Archive for the Education Category

What’s the point of conferences?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 19, 2014 by telescoper

Well, here I am back in the office making a start on my extensive to-do list. Writing it, I mean. Not actually doing any of it.

It was nice to get away for a couple of weeks, to meet up with some old friends I haven’t seen for a while and also to catch up on some of the developments in my own field and other related areas. We do have pretty good seminar series here at Sussex which should in principle allow me to keep up to date with developments in my own research area, but unfortunately the timing of these events often clashes with other meetings  that I’m obliged to attend as Head of School. Escaping to a conference is a way of focussing on research for a while without interruption. At least that’s the idea.

While at the meeting, however, I was struck by a couple of things. First was that during the morning plenary lectures given by invited speakers almost everyone in the audience was spending much more time working on their laptops than listening to the talk.  This has been pretty standard at every meeting I’ve been to for the last several years. Now that everyone uses powerpoint (or equivalent) for such presentations nobody in the audience feels the need to take notes so to occupy themselves they spend the time answering emails or pottering about on Facebook. That behaviour does not depend on the quality of the talk, either. Since nobody seems to listen very much the question naturally arises as to whether the presentations have any intrinsic value at all. It often seems to me that the conference talk has turned into a kind of ritual that persists despite nobody really knowing what it’s for or how it originated. An hour is too long to talk if you really want people to listen, but we go on doing it.

The part of a conference session that’s more interesting is the discussion after each talk. Sometimes there’s a genuine discussion from which you learn something quite significant or get an idea for a new study.  There’s often also a considerable amount of posturing, preening and point-scoring which is less agreeable but in its own way I suppose fairly interesting.

At the meeting I was attending the afternoons were devoted to discussion sessions for which we split into groups. I was allocated to “Gravitation and Cosmology”; others were on “Cosmic Rays”, “Neutrino Physics and Astrophysics”, and so on. The group I was, of about 25 people, was a nice size for discussion. These sessions were generally planned around short “informal” presentations intended to stimulate discussion, but generally these presentations were about the same length as the plenary talks and also given in Powerpoint. There was discussion, but the format turned out to be less different from the morning sessions than I’d hoped for. I’m even more convinced than ever that Powerpoint presentations used in this way stifle rather than stimulate discussion and debate. The pre-prepared presentation is often used as a crutch by a speaker reluctant to adopt a more improvisatory approach that would probably be less polished but arguably more likely to generate new thoughts.

I don’t know whether the rise of Powerpoint is itself to blame for our collective unwillingness inability to find other ways of talking about science, but I’d love to try organizing a workshop or conference along lines radically different from the usual “I talk, you listen” format in which the presenter is active and the audience passive for far too long.

All this convinced me that the answer to the question “What is the point of conferences?” has very little to do with the formal  programme and more with the informal parts, especially the conversations over coffee and at dinner. Perhaps I should try arranging a conference that has nothing but dinner and coffee breaks on the schedule?

Mathematical and Physical Sciences Open Day at Sussex

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on October 4, 2014 by telescoper

It’s another open day at the University of Sussex so I’m on campus again to help out as best I can, although I have to admit that all the hard work is being done by others! It’s been extremely busy so far; in fact, I’m told that about 6000 visitors are on campus today. This a good sign for the forthcoming admissions round, probably buoyed by the improved position of the University of Sussex in the latest set of league tables and in excellent employment prospects for graduates.

Anyway the good folks of  the Department of Physics & Astronomy  and Department of Mathematics were here bright and early to get things ready:

IMG-20141004-00413

IMG-20141004-00414

All morning we’ve had a steady stream of visitors to the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (which comprises both Departments mentioned above). While I’m at it let me just give a special mention to Darren Baskill’s Outreach Team (seen in the team photograph below).
outreachThey have had absolutely amazing year, running a huge range of events and activities that have reached a staggering 14,000 people of all ages (including 12,000 of school age).

Anyway, I think I’ll toddle off and see if I can sit in on one of today’s lectures. It’s about time I learned something.

