Monthly Archives: November 2018

Costa Rica team photo, Newcastle University, Raleigh International

Raleigh Expedition to Costa Rica

In this blog post Lizzie, a Stage 4 Civil Engineering student, tells us all about her involvement in the Raleigh International expedition to Costa Rica…

It is true that nothing in the lead up to departure can prepare you for your Raleigh expedition. After a long and weary 24 hours of travelling (not to mention the 3am start), a tired bunch of 11 engineers arrived in San Jose. Exhausted, we longed for a bed and a goods night sleep… how naïve we all were.

Training base location
Training base location

We were taken to a school sports hall where we spent our first night on the floor, before being taken to the training base location at Grana de Ore. Spirits were running high after being treated to a traditional Costa Rican breakfast of Gallo Pinto, (little did we know we would be subject to porridge for the next 40 breakfasts). We completed our four days of training, giving us an insight into what was in store for us.

Typical sleeping arrangement
Typical sleeping arrangement


Next stop, Trisbäklä A two-hour minibus ride, followed by a four-hour trek through the jungle and across some questionable bridges, rucksacks fully laden, we arrived in Tsirbäklä – home for the next three weeks. A quick duct tape job of our ‘bedroom’ (recommendation: don’t miss off the kit list, it will become your best friend against spiders and cockroaches), mosquito nets up, roll mats down and we were ready for our first meal, rice and beans.

 Trek route into Trisbäklä
Trek route into Trisbäklä

Panic not, whilst rice was the staple component of every meal, including one breakfast, we had a cook sent from heaven who treated us to 4pm snacks every day of the most delicious pancakes and empanadas – food was no issue. Every effort was made to make the environment as homely as possible for everyone, with cleaning rotas, ‘family’ dinner times, more card games than I’ve ever played and competitive quizzes. I settled into the routine surprisingly quickly and was ready to tackle the school build.

Further along the trek route
Further along the trek route

Construction Phase

The main purpose of the expedition was to construct a kindergarten, extending the educational opportunities of the community we were staying in. The process was hard work, starting first with excavating and levelling out the ground, using tools very different to those in the UK and struggling with unpredictable weather conditions.

The site pre-construction
The site pre-construction

Teamwork and determination saw us onto the next stage: building the frame. I personally found this difficult due to my sufficient lack of experience in carpentry skills. With encouragement and tips from my peers, I soon had the hammer work nailed! Up went the frame and we began the concrete mixing and pouring, for the floor. Again, very strenuous but incredibly rewarding as work was fast paced by this point and the final result was in sight. Half a splash of paint to the building (the school children were to finish painting the rest of the building) and voilà, a fully constructed kindergarten was successfully delivered within three weeks. Sounds easy writing it out, but there were many challenges and lessons learned along the way.

Site after construction
Site after construction

The greatest challenge was the large team, comprising people from different backgrounds, nationalities and languages, working in such a small space. It very quickly became apparent that patience and communication were vital for success. My interpersonal skills increased and I learnt how to compromise in finding solutions, as this was very different to usual solutions at home . The words “Mañana Mañana” will forever ring in my ears, reminding me of the laid back and relaxed attitude of the locals.

Community Integration

Whilst our main purpose in Tsirbäklä was to deliver the school, it was also an opportunity to integrate with the local community, experiencing their culture and learning why the project was important to them. From house visits to adopting Pablo the local dog, we truly felt welcomed and appreciated during our stay. Weekly football matches between the community and our team turned very competitive as we showcased some of Newcastle’s finest football talent, successfully taking the final win.

Weekly football match with the locals
Weekly football match with the locals

Teaching English lessons every morning to the school children and visiting the homes of community members gave us a real insight into the community lifestyle and into the opportunities that would be further available as a result of our work here. Our final day concluded with a community celebration where we sang, ate and played together. It was at this point where the realisation of how much the school meant to the community hit me; I have brought this home with me and remain very self-aware of opportunities that surround me, conscious not to take things for granted.

Community house visit
Community house visit

Trek Phase

The final phase of the expedition concluded with a six-day trek, covering 75km across the mountainous region. This was the hardest physical and mental challenge I have ever faced, pushing me out of my comfort zone and achieving things I didn’t think were possible. The relationships formed with my team were surprisingly strong over such a short amount of time; we supported, encouraged and helped each other to reach our goal. The views will remain some of the most breath-taking, spectacular memories I have experienced.

Views from the final trek phase
Views from the final trek phase


Upon my return, I have been asked countless times for a single highlight of my trip. This is impossible for me; I am unable to single out one aspect of such as amazing experience. The number of memories experienced in only five weeks in such an amazing country are endless, and there isn’t a single one that hasn’t left a lasting story in my mind.

Whilst clichéd, I find myself profoundly agreeing with the famous Saint Augustine saying, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only one page”. I simply wish that everyone could receive the fantastic opportunity of completing a Raleigh expedition.

If you would like to find out more about studying Engineering at Newcastle visit our webpages here: or chat to one of our students on our Unibuddy instant messaging platform (scroll to the bottom of the page).

