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Practical Transposition

Over 50 aggregates industry employees have taken the plunge and enrolled on one of the new University of Derby diploma foundation courses seeking to turn the complexities of mathematics and engineering into nationally recognised practical tools for future quarrying and asphalt operations managers. MQR paid the promotion-minded group a visit during their first study weekend in late September to find out what it is like to suddenly have to thrash out the finer points of mathematical transposition.

It seems a simple question until someone asks you directly. What is density? Not as a synonym of stupidity, but in its mathematical sense. Could you offer a definition? In room T102 at the University of Derby, most of the foundation year students of the new Diploma in Quarry Technology appear to be struggling.

“Density is how many pen particles are in my pen,” offers one student. Engineering lecturer Jeff Froggat’s face remains unmoved. Silence. “Err…it is how much area can be squeezed into another area,” offers a man at the back of the room. Froggat throws him a puzzled glance. More silence.

Eventually another student speaks up. “It’s to do with how heavy something is compared to its size,” he says. Froggat’s face brightens. “Yes, mass divided by volume,” he replies. And the class appears to have a moment of realization.

They knew it all along, they just couldn’t verbalise it. Just like the name that is on the tip of your tongue that you haven’t used for a while. And that is what is happening here. Many students haven’t thought about physics for a number of years, if they have thought about it at all.

Over at the maths seminar in room T115 similar head-scratching is taking place. The subject is mathematical transposition or A=B+C now find the right equation for =C (It is C=A-B in case you were wondering).

“Anyone confused?” asks lecturer Steve Rimmington. Silence. “Remember, most of the time when you think you are struggling with engineering you are really struggling with maths,” he tells them. Welcome to the first on-campus weekend in the foundation course of the new Diploma in Quarry Technology and Diploma in Asphalt Technology.
It is the first year of a new three-year course designed to help develop the quarry and asphalt operations managers of tomorrow. And it is a hard going welcome back to studying for many off them.

Most of the 60-strong attendees haven’t studied formally for years. Take Gary Jelley, trainee quarry manager and shotfirer at Bardon Hill Quarry in Leicestershire. Out of school for around 18 years, he is looking a little shell-shocked by the time lunchtime arrives at 1.15pm.

“It is tough for me and at 35 years old I am young compared to many. So who knows what it is like for the older ones who have been out of education for longer. It is a lot to take in but we have been reassured that the support is there when we need it,” he says.

Paul Rees is well over 35. A plant operator for FH Gilman & Co, he hasn’t been in education for 28 years. A butcher for most his life until an operation took away his ability to stand for long periods, Rees is like many on the course. He is finding re-entry to education difficult but has the prospect of promotion to keep him going.

“I don’t want to be driving a dumper all my life. Many are coming up to retirement and I’ve been offered a step up to supervisor. At this level this kind of qualification is needed now in the industry, so I am determined to stick it through. I’m really enjoying being in the quarry,” he told MQR.

The three-year Diploma is produced in partnership with the Institute of Quarrying and the Institute of Asphalt Technology. It takes over from the popular DAPS course that has been offered through Doncaster College for the past three and a half decades. So, why the change? It all comes down to funding, says Rimmington

“The DAPS course didn’t fit into the National Qualifications Framework, which means it wasn’t recognized nationally. This would have led to funding drying up. It would have been the death of DAPS unless industry had agreed to pay the full amount,” he explains.

And that would have been a big request. Derby charges £300 a module with three modules in the first year, four in the second and five in the third. Although Rimmington is not sure of the full figure, these costs would at least double, he says, without the money it now attracts from the Higher Education Funding Council. Around 200 people are taking part across the three years. At these figures an unsubsidised course would have cost industry around three quarters of a million pounds a year.

It is essentially a distance learning course. First year students can expect four tuition weekends at the Derby campus plus a weekend and a couple of days’ revision and exams. The second certificate year and the third diploma year have three weekends and a revision weekend and a week of revision and exams. This is all on top of their two hours a week home study and working between 40-60 hours a week.

In short, it is not for the faint-hearted, which brings us back to the classroom. Difficult subjects such as transposition may seem a little harsh as a choice of first weekend tutorial but it is all part of the plan.

The aim of the course is to turn the academic into the practical. Maths is a tool that will enable the students to do engineering. Being able to define density in engineering terms is no good if you can’t do mathematical transposition.

Rimmington explains: “Out in the field they need to think on their feet. If they are on a roadworks site they order materials by the tonne but they lay it in square meters. They need to be able to transpose the figures. They have got to be able to work out mass, volume and density every day.”

“It seems heavy going but at these weekend tutorials we are trying to get ahead of the maths syllabus so they can learn to handle the engineering. I tell them not to get too frightened at this stage as we will be going over it every single tutorial.

“By the time they get to the end of the year they can understand the transpositions and do the maths practically. They go from nothing to handling some difficult equations,” he explains.

Not everyone in the class finds it hard going. By the end of the weekend one student had shifted from the foundation year to year two – the introductory two-day tutorial session also acts as a filter for those entering at the wrong level.

There will also be those who opt out of the course. The biggest failure rate is in the first year. Rimmington says the university is seeking to recruit around 30 asphalt students and 60 quarriers. He expects a drop out rate of about 40% this year.

“The first year weeds out those who won’t stay the course. Not because they can’t hack it but often there are work and family problems. The other years are usually quite steady. Last year we had a 100% pass rate in the second year,” he says.

The students don’t see themselves as quitting. Neil Gamble is a quarry supervisor at Bardon Hill. “It’s a good qualification to have, a necessary one,” he says. Meanwhile, Dave Kempsford of WBB Minerals points to the practical implications. “If our own companies go down it is a good thing to have when looking for a job,” he says.

Alan Porter, explosives supervisor/shotfirer at Lafarge Cement’s Hope Quarry agrees with both comments. “The shock for us will come in a couple of weeks when the real work starts. We just have to knuckle down, get to work and stick with it,” he says.

And it is not just quarry supervisors and shotfirers who are attracted to the course. Yvonne Turner is a trained accountant working with Castle Granite in Penzance, Cornwall. Her boss is coming up to retirement and wants her to develop a better understanding of the dusty end of the business.

“Yes I’m going to see it through. The engineering side is the hard bit as I have no understanding of it but if I have to manage men who do have an understanding of it then I need to know what we are talking about. I don’t want them pulling the wool over my eyes,” she says.

Most seem determined to stay the distance and MQR will be returning to another weekend seminar to see how they are getting on later in the course. In the meantime companies need to consider the roles they play in success or failure.

A three-year commitment of this scale deserves flexibility. Fewer hours in the working week, time off for study and just general support for those taking part can make all the difference.

With an ageing workforce and recruitment difficulties, the quarry industry can hardly afford not to ease the passage of those willing to give up time to gain the skills to keep it running.

It is tough going for students. Not helping them? Well, that would be the other definition of density!

Jeff Froggatt: 01332 591711

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