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The unexpected engineer

Head shot of Dr Esther Norton

I didn’t know what civil engineering was when I first went to university. But once I started I never looked backed, I absolutely loved it.

I am Deputy Head of School in the School of Engineering and the Built Environment at ARU, so it might sound surprising that I was as uninformed about engineering as an 18-year-old.

The story is that I’d studied English, Drama and Classics at A Level and hadn’t done particularly well. My mum was getting desperate and found a foundation year that I could get on to, then continue studying engineering. This was at Newcastle University and I had friends there and liked the pubs, so I agreed to go. And I found that I just loved the problem solving and using my common sense.

I still love civil engineering because it involves a lot of natural science like geology, ecology and hydrology.

"I found that I loved the problem solving and using my common sense."

ARU is the only university in the area that offers civil engineering and it is a great place to work. As Deputy Head of School I don’t teach as much as I used to, but I still teach geotechnics to undergraduate and postgraduate students. I also supervise students doing their final-year dissertation. This means I still get to work in the geotechnics lab, which I love.

The rest of time I am developing courses, including the recent redesign of our engineering courses and the development and launch of our degree apprenticeship in civil engineering. I am Course Leader for a number of civil engineering courses so I spend a lot of time supporting students.

We teach very diverse students here at ARU, and we have to develop teaching techniques that challenge and interest everyone.

I wasn’t always great at maths and science, and I can still remember what it was like to really not get it. I think this makes me good at explaining things. Much of what engineers do is common sense but it can be dressed up in very technical language and maths models. I try to help students to really understand the physical phenomena behind the equations.

"We teach very diverse students here at ARU, and we have to develop teaching techniques that challenge and interest everyone.

I support students to work things out for themselves by not giving them all the answers. While at university students must feel that they are in a safe place where they can make mistakes. Making mistakes is the most valuable way of learning because it develops critical analysis (when you realise you have made a mistake), problem solving (when you try to work out how to fix it), and synthesis (when you find ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again).

ARU takes, with staff and students alike, a very realistic view of where we start from but doesn’t allow this to limit where we can get to. We’re all about widening participation and adding value to our graduates.

Dr Esther Norton