 

UPDATE: Here is Mark Hindmarsh about to get started on his lecture.

IMG-20141004-00415

You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw that he had included a quote from this blog in his talk:

I’ve worked in some good physics departments in my time, but the Department of Sussex is completely unique both for the level of support it offers students and the fact that so many of the undergraduates are so highly motivated.

And, yes, I did mean every word of that.

The Curse of Assessment-led Teaching

Posted in Education with tags , , on October 2, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday I took part in a University Teaching and Learning Strategy meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better. It was an interesting meeting, involving academics, administrative staff and representatives of the Students Union, that generated quite a few useful ideas. Looking through my back catalogue I realise that around this time year I was at a similar event based in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex of which I am Head.

Positive though yesterday’s discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. One part of the discussion was about trying to pin down essentially what is meant by “Research-led Teaching” which is what we’re supposed to be doing at universities. In my view too much teaching is not really led by research at all, but mainly driven by assessment. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning and certainly nothing like the way research is done.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely, but for the record my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it.

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, as many seem to want to encourage students to behave like robots, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

Athena SWAN Bronze for Physics & Astronomy at Sussex

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by telescoper

Athena Swan

Only  time for the quickest of quickies today, but I have some very good news to pass on so, without further ado, here we go. Today we learned that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has received a the Athena SWAN Bronze Award in recognition of our commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research. The Athena SWAN charter has been running since 2005, recognising the commitment of the higher education sector to address gender inequalities, tackle the unequal representation of women in science and to improve career progression for female academics.

This award has been the result of a huge effort led by Dr Kathy Romer but also involving many other members of staff in the Department and across entire  the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences generally. The Department scored at or above the national average in all key areas: student intake (UG, PGT, PGR), research staff, academic staff, REF submissions and so on. That said, the Athena SWAN process has highlighted several areas where improvements can be made, such as in the mentoring of female postdoctoral researchers, and enhanced levels of training in equality and diversity matters such as the influence of unconscious bias. We are very pleased to have received the bronze award, but there is still a very great deal to do. Many other institutions and departments have already progressed to the Silver or even Gold award, but our Bronze is at least a start!

 

 

Life, Work and Postgraduate Research

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Education with tags , , , , on September 21, 2014 by telescoper

A very busy Freshers’ Week at the University of Sussex is now behind us and lectures proper start tomorrow morning. As far as I was concerned all the Freshers’ events were superimposed on a week that was already filled with other things, some good (of which more anon), and some not so good (of which I will say nothing further).

After welcome receptions at the weekend, Freshers’ Week for me began with an induction lecture with all the new students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) or at least as many as could rouse themselves for a 10am start the day after a big welcome party. In the event, the turnout was good. I then gave another little speech at a much less formal event in the Creativity Zone (which is situated in the building occupied by MPS. I then had to dash off to a couple of meetings but when I returned a couple of hours later the party was still going, so I helped myself to a beer and rejoined the socializing.

IMG-20140915-00402

Welcome to the new students in MPS!

And so it was for the rest of the week, dominated by meetings of one sort or another including one in London, until Friday and my last formal induction task in the form of a session for new postgraduate students in MPS. Since this happened at the end of Induction Week there wasn’t much of a practical nature say to the students that they hadn’t already heard during the School-based induction sessions that preceded it, so I decided to scrap the Powerpoint I had planned to use and just give a general pep talk. Doing so was quite an interesting experience because it reminded me of the time I started my own postgraduate education, here at Sussex.

As a matter of fact it was on the corresponding day in 1985 (Sunday 22nd September) that I moved down to Brighton in advance of starting my DPhil (as Sussex doctorates were called in those days). It’s hard to believe that was 29 years ago. As it turned out, I finished my thesis within three years and stayed on here at Sussex as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre until 1990, whereupon I left to take up a teaching and research position at what is now Queen Mary, University of London. That was the start of a mini-tour of UK universities that ended up with me returning to Sussex last year as Head of the same school in which I started my research career.