ROV Testing Session

The wonderings of an engineering student

Today we are featuring a guest post from Jun Wei Fan – a naval architecture student who tells us about his experience with the Newcastle University Marine Projects Society.

rover (noun) a person who spends their time wandering

Towards the end of my first academic year, I found myself wondering – how do I make my time in university more fulfilling? It felt as though there was just something lacking from my life. Lost, I was. That was until I made an impromptu decision to run for President of the Newcastle University Marine Projects Society, succeeding and becoming Team Captain of the Newcastle University ROVers. Perhaps it’s no mere coincidence that I joined the ROVers to both start and stop roving – as in start building ROVs and stop wandering around aimlessly like a lost soul.

At this point, the unacquainted might be puzzled. What’s a ROV? Who are the ROVers? Well, simply put, the Newcastle University ROVers is a competitive team comprising members of the Newcastle University Marine Projects Society coming together to build a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). 

We started off with our roots within the Marine, Offshore and Subsea Technology group. Initially, the competitions we partook in were very marine-centric and teams comprised of only Marine Technology students, but in the years since, we’ve evolved to take on bigger, more challenging projects. In line with the new integrated School of Engineering, and the Head of School’s (Prof. Phil Taylor) encouragement of interdisciplinary projects, the Marine Projects Society now cherishes the benefits of working in multidisciplinary teams. This has allowed us to harness the full potential of each member from the various field of engineering! Rather than having marine tech students attempting to do everything from ground up, we are now able to draw upon the expertise of students from computing/electrical/mechanical/etc., accomplishing more at a faster pace.

3D CAD model of ROV
Computer Aided Design (CAD) Model of the ROV

In the outside world, employers expect graduates to work in interdisciplinary teams, leveraging on the complementary skill sets of each individual. In university however, us students are, more often than not, confined to working within our respective courses. And that is why the Marine Projects Society has embraced Prof. Taylor’s vision for a truly integrated School of Engineering, with students and faculty working seamlessly across disciplines to produce ground-breaking solutions.

Joining the society has given me the unique opportunity to experience what it’s like to work with other engineers and to understand their concerns; and working on the ROV project has forced me to take a broader view of matters at hand. In the past year, I’ve learnt how to fully consider the different aspects of an engineering project and as Captain, I’ve had to balance conflicting demands from the different sub-teams (electrical, marine, mechanical, systems) to achieve the optimum solution for the ROV.

Team enjoying dinner after a work session
The Team out for a late-night dinner after a long work session

The ROV project has also taught me many valuable skills and lessons – things which you’ll find hard-pressed to pick up in your daily lectures – but most importantly, it has allowed me to become a practical engineer. Theory is indeed important and as engineers, when we set out to design something, we too rely on theoretical knowledge to produce an initial design. But you’ll find that many things often work theoretically and yet fail in reality. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the notion of producing the perfect design.

Realistically speaking however, a number of different factors will hinder one’s ability to achieve that grandeur. Budget, size, material availability, these are all limitations that affected us while designing & building the ROV – and these challenges will differ from project to project! But learning how to work within and around these constraints has allowed all of us to become better engineers, engineers who are not just tied down by theory but are capable of thinking on our feet, adapting to changing circumstances. 

The internal electronics of the ROV
Internal Electronics of the ROV sitting inside our watertight housing

One of the reasons why we chose to embark on this ROV project is the unique set of challenges associated with designing something for prolonged operation in water. Water is a harsh and unforgiving environment, something us Marine Tech students will gladly tell you all about. It’s also common knowledge that water and electricity don’t mix well, which is why our team spent considerable efforts to make sure everything was watertight, and waterproof where we were unable to keep water out. This involved extensive use of O-Rings, silicon grease, stinky epoxy, coating of exposed elements with resin, and slathering sealing points with more disgusting pump grease than we’d like to admit. All that was critical in ensuring that no water could come into contact with electricity for risk of rendering the entire water body live and electrocuting ourselves.

The ROV ready for testing in our towing tank 
The ROV ready for testing in our towing tank

But all that would not have been possible without a few key people. Having a dedicated advisor to guide us on this project was vital in ensuring that we could come as far as we did. Dr Maryam Haroutunian went above and beyond in her role, always setting aside time to advise us and listen to our updates and to join us on testing sessions. She even came back to the labs on a weekend just so we could drop the ROV into the water for ballasting and test runs!

We also have the hydrolabs team to thank for helping us with the more technical construction aspects and for tolerating us. Special mention goes to Bob Hindhaugh and Ian Howard-Row for their continued support in allowing us to use the hydrodynamics laboratory’s facilities and for offering insights from their wealth of experience, and for allowing us the freedom to exercise our creativity even when you know some ideas might not work out ultimately.

The Team during an overnight work session
The Team during an overnight worksession

But, it’s not just all work and no fun! (although work can be equally fun if you’re passionate about it) Members of the Marine Projects Society also had the unique chance to interact with the industry. The society hosted a talk by Nick Ridley, Principal Engineer of Soil Machine Dynamics (SMD), and we also got the chance to visit SMD for a site tour and see how they build ROVs up close. Both the talk and the trip gave our team some inspiration and guidance on designing ROVs, and was a delightful experience for all whom attended!

