Combining Research and Teaching in Physics & Astronomy

Among the distinctive things we do here in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex are our degree programmes that involve a Research Placement (RP). Students on these courses take the normal lectures, laboratory classes and workshops during the academic year, but they spend the summer vacation doing (paid) work with research groups in the School to get an experience of what the world of research is really like. Various combinations of Physics and Astronomy with a Research Placement have been around for some time. These courses have been so popular and successful that we’ve extended the idea to Mathematics for 2015 entry. We have also started extending the RP scheme to include placements in laboratories elsewhere, either in industry or in a university abroad; we even have two students currently doing their placements in China.

Here are a couple of videos we’ve made featuring two RP students who have been working in the Department of Physics & Astronomy this summer.

This is Ross Callaghan:

And this is Nathaniel Wiesendanger Shaw:

Both these students are in between their 2nd and 3rd years of a 4-year MPhys programme. As it happens, both survived the experience of being in my Theoretical Physics class last term too!

It’s an ongoing frustration of mine that so many influential people think that teaching and research are separate functions of a university and should not be mixed. I believe that the two go hand-in-hand and that you can’t really claim to be getting a real university education if it’s not informed by the latest developments in research. Moreover, some also imply that research-led teaching only happens in the Russell Group, which is not the case at all. In fact, I think we provide a much better environment for this in Sussex than either of the Russell Group universities in which I’ve previously worked.

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!

11 Responses to “Combining Research and Teaching in Physics & Astronomy”

  1. Good stuff. At non-Russell Group Surrey, we send all our MPhys students for a year-long research project at a University or other lab-based research group somewhere in the world.

    It’s too bad the Russell Group have been so successful in marketing their brand, when all they are is a Gentlemen’s Club

    • telescoper Says:

      Is that an extra year or does it replace a year of the 4-year MPhys programme?

      • It replaces a year; second half of third year and first half of fourth (and the summer in-between)

      • telescoper Says:

        So you have a project worth a whole year’s credit? That’s a much higher fraction than elsewhere. How do you fit in all the core physics teaching?

      • Sort of a whole year’s credit, though some of the work they do on placement is as part of traditional modules that they study remotely. Core in the IoP sense is all in first two years. Our MPhys students do less advanced lecture courses than typical, but get more of other skills.

      • “So you have a project worth a whole year’s credit? That’s a much higher fraction than elsewhere.”

        In many places, the equivalent of the master’s degree (not necessarily the new Bologna master of bachelor and master (I’m surprised that there isn’t a double act by this name)) has a one-year thesis project, making 5 years total.

  2. donnachakirk Says:

    This is a really good idea. I also really like that it’s integrated into the course- students without this option can of course ask about summer placements in many departments but not everyone has the confidence, experience or contacts to do that off their own bat. If it’s left to students’ own initiative, those without a family background in university education can lose out in particular.

    I’m also concerned about attempts to divorce teaching and research among staff. My ERC-funded postdoc stipulates that I cannot spend time teaching which I think is a real shame and excludes me from a core part of the life of the department.

    The proliferation of teaching-only staff positions is also a worry- just as you can’t get a real university education without combining teaching and research, I don’t think you can teach or research to the best of your capacity without combining the two.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think there can be a role for teaching-only staff, e.g. for teaching foundation-year students, when basic material is involved and specific pedagogical skills are required. I do however agree with your basic point that pressures to separate teaching and research should be resisted.

  3. Wiesendanger is not a common name. Is the lad’s father perhaps a professor of physics (as I know of a professor by that name)?

  4. “It’s an ongoing frustration of mine that so many influential people think that teaching and research are separate functions of a university and should not be mixed. I believe that the two go hand-in-hand and that you can’t really claim to be getting a real university education if it’s not informed by the latest developments in research.”

    Indeed. Feynman rejected an offer from the Institute for Advanced Study because it didn’t include teaching. They later tried to lure him with a joint appointment with the university which did involved teaching, but he told them in his Far Rockaway accent to get lost.

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