This morning I noticed a story in the Times Higher about the loneliness and sense of isolation often faced by postgraduate research students which often leads to a crisis of confidence. I can certainly attest to that, for reasons I will try to explain below, so tried to reassure the students about it in the induction session on Friday.

The point is that a postgraduate research degree is very different from a programme of undergraduate study. For one thing, as a research student you are expected to work on your own a great deal of the time. That’s because nobody else will be doing precisely the same project so, although other students will help you out with some things, you’re not trying to solve the same problems as your peers as is the case with an undergraduate. Your supervisor will help you of course and make suggestions (of varying degrees of helpfulness), but a PhD is still a challenge that you have to meet on your own. I don’t think it is good supervisory practice to look over a research student’s shoulder all the time. It’s part of the purpose of a PhD that the student learns to go it alone. There is a balance of course, but my own supervisor was rather “hands off” and I regard that as the right way to supervise. I’ve always encouraged my own students to do things their own way rather than try to direct them too much.

That loneliness is tough in itself, but there’s also the scary fact that you do not usually know whether your problem has a solution, let alone whether you yourself can find it. There is no answer at the back of the book; if there were you would not be doing research. A good supervisor will suggest a project that he or she thinks is both interesting and feasible, but the expectation is that you will very quickly be in a position where you know more about that topic than your supervisor.

I think almost every research student goes through a phase in which they feel out of their depth. There are times when you get thoroughly stuck and you begin to think you will never crack it. Self-doubt, crisis of confidence, call it what you will, I think everyone who has done a postgraduate degree has experienced it. I certainly did. A year into my PhD I felt I was getting nowhere with the first problem I had been given to solve. All the other research students seemed much cleverer and more confident than me. Had I made a big mistake thinking I could this? I started to panic and began to think about what kind of job I should go into if I abandoned the idea of pursuing a career in research.

So why didn’t I quit? There were a number of factors, including the support and encouragement of my supervisor, staff and fellow students in the Astronomy Centre, and the fact that I loved living in Brighton, but above all it was because I knew that I would feel frustrated for the rest of my life if I didn’t see it through. I’m a bit obsessive about things like that. I can never leave a crossword unfinished either.

What happened was that after some discussion with my supervisor I shelved that first troublesome problem and tried another, much easier one. I cracked that fairly quickly and it became my first proper publication. Moreover, thinking about that other problem revealed that there was a way to finesse the difficulty I had failed to overcome in the first project. I returned to the first project and this time saw it through to completion. With my supervisor’s help that became my second paper, published in 1987.

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to complete a research degree you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. I was talking to a well-known physicist at a meeting not long ago and he told me that when he interviews prospective physics students he asks them “Can you live without physics?”. If the answer is “yes” then he tells them not to do a PhD. It’s not just a take-it-or-leave-it kind of job being a scientist. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’d imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well. Being “stuck” on a problem is part-and-parcel of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my PhD research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive.

So, for what it’s worth here is my advice to new postgraduate students. Work hard. Enjoy the challenge. Listen to advice from your supervisor, but remember that the PhD is your opportunity to establish your own identity as a researcher. Above all, in the words of the Desiderata:

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

Never feel guilty about establishing a proper work-life balance. Having more than one dimension to your life is will not only improve your well-being but also make you a better researcher.

Freshers’ Week Reminiscences

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on September 13, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am again, on campus, on a Saturday, this time to attend some receptions for new students (“Freshers”) who have just arrived at the University of Sussex to start their courses. I always enjoy meeting the new intake at this time of year; we sometimes call them “The Autumn Collection”, although it’s only mid-September and definitely not autumn yet. In fact it’s very warm and sunny and summery on Falmer campus today. The  downside of these annual events is that the students look much younger every year, so every one makes me feel a lot older than the one before!

