Canadian Consulting Engineer

A Bubbling Brain

January 1, 2005
By Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng.

Where theatre meets engineering, where education meets engineering, that's where you'll find Dr Caroline Baillie. She is Dupont Canada Chair of Engineering Education and Professor of Materials Enginee...

Where theatre meets engineering, where education meets engineering, that’s where you’ll find Dr Caroline Baillie. She is Dupont Canada Chair of Engineering Education and Professor of Materials Engineering at Queen’s University, and also director of the Critical Stage Company. She has a list of theatre productions to her name. She is the author of over 100 publications on engineering and education, including five books, with more to come. And these are but a few strings to her bow. She has other interests and surprises — social justice, poetry, broadcasting, her motorcycle, and training in Gestalt therapy, to name a few.

Engineering was a choice, an opportunity to use her brain, as she puts it. In all her roles, that brain bubbles with the spirit of inquiry. Before coming to Canada nearly two years ago, she was senior lecturer in engineering and deputy director of the Centre for Materials Education at Liverpool University in the U.K., and before that was lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia.

While most engineers hope to do interesting work in the course of their careers, few expect to use their professional knowledge in the theatre, on the other side of the footlights. But the theatre is a passion for Baillie. “I was on stage probably when I was three. I was the bad witch in Sleeping Beauty.” She never let go of her passion, putting on plays and running the drama society at university. Where this love of theatre meets science and her knowledge of materials, the result is both instructive and entertaining.

Baillie’s Critical Stage Company weaves scientific and social themes into its works. Baillie writes, directs and acts. In her play Experience the Innocence, she uses the poetry of William Blake to explore the life of a homeless woman (played by herself). Another recent production she directed is Copenhagen. Written by Michael Frayn, the play is based on a historic meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, two names that conjure up visions of chemistry classes, one attached to a baffling uncertainty principle, the other to a counter-intuitive postulate about the dual nature of atomic particles. In Copenhagen, they become people, not just equations and theories.

When word spread that the BBC was looking for engineers and scientists for a new television series, Baillie’s friends volunteered her. This led to a leading role in the BBC’s, “Building the Impossible.” In the series, teams of scientists and engineers had to build ancient inventions. Creative thinking was a key objective so they were asked to think on camera. In one episode they reconstructed the first submarine (made of wood) which, according to historical accounts, sailed under the Thames in 1621.

Education is another of Baillie’s passions. Breaking down barriers between disciplines, improving the quality of teaching and learning, stimulating creative thinking, are the goals of the many workshops and projects she has organized, with apparently life-changing results for some participants.

In her keynote speech at the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers’ Fall Forum in October, Baillie introduced the audience to Polly Ethylene and her friends, players in the Dream 2B Green project. The play was mounted to help unemployed women in Leeds and to encourage recycling. The players learn about the science of plastics, upgrade their skills and boost their confidence.

The insights of the theatre and human experience add depth to Baillie’s work: the magical excitement of discovery, the soul in science, the meaning of engineering not just the methods, the engineer as an authentic personality, not just a cog in the professional machinery.

Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng. is contributing editor of Canadian Consulting Engineer. She is based in Toronto.


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