the University of Bristol Students’ Union Outstanding Teacher Award. She was also praised for bringing together students from different year groups to inspire each other and share advice.

"I was really shocked and pleased," said Laura about the award. "I can feel that I’ve improved a lot since I started lecturing four years ago – but I know that there’s still a lot of room for improvement – and I’m looking forward to continuing to develop my teaching technique. When I was an undergraduate, I was scared of my lecturers and would never, ever have asked them a question. One of my goals is to encourage even the most shy student to not be afraid to approach me with what they think is a stupid question (there is no such thing as a stupid question)."

Since her arrival at Bristol, Laura has quickly become a role model for female engineering students. As she says, the reality is that things are still different for girls in this field. Women are in a minority in engineering and very few are on the higher rungs of academia.

"The lack of female role models makes it hard to know how to develop appropriate career plans. Many of us have experienced problems from being a female in this environment, but the important thing is not to brush these under the carpet, but to admit they exist, talk about them and work out how to fix them," said Laura.

Despite these challenges, Laura loves what she does and has great colleagues who encourage her to think about and develop her skills and career.

"This is a fantastic place to work because the people here are exceptional: kind, friendly, supportive and cooperative" said Laura. "I’ve been very well supported by my mentor, Professor Sally Heslop, who is an excellent role model for women engineers - we need more like her!"

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Nov 2nd 2015

Practise the maths, learn the physics, and find out how engineers use both to solve real world problems.

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