Archive for September 6, 2018

Notes from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

A few people have asked me to comment a little bit on difference between Higher Education Institutes in the United Kingdom and here in Ireland from the point of view of teaching and learning. I can’t do that systematically of course because I’ve only ever been at one University in Ireland, Maynooth, and that for only a year. I have however held positions that involved teaching in several UK universities (Queen Mary, Nottingham, Cardiff and Sussex) so perhaps some comments based on my own experiences might be useful. And of course I’m just talking about Theoretical Physics here, so I won’t discuss labs. It’s a very big selling point for our Theoretical Physics courses here that students don’t have to do labs (apart from Computational Physics labs, of course).

To start with something rather trivial, the `load’ for a student in most UK universities is usually 120 credits while here in Ireland it is 60. The actual workload expected of a student is the same so this just means there’s an exchange rate of 2:1 between the UK and Ireland. In the UK the load is usually split into two equal semesters with examinations in January and May after each. In the UK the 60 credits of each semester is usually split into modules. In my experience in physics these can be either 10 or 20 credits (e.g. Cardiff) or 15 credits (e.g. Sussex). The standard size here in Maynooth is 5 credits (equivalent to 10 in the UK), so most comparisons will be with a standard 10-credit module based on the Cardiff model (which I think is more common than the Sussex model).

What goes into these standard modules differs slightly. Here in Maynooth there are twelve teaching weeks per semester plus a `Study Week’ half way through, so each is 13 weeks long. For a 5-credit module there are usually two lectures per week (so 24 in total, as there are no lectures in Study Week). On top of this there are weekly tutorials (usually done by PhD students). In Cardiff there are also 2 lectures a week for the directly comparable 10 credit module, though not all modules have tutorials associated with them. There is no mid-term Study Week in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff and teaching term is only 11 weeks, so students typically have 22 lectures in a `standard’ module.

Continually-assessed coursework at Maynooth typically counts for 20% of a module mark (as it does in Cardiff), with 80% on an examination. In both Cardiff and Maynooth a `standard’ module has a two-hour examination at the end, but there’s a big difference in style: most of the papers in Maynooth require students to answer all the questions for full marks, whereas in Cardiff it’s two out of three or three out of four (usually). The Maynooth style makes it much harder for students to question-spot.

In summary, then, the amount of contact time for a student in Maynooth is greater than in Cardiff. The student-staff ratio in the Department of Theoretical Physics in Maynooth is about 15, which is a little higher than most UK physics departments (see Table here). There are only 7 full-time academic staff with full curriculum to deliver, means that teaching loads here are quite heavy compared to the UK.
Four modules per year is typical.

That might seem a lot to some people, but I actually enjoy teaching so don’t mind at all. In fact, with the mountain of administrative stuff I had to do at Sussex, it was only the fact that I taught a full module (on Theoretical Physics) that kept me (partially) sane. This year I shall be teaching, in the Autumn Semester, a 4th-year module on Astrophysics & Cosmology and a 2nd-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series and, in the Spring Semest, 3rd-year Computational Physics 1 (again) and Engineering Mathematics (for First-year engineers). I’m not sure what to expect of that last one, but I’m not going to think about it until the New Year.

Most of our students do a four-year Bachelors programme in Science (as discussed briefly here) with a very general first year. Some, however, come directly into a programme called Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (TP&M, for short) which is three-year fast-track degree. It’s harder to get into TP&M than the `Omnibus’ Science course, but it does attract some very capable students.

I should mention that the really big difference between Ireland and the UK is that the system of teaching and learning here is much less centralized and much less rigid that UK universities. The small size of the Department means that it is possible to know all the students by name and students with difficulties can always find someone to talk to. That is increasingly not the case in UK universities, which are rapidly turning into teaching factories and are subject to the pressure to do well in league tables (often with a negative impact on teaching quality).

Subject to some conditions, first-time full-time undergraduate students in `Third-level’ education in Ireland do not pay tuition fees as such, and neither do students from other EU or EEA countries. There is however an annual ‘student contribution’ of €3000 which all students pay (unless they have a grant that covers it). As far as I can see, that is effectively a fee, though it is supposed to cover student services (e.g. libraries) and examinations rather than tuition. Students taking repeat examinations generally have to pay extra for them. If you consider the `student contribution’ to be a fee (which is effectively what it is) then the Irish funding system is similar to the pre-2012 UK system, i.e. before the introduction of the current £9K fee.

Finally, one of the most striking differences between Ireland and the UK is that here a much higher proportion of students live at home with their parents while studying and commute into campus daily (some of them from quite a distance). That is quite unusual in the UK, but is fairly typical in other EU countries (e.g. Italy). The cost of accommodation is undoubtedly a factor, but I think it’s also a more general cultural thing. I’ve also noticed something here that I’ve never seen in the UK, which is that some student accommodation is let on a Monday-Friday basis, the tenant being expected to go back to the parental home at the weekends. On Fridays in term-time, you can see quite a lot of students with their bags waiting for coaches or trains to take them away for the weekend…

In a future post I might comment on non-academic differences between Ireland and the UK (e.g. tax, public services, cost of living, etc) but I think that will do for now.

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Breakthrough Prize for Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

I awoke this morning to find my Twitter feed full of news about the award of a special Breakthrough Prize to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. To quote the press release:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

Bell Burnell receives the Prize “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community.” Pulsars are a highly magnetized, rapidly spinning form of the super-dense stars known as neutron stars. Their discovery was one of the biggest surprises in the history of astronomy, transforming neutron stars from science fiction to reality in a most dramatic way. Among many later consequences, it led to several powerful tests of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and to a new understanding of the origin of the heavy elements in the universe.

For the full citation and background information, see here.

The prize is not only prestigious but also substantial in cash terms: $3M no less. Jocelyn has made it clear however that she intends to use the money to set up a fund to encourage greater diversity in physics, through the Institute of Physics. That is a wonderful gesture, but if you know Jocelyn at all then you will not be at all surprised by it, as she is a person of enormous integrity who has for many years demonstrated a huge commitment to the cause of increasing diversity. I look forward to hearing more about how this initiative works out.

In an interview with the Guardian, Jocelyn said “Increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.” I agree, and not just because an open and inclusive environment is a good thing in itself (which it is) but also because the fewer barriers there are to entry for a particular field, the broader the pool of talent from which it can recruit.

P.S. What would you do if you won a prize of $3M?

P. P. S. If I had $3M to spend, I think I’d spend it on whatever would most annoy all the miserable twerps complaining on Twitter about what Jocelyn Bell Burnell is doing with her Breakthrough Prize money.