Looking through my back catalogue of blog posts I realize that this blog is six years old next week. One of my first blog posts was about  memories of my own first day at University and it seems appropriate to repeat some of it here. I notice actually that virtually all Freshers’ weeks I’ve written about over the past six years have been accompanied by fine weather. I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn. I did it 32 years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it anyway. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, we trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge. The weather, at least in my memory, was exactly like today.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit” (whatever that is).

Taking a taxi from the station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, for some time before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyens building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realized that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing. I’ve had that feeling ever since, but after 32 years I think I’m used to it.

Newcastle Joins the Resurgence of UK Physics

Posted in Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 17, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve posted a couple of times about how Physics seems to undergoing a considerable resurgence in popularity at undergraduate level across the United Kingdom, with e.g. Lincoln University setting up a new programme. Now there’s further evidence in that Newcastle University has now decided to re-open its Physics course for 2015 entry.

The University of Newcastle had an undergraduate course in Physics until 2004 when it decided to close it down, apparently owing to lack of demand. They did carry on doing some physics research (in nanoscience, biophysics, optics and astronomy) but not within a standalone physics department. The mid-2000s were tough for UK physics,  and many departments were on the brink at that time. Reading, for example, closed its Physics department in 2006; there is talk that they might be starting again too.

The background to the Newcastle decision is that admissions to physics departments across the country are growing at a healthy rate, a fact that could not have been imagined just ten years ago. Times were tough here at Sussex until relatively recently, but now we’re expanding on the back of increased student numbers and research successes. Indeed having just been through a very busy clearing and confirmation period at Sussex University, it is notable that its the science Schools that have generally done best.  Sussex has traditionally been viewed as basically a Liberal Arts College with some science departments; over 70% of the students here at present are not studying science subjects. With Mathematics this year overtaking English as the most popular A-level choice, this may well change the complexion of Sussex University relatively rapidly.

I’ve always felt that it’s a scandal that there are only around 40 UK “universities” with physics departments Call me old-fashioned, but I think a university without a physics department is not a university at all; it’s particularly strange that a Russell Group university such as Newcastle should not offer a physics degree. I believe in the value of physics for its own sake as well as for the numerous wider benefits it offers society in terms of new technologies and skills. Although the opening of a new physics department will create more competition for the rest of us, I think it’s a very good thing for the subject and for the Higher Education sector general.

That said, it won’t be an easy task to restart an undergraduate physics programme in Newcastle, especially if it is intended to have as large an intake as most successful existing departments (i.e. well over 100 each year). Students will be applying in late 2014 or early 2015 for entry in September 2015. The problem is that the new course won’t figure in any of the league tables on which most potential students based their choice of university. They won’t have an NSS score either. Also their courses  will probably need some time before it can be accredited by the Institute of Physics (as most UK physics courses are).

There’s a lot of ground to make up, and my guess is that it will take some years to built up a significant intake.The University bosses will therefore have to be patient and be prepared to invest heavily in this initiative until it can break even. The decision a decade ago to cut physics doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that they will be prepared to do this, but times have changed and so have the people at the helm so maybe that’s an unfair comment.

There are also difficulties on the research side (which is also vital for a proper undergraduate teaching programme), there are also difficulties. Grant funding is already spread very thin, and there is little sign of any improvement for the foreseeable future  in the “flat cash” situation we’re currently in. There’s also the stifling effect of theResearch Excellence Framework I’ve blogged about before. I don’t know whether Newcastle University intends to expand its staff numbers in Physics or just to rearrange existing staff into a new department, but if they do the former they will have to succeed against well-established competitors in an increasingly tight funding regime. A great deal of thought will have to go into deciding which areas of research to develop, especially as their main regional competitor, Durham University, is very strong in physics.

On the other hand, there are some positives, not least of which is that Newcastle is and has always been a very popular city for students (being of course the finest city in the whole world). These days funding follows students, so that could be a very powerful card if played wisely.

Anyway, these are all problems for other people to deal with. What I really wanted to do was to wish this new venture well and to congratulate Newcastle on rejoining the ranks of proper universities (i.e. ones with physics departments). Any others thinking of joining the club?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,687 other followers