Archive for the Education Category

End of Term Report: David Willetts

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on July 15, 2014 by telescoper

News broke yesterday that the Minister responsible for Universities and Science within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, David Willetts, had stepped down from his role and would be leaving Parliament at the next election.

Willetts’ departure isn’t particularly surprising in itself, but its announcement came along with a host of other sackings and resignations in a pre-Election cabinet reshuffle that was much wider in its scope than most expected. It seems to me that Prime Minster David Cameron has decided to play to the gallery again. After almost four years in which his Cabinet has been dominated by white males, most of them nondescript timeserving political hacks without beards, he has culled some of them at random to try to pretend that he does after all care about equality and diversity. Actually, I don’t think David Cameron cares for very much at all apart from his own political future and this is just a cynical attempt to win back some votes before the next Polling Day, presumably in May 2015. Rumour has it that one of the new Cabinet ministers may even have facial hair. Such progress.

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David Willetts was planning to step down at the next General Election anyway so his departure now was pretty much inevitable. I never agreed with his politics, but have to admit that he was a Minister who at least understood some things about Higher Education. In particular he knew the value of science and secured a flat cash settlement for the science budget at a time when other Whitehall budgets were suffering drastic cuts. He was by no means all bad. He even had the good taste – so I’m told – to read this blog from time to time….

The campaigning organization Science is Vital has expressed its sadness at his departure:

We’re sorry to see David Willetts moved from the Science Minister role. He listened, in person, to our arguments for increasing public funding for science, and we appreciated the support he showed for science within the government.

We look forward to renewed dialogue with his successor, in order to continue to press the case that science is vital for the UK.

Now that he has gone, my main worry is that the commitments he gave to ring-fence the science budget will go with him. I don’t know anything about his replacement, Greg Clark, though I hope he follows his predecessor at least in this regard.

Other aspects of Willetts’ tenure of the Higher Education office are much less positive. He has provided over an ideologically-driven rush to force the University sector into an era of chaos and instability, driven by a rigged quasi-market propelled by an unsustainable system of tuition fees funded by student loans, a large fraction of which will never be repaid.

Another of Willetts’ notable failures relates to Open Access. Although apparently grasping the argument and make all the right noises about breaking the stranglehold exerted on academia by outmoded forms of publication, he sadly allowed the agenda to be hijacked by vested interests in the academic publishing lobby. Fortunately, there’s still a very strong chance that academics can take this particular issue into their own hands instead of relying on the politicians who time and time again prove themselves to be in the pockets of big business.

My biggest fear for Higher Education at the moment is that the new Minister will turn out to be far worse and that if the Conservatives win the next election (which is far from unlikely), Science is Vital will have to return to Whitehall to protest against the inevitable cuts. If that happens, it may well be that David Willetts is remembered not as the man who saved British science, but the man who gave it a stay of execution.

Awards Day at West Dean College

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

Last week was a very busy week at the University of Sussex (including the Graduation Ceremony for students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences), and yesterday (Saturday) saw me attending another event on quasi-official business, this time at West Dean College, which is situated in West Sussex, a few miles North of Chichester.

The occasion for my visit there was Awards Day at the college, and I got the chance to go because one of our Pro-Vice Chancellors was unable to attend so I volunteered to go in her place. I didn’t know much about the College before yesterday, except that it is one of several institutions whose degree programmes are validated by the University of Sussex.

In fact, the College provides MA degrees, diplomas and short courses for students of all abilities, from the beginner to the advanced professional practitioner across a wide range of creative arts, design and conservation (including rare and old books, furniture, and clocks).  The various degree certificates, diplomas and other prizes were handed out to students of all ages, which was great to see. Before I go on I just like to congratulate them all again on their wonderful achievements, especially those creative arts students whose work we were able to view after the ceremony including prize-winning sculptures by Lotti V Closs. I even made a discreet inquiry about whether it was possible to buy some of the pieces…

Anyway, West Dean College is based in West Dean House, part of an ancient estate that was eventually inherited by the poet Edward James, a notable patron of the arts particularly famous for his support of the surrealist movement. The house was extensively modified during the late around about the turn of the twentieth century which presumably accounts for the distinctive arts-and-crafts look of some of the exterior.

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The house is surrounded by an estate of 6000 acres in beautiful countryside. Ownership of the house, the estate and the art collection housed therein was transferred to the Edward James Foundation, a charitable educational trust, in 1964.

