Innovator of the Year 2015 – Winning Entries

Earlier this year we sought applications once again for the Innovator of the Year competition. As last year,  we have chosen to support two prizes, one for pedagogical research and one for Pure and Applied Research in Science or Engineering.

Once again the quality of the applications was very high, but ultimately the committee (comprising the three deans and the PVC) had to select a winner in each category.

Turning first to the pedagogical category, the winner is Dr. Sara Marsham, in a submission co-authored by Dr. Alison Graham, Dr. Christie Harner and Mr Jonathan Lamb.

The  aim of the project was to collaborate with students, academics and support staff in a re-design of assessment across Biology and Marine Science. They created a software program that visually maps existing assessments and submission/feedback deadlines for students and staff. The program allows one  to identify i) how students and staff perceive links between assessment activities within and across modules; and ii) purposes of different assessments and feedback types. This ultimately could lead to a re-design of assessment and feedback activities that are fit for purpose, engage students, link to future modules (both contemporaneous and future), and manage student and staff workloads.

They employed an MSc Computer Science student via the Careers Service work experience scheme to provide the specialist programming knowledge. After identifying the specification of the program, a prototype was created using assessment and feedback deadlines for Stage 1 to 3 Biology and Marine Science modules for a test year (2013/2014). Using module combinations, a visual map can be produced for either students or staff demonstrating periods of high workload on assessment or feedback. This is a unique program not available anywhere else within the University. It will allow Schools to better plan assessments within modules and across programmes and has applications for the Engineering Excellence project as well as other Faculty initiatives. The innovative step was not only creating the mapping software, but including academic and support colleagues at this early stage of the project. Valuable feedback was received from academic and administrative staff within the two Schools, and NUIT was involved prior to the first pilot. This ensures buy-in from users and a cohesive approach that will allow the project to successfully grow within SAgE.

The project has had impact on the programmes within Biology and Marine Sciences. Biology is seeking to streamline assessment across their modules, and Marine Science is consolidating changes implemented in 2014/2015. The student experience will improve with programmes mapped to best suit learning needs, including revisions not only to the types of assessments set and feedback received, but also to deadlines and feedback turnaround on specific assessments. The team is working with colleagues in NUIT, the eAssessment and Feedback group and the Engineering Excellence project and believe that the project will have a positive impact across Newcastle University as a model of curriculum re-design that considers student engagement.

In the Pure and Applied research category, the winner is Dr. Lidija Siller, in a submission co-authored by Mr. Xiao Han. Their work concerns aerogels, which are ultra-light materials with the highest porosity known to man. They have outstanding thermal insulation properties and are ideal  materials for use in buildings and for oil/gas wells and pipes.  The widespread use of these materials is still limited because current commercial methods of synthesis require high pressure and high temperature to dry the gel, which is energy intensive and therefore produces materials too expensive for all except highly specialised use. Ambient pressure drying of gels provides an alternative, less energy intensive route but commonly relies on replacing the original solvent used for gel preparation with organic solvents that are very costly. The  recent simple method utilised by the applicants eliminates the need for use of organic solvents (by inorganic solvent which is ~ 70 times cheaper) and has the potential to form the basis of sustainable, low cost manufacturing of aerogels and aerogel-based composites, including ‘smart’ materials.

Capillarity is the mechanism when silica gels, as the most common aerogel material, undergo the drying process. In the conventional ambient pressure drying method, low-surface-tension solvent (LTS) (hexane, heptane) in pores directly evaporates from the surface when gels are heated. In the new process, inorganic solvent, carbonate solution and catalyst produces carbon dioxide gas within the pores of gel. When carbon dioxide forms in the middle of a pore of the gel, the gas is incompressible and therefore the pore diameter is increased. From the Young-Laplace equation equation capillarity is reduced by enlarging the radius of the pore. This is the basis of new method. The idea came from studying the microstructure of dragonfly wings, which have aerogel microporous structure.

Europe imports half its energy requirements and consumes 1/5 of the Planet’s reserves . The manufacture of energy saving insulation materials with minimal production-related environmental impact is clearly highly desirable, and the new method of aerogel production can help to the UK to achieve national and European targets associated with energy use and carbon reduction. This method of low cost aerogel production could place the UK in the forefront of a new industry.

Many congratulations to both successful teams. Each team will receive £5000 to support their research activities.




About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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