Raw experience: Colin Unwin

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“Because we are from so many different backgrounds there’s always someone that knows the thing you want to find about about, so the student body themselves are a massive resource you can tap into”

Colin is an ex-teacher who has always had an interest in renewable energy and building design. He has been taking the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment masters programme at CAT for the last year. As he completes his final module, he reflects on the quality of the teaching and facilities at CAT, as well as his personal journey through the course.


Before REBE my official job title was head of faculty in design and technology at a specialist technology collage in Lancashire and I was teaching 11-18 year olds (obviously including a sixth form) science, engineering, technology and maths.

"it's so refreshing to meet people from such a diverse range of backgrounds with a similar interest"

REBE is part of a general trend for me really. Sustainability, environmental impact, renewable energy – really, when I look back in hindsight at what I’ve done it’s been a major part of my life.


I first came to CAT in 1988 and when I came again in 1993 I picked up Hugh Piggot’s “build your own wind turbine” leaflets and I built two turbines and annoyed the neighbours with them because they didn’t work too well in the city. I was happy with them but I’m afraid the neighbours weren’t so I had to take them down. And then I was sort of inspired really about what was going on at CAT and then in 1999 my wife and I decided that we would build our own house so we spent the last 12 years building a house that is made as much as possible from reclaimed or recycled materials. It’s taken a long time because of the sourcing of things. If we can’t get things that have been used as other things or generated through waste then we have bought things that have the least impact on the environment.


What attracted me to the REBE course was the combination of technology combined with it’s context within the built environment that was the real nub of it. Having built a house, a structure, I really appreciated how fundamentally important it is about the actual design of the structure to maximise any potential gains. The technology develops constantly so it is reviewed and updated – it combines both of those things really.


I did try to work alongside the course originally but am doing it full time and I found it very difficult. I think your home life circumstances have a big bearing on your potential on the course if you are doing it full time. So for instance every few years, like when waves crash along the beach, you know you get one big one that comes along and it’s particularly rough. Well coinciding with me starting on the course my home life has been particularly difficult this year. So as an upshot of that I have stretched it out as long as I could. Initially I thought I’d do the whole lot sequentially and not get to the last modules that are on the timetable. I will have completed then the right amount of allocation before I got to the end but I’ve had to take a little bit of time out so this double module is my last two and the last two on the callender so I will intermit now for six months to get my home life settled down now and then hopefully I’ll pick up the thesis and complete it.


It does offer a good degree of flexibility. If I really needed to it’s really nice and reassuring to know that I could then convert onto part time at any point without any too serious circumstances. That’s a really nice thing to know and Rachel has been really supportive and a real asset to the course.


Student life is really good. It’s very diverse and it’s so refreshing to meet people from such a diverse range of backgrounds with a similar interest but from a whole multitude of different countries. You’re not just talking to the one homogenous type of person. Often you find on course the same type of people go on it. Here it is completely diverse, open wide and everyone has got the right sort of attitude – is welcoming, supportive. And because we are from so many different backgrounds there’s always someone that knows the thing you want to find about about, so the student body themselves are a massive resource you can tap into. I’ve made lots and lots of new friends and we all have an impact on each other really – a possitive one. I’ve found it really good, refreshing. I’m very positive and upbeat.


I’m keeping my options open at the moment. I may go back into teaching because sustainability education is a major part of what’s coming – or it should be. This course is certainly helping in that way. But I’d really like to combine the two things really and i’m not sure what shape that is going to take. I was actually offered a job on Monday. Someone that I have previously worked with knows I am doing this course and they need somebody to teach a little bit of what we do on this course so they approached me directly.


The WISE building is outstanding. It is, it’s a really inspirational building and it’s great to see what is taught on the course embodied in the structure of where you are. It’s almost a teaching resource in itself. It’s great to have Pat (the Archetect) on hand who can explain all the why things happen and why things are in particular places and what the features are of the bilding and how it really works – how it operates as a massive system rather than just individual elements and how one thing impacts another. It’s fantastic to have pat here with us – he is a great resource and he is so friendly and open. I really like the building, it is quite inspirational.

it's a really inspirational building and it's great to see what is taught on the course embodied in the structure of where you are


The course is really well structured I think you can dip into it and if you have a leaning towards one specialism or another then you can pick up multiple modules in that area. If you want a wide range of experiences or are not sure, like a lot of people are, it gives you a whole richness. It’s nice to see that people are experts and leaders in their field who are teaching on the course. Before I came here I looked at other courses in similar places but I found that the teaching staff weren’t particularly experts in their field or they had been drafted in from other departments where they were under utilised to deliver particlar modules. Here you know that everyone you speak to is a leader in their field and it comes through in the way they teach. As a professional teacher, having done ofstead training, I can’t help but assess how we are being taught and it is outstanding. If this was a school and Ofstead came in here they should get an outstanding in terms of the teaching. And it isn’t just the full time staff – it is also the guest lecturers that come in, in the main are really really good. They make some very complex conceptual ideas seem very simple.


I think because it is residential there isn’t really an end of the day. It’s not sort of like three O’clock finish – go home on the bus. You are actually here all the time so lectures go on quite late and when they are finished there is then the student body – working in small groups or friendship groups – and it extends the learning environment really. Even sharing with someone else that I haven’t met before – you’ve got that element of the course. Then there’s the discussions that happen in the room of an evening or maybe in the morning over breakfast and those communal times are just as important as the taught sessions because more information is probably transferred during those times as passed on during lectures.


On a previous module, when we were looking at generator theory there was someone who I was reasonable friendly with really struggled during the lecture to understand generator theory and because I understood it, I got it, what was being taught, I spent 2 hours going through it and the next day they are ups to speed again. That’s how it works and when I am behind in something and don’t grasp it they’ll be somebody that I can speak to who’ll suggest this is how it works and put it over in a different way. If there’s 60 people who are in a lecture they can’t possibly everybody get it straight away. It’s the strength of the student body that we all lookout for each other.


It’s been a positive experience, I would do it a again. You can’t say any better than that really. It has been well worth what I have paid and the time I have taken out of my career to do so it. I’ve really enjoyed every moment of it, even the difficult bits I’ve enjoyed It’s been really possitive. It’s probably the best course I have ever done and I’ve done thousands of courses. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done really – I should have done it years ago.

Raw Experience is a series or articles on the CAT blog where Students on the Renewable Energy and the Built Environment masters programme describe in their own terms what it is like to study at CAT. This is their raw testament: unedited, unbiased, real.