Many sheep were in attendance, although they didn’t come to the actual ceremony. To be honest, it was a much grander setting than I’d imagined it would be. In fact I think the last time I saw a place like West Dean House it was the site of a Country House Murder during an episode of Midsomer Murders or some such. The awards ceremony was held held in a Marquee on the lawns which, in the muggy weather, was a little uncomfortable though the programmes came in very useful as fans. Fortunately it all passed off peacefully without any murders although I did see a large group of crows in the fields, if that counts.

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The manner of my arrival was much less grand than the location seemed to require. I took the train from Brighton to Chichester and then got a bus to West Dean. Being about half an hour early for the kickoff, I had time to walk around the grounds of the house. There’s a beautiful walled garden with many lovely flowers.

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I recognized  Crocosmia Lucifer and Phlox among the following..

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These curious but beautiful lantern-shaped flowers evidently belong to some type of lily, but I don’t know what kind. Any offers? (UPDATE: I am reliably informed that these are examples of Erythronium Pagoda
..)

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The walled garden is just one small part of the estate, which also comprises workshops and studios used by the students, a very nice dining room and bar area plus rooms for meetings and conferences. I enjoyed a quick tour of the facilities after the Awards Ceremony, but must go back some other time to have a proper look. The other gardens are fine too:

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And this pergola would put most garden varieties to shame!

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Anyway, since one of the Prizes presented yesterday was for blogging about conservation, I couldn’t resist advertising the West Dean College blogs. They have two, in fact, one for Conservation (here) and one for Visual Arts (here). These are both hosted on wordpress platforms, so if you’re following this blog on WordPress why not give them a follow too?

Come to the Edge

Posted in Education, Poetry with tags , , on July 12, 2014 by telescoper

Just back home after a very pleasant trip to West Sussex, about which I’ll blog tomorrow. During the course of the afternoon, however, I heard the following short but very effective poem which seems apt to dedicate to all the recent graduates of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
And we pushed,
And they flew.

by Christopher Logue (1926-2011)

Honoris Causa, Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 10, 2014 by telescoper

This morning I had the privilege of participating in a graduation ceremony at the University of Sussex. It was great to get to shake the hands of all the successful graduates as they crossed the stage to receive their degrees. I hope I’ll be able to collect a few pictures of the occasion and post them in due course.

 

Kouveliotou

I also had the privilege of being able to present an extremely distinguished honorary graduand, Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou. Here the oration I delivered, which I’m posting simply to record her amazing achievements and to underline that she is one of many people who have done the MSc in Astronomy at Sussex University and gone on to do great things…

 

Vice-Chancellor,

It is both a pleasure and an honour to present for the award of the degree of Doctor of Science, Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou.

Inspired by watching Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon, Dr Kouveliotou always wanted to be an astronaut but, with no such opportunities apparently on offer in her native, she instead chose a career in astronomy. However, when she completed college Greece her astronomy professor (who shall remain nameless) advised her that there was no future for her in astrophysics. She has never known whether he really thought it was a poor choice or whether it was because she was a woman. Determined to follow her own path, she disregarded him completely and, even though her open-minded parents’ preference was for her to settle down and stay in her home country, she left to study for her Master’s degree in Astronomy at the University of Sussex; the topic of her dissertation was “The Sodium emission cloud around Io: mapping and correlation with Jupiter’s magnetic field”. She received the MSc in Astronomy in 1977. Although the topic of her subsequent research was rather different, the connection with magnetic fields remained strong.

Dr Kouveliotou then moved to Germany to do postgraduate research on the-then very new topic of gamma-ray bursts. Indeed, she may well have been the very first person to complete a thesis on this, which remains to this day an extremely active and exciting field of research. Gamma-ray bursts are considered to be the most powerful explosions in the universe, second only to the Big Bang itself.

After completing her PhD, Dr Kouveliotou returned to Greece to teach Physics and Astronomy at the University of Athens. All the while she knew that she really wanted to do research so spent her free time pursuing this goal. Every vacation and on her one-year sabbatical she went to the USA to undertake research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Her work was on solar flares but she moonlighted during evenings, nights and weekends researching her ‘first love’ gamma-ray bursts. Because of the research she undertook outside her “day job”, she found a series of bursts which all came from the same part of the sky and, as a result, became part of the discovery team for a brand new phenomenon called a soft gamma-ray repeater.