Site Visits to SMD 
Site Visits to SMD
More from the site visit to SMD
More from the site visit to SMD

Throughout this amazing journey, our team has gained valuable experience and knowledge that we now treasure deeply. Armed with this, we’re looking forward to the academic year 2018/19, where we hope to take the society to greater heights! In the pipeline are projects such as the ROV2.0 and other exciting (but still pending) ideas such as a Solar Car/Boat. It is our greatest wish that many new engineers will join us for a thrilling year of roving!

ROV Testing Session For myself, I’m equally exhilarated about starting on Stage 3 – a year where we begin to specialise in more advanced Naval Architecture concepts and reinforce our fundamentals through design projects and more. If anything, working on the ROV project has enhanced my desire to master not just the relevant technical know-how but also the interpersonal skills necessary for working on interdisciplinary projects after graduation! That is something I feel all Engineers should possess!

Sugar Awareness Week

Graduate Ambassador, James Cheng, gives us an insight into the sweet substance that we all love so much for Sugar Awareness Week.

What is sugar?

In society, sugar is commonly known as a sweet granular-like substance used in many foods. Children often cannot get enough of it and our perception of sweet is generally accepted as an evolutionary adaptation that draws us to high energy foods sources that were historically scarce.

The issue that our population now face is that since we have mastered the environment around us, we can cultivate and refine foods high in sugar that appeal to our evolutionary biology. This causes many problems since our bodies have not evolved to cope with high levels of sugar consumption.

The body can easily work with sugar, directing it where energy is needed while also being able to store the energy away as fat when in excess hence why too much is bad. Compared to the long complex structure of carbohydrates, your body doesn’t spend quite so much time processing these short sugar chains so the energy inside is readily available.

Why is it sweet?

Similar to how we evolved to taste many harmful substances as bitter to instinctively avoid its consumption, it is believed that the association of sugar and the sweet taste is a positive attractant making us want to eat more. This in part is linked with the reward pathway leading in the brain, releasing a chemical called dopamine which scientists have found to be associated with addiction.

Children Love Sugar!

It’s common knowledge that children have a particularly strong craving for sugar compared to adults. This observation has scientific merit, with researchers showing newly born children prefer sweet tastes. This is believed to naturally attract them to their mother’s milk. This preference is maintained up to adulthood at which point the attraction to sweet foods decline, coinciding with when you stop growing. Newborns respond to even dilute sweet tastes, differentiate varying degrees of sweetness, and, given the choice, will consume more of a sugar solution than water. This behaviour has also been observed in other mammals and it is believed that sweet preference is associated with a need for more calories. It’s important to point out that increased intake of sugar is not an appropriate method to increase calories.

The Tooth about Teeth

A high sugar diet correlates with increased tooth decay. It is a common misconception that sugar is direct responsible for teeth decay. What actually happens is that the bacteria on your teeth, such as Streptococcus mutans, release minute amounts of acid. This slowly breaks down the structure of the enamel gaining access to the dentine below, subsequently causing tooth sensitivity and decay. A high sugar environment for the bacteria on the teeth leads to their increased growth and therefore increased acid release.

While an apple and a glass of apple juice might equate to the same amount of sugar in terms of your diet, an apple is much healthier for your teeth. Biting and swallowing chunks of apple means that sugar will be trapped in the structure of the apple pieces effectively bypassing contact with your teeth, however drinking a glass of apple juice means that your teeth are exposed to all the sugar. Whole fruit has a whole plethora of benefits over juice.

Sweet isn’t so innocent

In moderate consumption lots of research has shown that in infants, immediately after tasting sweet solutions they exhibit positive emotional reactions and can even trigger automatic responses leading to relaxation of agitated infants.

Lots of research has been ongoing about the effects of sugar on the body and it has been well established that an increase or decrease in sugar is associated with a parallel change in body weight. As such the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend less than 10% of our total energy intake should be derived from sugar. Furthermore a high fat and sugar diet has been shown to promote muscle breakdown, inflammation and impaired glucose transport that eventually leads to Type II diabetes.

Visit to learn more about the History of Sugar!

Happy GIS Day!

Our Outreach Officer and Geoscience expert, Dr. Pippa Cowles, explains everything you need to know about GIS for GIS Day.

Today is GIS Day, GIS I hear you say what is that? You may have heard of it in your geography class before. GIS stands for Geographic Information System and connects geography with data – lots and lots of data! It helps us understand what belongs where and looks at data connected to a particular location.

Data can be anything from maps, aerial photos, satellite imagery to spreadsheets. GIS allows all these data types to be laid on top of one another on a single map. It uses location as the common point to relate all these data set together.

GIS can help supermarkets plan where to open a new store, help the police analyse crime patterns, or help aid vehicles get to a location using the fastest route.

GIS lets us create, manage and analyse geospatial data and visualise the results on a map to help us make more informed decisions.

Explore the relationship between Earthquakes, Plate tectonics and Volcanoes using GIS here.

What does it show? What information is stored about the Earthquakes and Volcanoes?

Find out more about GIS day and how you can book a free Introduction to GIS workshop for your school.