Fighting fire with research

3 July 2014

Associate Professor Simon Reay Atkinson and Aminah Wehbe from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies

Associate Professor Simon Reay Atkinson and course tutor Aminah Wehbe have turned their lecture theatre into a lab, leading their students in a unique research project that looks into risk and resilience in the bushfire-prone Blue Mountains community.

As part of the University's world-first Bachelor of Project Management degree, the undergraduate class engaged with insurance and emergency experts, local council and community groups to find real solutions to prepare for bushfires and deal with their aftermath.

The students presented their ideas recently to a panel of industry representatives and members of the public at a packed community event in the Blue Mountains. For Simon and Aminah, it was a proud moment.

"We've been really lucky with this group of students - they're quite remarkable - when they made their presentations I was really emotional!" says Simon, a researcher and lecturer in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies.

"Unlike with most lecturing, Aminah and I actually had to let go," he says. "We gave our students the tools and exposed them to various interviews and discussions, but then it was a matter of letting them use their beautiful minds and come up with ideas and solutions of their own."

Aminah adds: "Presenting to the public meant there was an element of risk, but it really paid off. The response from the students has been fantastic; they understand that what they are doing could make a difference in people's lives."

Among their findings about the Blue Mountains region, which was struck by fires in October 2013, the students identified that the role of culture in nurturing volunteer networks is fundamental to recovery, prevention and resilience, suggesting a new prioritisation for major fires.

One of the key projects to emerge from their research is First Stop, an emergency register information hub which allows for the rapid transfer and dynamic social mapping of personal details in an emergency. The Rural Fire Service is also keen to display posters produced by the students to maintain locals' awareness.

"Research into bushfires tends to be traditional lab-based work that sometimes goes over years, but here we were researching in real time and posing some really viable alternatives or different ways of thinking to the community," says Simon.

"The project feeds into our aims of pioneering a project management degree that balances the academic with the practitioner, theory with experience; where students get to test out their ideas on the public so their experience is more in line with what they'll come across in the workplace."

For first-time tutor Aminah, who started her career in financial planning and completed her Master of Project Management last year, teaching the class has also been a great opportunity to learn on the job. She has enrolled in the Institute for Teaching and Learning's Principles and Practices course in July, with the intention of doing the Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies next year.

"I never thought I'd go down this career path, but I've been given these great opportunities at the University, and have been fortunate to have been mentored by Simon, so I want to make the most of it, develop my teaching skills and see how I can give back," she says.

Simon adds: "To make this course work in the future, it is really important to have a tutor like Aminah on board, who as a practitioner really cuts through the 'nonsense' and has an empathy with our students - it's an incredibly powerful balance."

Simon and Aminah with their third-year Bachelor of Project Management students at the recent Blue Mountains community event