By observing gamma rays produced in space, her team discovered an example of a new class of exotic astronomical object called a magnetar, an object which has a magnetic field trillions of times stronger than that of the Earth. A magnetar is now known to be a type of neutron star, a burnt-out relic resulting from the death of an ordinary star in a supernova explosion.

Dr Kouveliotou has always loved to ask big questions, to look at the universe and ask how nature expresses itself. By overcoming obstacles in her path she really has reached the stars. In January 2013 Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou was named the Senior Scientist for High Energy Astrophysics, Science and Research Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Alabama.

She has received many awards for her work, including the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal in 2012 and the NASA Space Act Award in 2005. She was also named amongst Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in Space in 2012. In 2003 she was honoured with the annual Rossi Prize by the High Energy Astrophysics division of the American Astronomical Society for a significant contribution to high-energy astrophysics. In 2002 she received the Descartes Prize which recognises scientific breakthroughs from European collaborative research in any scientific field. In the awards bestowed upon her she has also been recognised for her effectiveness at creating the sort of large collaboration needed to make effective use of multi-wavelength astronomical observations.

Dr Kouveliotou has published almost 400 papers in refereed scientific journals and has been amongst the top 10 most-cited space science researchers in the academic literature across the world. She has been elected chair of the Division of Astrophysics of the American Physical Society and is a member of the Council of the American Astronomical Society, of which she chairs the High Energy Astrophysics Division.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou.

 

 

Talking About Undergraduate Physics Research…

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 2, 2014 by telescoper

One of the courses we offer in the School of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex is the integrated Masters in Physics with a Research Placement. Aimed at high-flying students with ambitions to become research physicists, this programme includes a paid research placement as a Junior Research Associate each summer vacation for the duration of the course; that means between Years 1 & 2, Years 2 & 3 and Years 3 & 4 . This course has proved extremely attractive to a large number of very talented students and it exemplifies the way the Department of Physics & Astronomy integrates world-class research with its teaching in a uniquely successful and imaginative way.

Some time ago I blogged about  some very good news about one of our undergraduate researchers, Talitha Bromwich, who is about to graduate from her MPhys degree, after which she will be heading to Oxford to start her PhD DPhil; she is pictured below with her supervisor Dr Simon Peeters:

Talitha Bromwich with her JRA supervisor Dr Simon Peeters at 'Posters in Parliament' event 25 Feb 14

Talitha spent last summer working on the DEAP3600 dark-matter detector after being selected for the University’s Junior Research Associate scheme. Her project won first prize at the University’s JRA poster exhibition last October, and she was then chosen to present her findings – alongside undergraduate researchers from 22 other universities – in Westminster yesterday as part of the annual Posters in Parliament exhibition, organized under the auspices of the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR).

A judging panel – consisting of Ben Wallace MP, Conservative MP for Wyre and Preston North; Sean Coughlan, Education Correspondent for the BBC; and Professor Julio Rivera, President of the US Council of Undergraduate Research; and Katherine Harrington of the Higher Education Academy – decided to award Talitha’s project First Prize in this extremely prestigious competition.

We held a small drinks party in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences to congratulate Talitha on her success. Here are a couple of pictures of that occasion:

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From left to right you see Simon Peeters, myself, Talitha and Prof. Michael Farthing (the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex); the winning poster is in the background. Here’s me presenting a little gift:

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More recently still, the MPS Elves have made a little video featuring Talitha talking about her research placement:

We take undergraduate research very seriously here at the University of Sussex, and are now extending the Research Placement scheme to Mathematics. Many Departments talk about how important it is that their teaching is based on state-of-the-art research, but here at Sussex we don’t just talk about research to undergraduates – we let them do it!

 

A Clean Sweep For Team MPS

Posted in Education, Sport with tags , , on June 19, 2014 by telescoper

It is with great pleasure that I announce another outstanding result for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS). While minor unexciting sporting contests go on elsewhere in the world, all true sports fans have had their eyes literally glued on events on Falmer campus. Sussex University’s annual Fit to Get Committed Commit to Get Fit reached its final stages yesterday with the audience literally electrified by a thrilling Rounders competition. Team MPS didn’t win that event; although playing very well they were just a bit short of clichés, especially in the final third.

I wasn’t able to attend today’s lunchtime prize-giving event owing to a prior commitment. In fact I was on a course learning how to make legally fair disciplinary decisions. Fortunately this turned out to be an unnecessary precaution, as the MPS Commit to Get Fit team won all the awards!

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Well done to Matt for winning Best Blog by an Individual and to Naomi who was presented with a Special Individual Achievement award for her dedication as Team Captain, her personal achievements and fundraising activities where she dressed up as a musketeer for the day, together with Matt, to raise money for the Rocking Horse Foundation. Together they managed to raise a whopping £210!

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Last but not least, Team MPS scooped the top award with a trophy for Most Inspiring Team.

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So once again the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences sweeps the board. Literally.

 

Pass List Party

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

Well, as I mentioned yesterday the pass lists for students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex went up at noon. Students and staff started to gather a bit in advance and we also made a few preparations for the celebration ..

Pass list prep

When the results were wheeled out there was an immediate scrum accompanied by plentiful popping of Prosecco corks.

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I’d just like to congratulate all our students on their success. The results were truly excellent this year. Enjoy the moment and be proud of their achievement. I suspect that many will have been enjoying the day out in the sunshine perhaps even with a small intake of alcoholic refreshment. I on the other hand have been at Senate all afternoon. But I’m not bitter…

The Busyness of Examination Time

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on June 12, 2014 by telescoper

Just time this evening for the briefest of brief posts. This is probably the busiest week of the year at the University of Sussex, and it’s not over yet. The main reason for this busyness is the business of examinations, assessment and degree classification.

This morning we had our meeting of the School Progression and Award Board for Years 3 and 4 at which, among other things, we sorted out the classification for honours of our graduating students. This involves distilling the marks gained over several years of assessments down to a final “Grand Mean”. It’s not a trivial process but I’m glad to say it went off very smoothly.

The pass lists have now gone to be officially signed off by the University administration. They will be posted tomorrow at noon, at which time we’ll have a celebratory drink or several ready for those getting their results.

One of my duties as Head of School is to chair this meeting, but I don’t take credit for the successful running of the meeting because all the hard work of preparation was done by our excellent office staff, especially Oonagh and Chrystelle.

That done there was time for a quick sandwich lunch before heading off to Stanmer House for a teaching “away afternoon” for the Department of Physics & Astronomy, at which we discussed ideas for improvements to the way we teach and assess students.

Stanmer

I’m actually in the group sitting under the parasol in the left foreground.

Stanmer House is set in beautiful parkland just a short walk from Sussex University. I took the more strenuous route over the hill, but am glad I did so because the view was so nice in the glorious sunshine and it made be realise I don’t make as much of the opportunity for walking around the campus as I should.

Tomorrow is going to be another busy day but, if you’ll excuse me, I’m now going to have a glass of chilled white wine and a bite to eat.

Mathematics and Meningococcal Meningitis

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , on June 9, 2014 by telescoper

Last week I attended a very enjoyable and informative event entitled Excellence with Impact that showcased some of the research that the University of Sussex submitted to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. One of the case studies came from the Department of Mathematics which is part of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (of which I am Head) so I thought I would showcase it here too:

The description from Youtube reads

Meningococcal meningitis is a debilitating and deadly disease, causing an estimated 10,000 deaths annually in endemic areas of sub-Saharan Africa. A novel mathematical model developed by Sussex researcher Dr Konstantin Blyuss and colleagues has helped explain the patterns of the dynamics of meningococcal meningitis in endemic areas. This model is now being used by epidemiologists and clinical scientists to design and deliver efficient public-health policies to combat this devastating disease.

You can find out more by following this link.

The Day in Pictures

Posted in Biographical, Education on June 3, 2014 by telescoper

Just back home from Milan after a pretty long day, the story of which is told in the three photographs.

First of all, congratulations to Dr Eleonora Villa, who successfully defended her thesis this afternoon! The intriguing cover picture on the glossy copy shown is of course by Wassily Kandinsky

Then there’s my old apartment at No. 19 Via Beato Angelico which I successfully located after getting lost only twice. It is on the right of the building, on the second floor, with the balcony. The graffiti weren’t there when I was resident in 1994 but otherwise the area hasn’t changed much.

 

And finally there’s the shambolic overcrowding in the UKBA section of Heathrow Terminal 5 that delayed my return home by about an hour…

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