Archive for the Education Category

Branding versus Science

Posted in Education with tags , , , on July 8, 2020 by telescoper

There’s an interesting piece here by the famous Professor Moriarty bemoaning the way universities try to impose corporate branding on materials used by academics, e.g. by forcing us to use `approved’ powerpoint templates.

My main objection to these is that they tend to be very cluttered with logos and other messaging that detract from the presentation of scientific material. My usual approach therefore is to use just the university’s template for the front page, and then revert to a plainer style for the rest of the talk, usually without headers or footers or logos or background. That is of course unless I’m doing talks specifically on University business such as on Open Day talks when I need to explain things like course structure, e.g…

A more fundamental issue, however, is that scientists tend to identify as scientists rather than as marketing representatives for a given university or other institution. Physicists, for example, often work collaboratively in teams across many institutions and consequently see themselves as members of such a team first and employees of a given institution second. When they give talks to schoolkids they are much more likely to be doing so to communicate an enthusiasm for the discipline than their institution (although of course these are not mutually exclusive). It’s unlikely that the quality of the logos will be the factor that determines whether such a talk is successful…

Anyway, I’m interested however to know what the general feeling is about these, so here’s a poll that is neither particularly scientific nor specifically branded:

And so to Phase Three..

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , , on June 29, 2020 by telescoper

Well, Phase Three of the Great Reopening happened has started on schedule. As I walked to campus this morning I saw long queues in the street outside every barber’s shop in Maynooth. I decided to wait a few days before trying to get my long overdue haircut. It’s been over three months now.

Maynooth has quite a lot of barber’s shops for a town of its size. It also has quite a lot of nice restaurants. I noticed this evening that quite a few will be opening this week for sit-down meals rather than takeaway. I wish them well, but I think I’ll be sticking with the takeaways for a while longer.

When I got into the office to start work on the risk assessment I’m supposed to complete so staff can return to work, there was quite a lot of activity in the Science Building, including signs of various kinds being put up.

Some of the signs are bisexual bilingual:

All this reminded me of some lines from the Leonard Cohen song Anthem:

We asked for signs. The signs were sent

……

Signs for all to see.

The arrows will be put on the floor at regular intervals to enforce a one-way system around the building to allow people to circulate without bumping into each other.

I’m also expecting to be issued with tape to be used to mark some of the machines in our computer laboratory out of use, to keep users from sitting too close. I was going to remove the chairs but I don’t have anywhere to out them and we’ll probably – hopefully – need them back sometime!

I started work on the risk assessment but didn’t get it finished. I should be able to complete it tomorrow. Then it needs to be approved. Only after that will staff be able to begin routinely working in the Department. Until then, working from home continues.

Temporary Lectureship in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

While I remember I should announce that we have fixed term ten-month full-time teaching position available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University.

The appointment is to provide sabbatical cover for Dr Jiri Vala.

The advert only went up last week but the deadline is just a fortnight away, on Sunday 12th July, which is pretty soon. This is because we need the person in post by September! Interviews are likely to be held in early August.

You can find the ad here or here or at the Maynooth University website here (which is also where you should apply).

Please feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested!

Maynooth University Open Day is here!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 27, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am at home answering questions online from visitors at our virtual Open Day. It’s actually pouring with rain which might have dampened the enthusiasm of visitors to a traditional Open Day but it’s been quite busy so far. Here is a video tour of the Maynooth University campus, filmed in better weather than today!

You will see that it includes an artist’s impression of the new building on the North Campus which isn’t actually finished yet.

And here is a gratuitous picture of our star attraction:

Another Open Day Preview – General Science at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 26, 2020 by telescoper

I thought I’d put up another post following on from yesterday’s post about Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 27th June which, owing to Covid-19 restrictions still being in place,  is once again a virtual event. It will take place between 10am and 2pm and be online for that period to answer queries about Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University. You can sign up for the event here.

Yesterday’s post was about our denominated degree programme in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, but I also recorded a separate video for students interested in studying Mathematical Physics  (or Theoretical Physics – we use the terms interchangeably) through our General Science programme, MH201, so here’s a little presentation about how to study Mathematical physics at Maynooth that way:

Currently, most students doing Science subjects here in Maynooth enter on the General Science programme (codename)  a four-year Omnibus science course that involves doing four subjects in the first year, but becoming increasingly specialised thereafter. That’s not unlike the Natural Sciences course I did at Cambridge, except that students at Maynooth can do both Mathematical Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics in the first year as separate choices. Other possibilities include Chemistry, Computer Science, Biology, etc.

In Year 1 students do four subjects (one of which has to be Mathematics). That is narrowed down to three in Year 2 and two in Year 3. In their final year, students can stick with two subjects for a Joint Honours (Double Major) degree, or specialise in one, for Single Honours.

I like this programme very much because it does not force the students to choose a specialism before they have had a taste of the subject, and that it is flexible enough to accommodate Joint Honours qualifications in, e.g., Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. It also allows us to enrol students onto Physics degrees who have not done Physics or Applied Mathematics as part of the Leaving Certificate.

I think Mathematical Physics has a particular value in the first year of this course, even for students who do now wish to continue with beyond that level. The material we present in the first year focusses on Mechanics, which is perfect for students to learn how to apply concepts from the Mathematics courses in calculus and linear algebra (especially vectors). It obviously complements Experimental Physics and I would recommend all students who want to do Experimental Physics to do Mathematical Physics too, but  basic mechanics comes up in a wide range of contexts in science, including Biology and Chemistry, so it is relevant for students taking a wide range of pathways through this very flexible programme.

 

 

Maynooth Open Day Preview

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 25, 2020 by telescoper

No sooner has the examination period finished when we have to start thinking about admissions again. There is an Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 27th June. Covid-19 restrictions still being in place this is once again a virtual event that will take place between 10am and 2pm. I will be online for that period to answer queries about Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University. You can sign up for the event here.

In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here is a little video introduction I recorded for the Open Dday for our Double Major BSc programme in Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (codename: MH206)

 

 

Psychological Time

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education with tags , , , on June 21, 2020 by telescoper

So, the Summer Solstice for 2020 is now in the past. It’s all downhill from here!

As the Solstice approached last night I was thinking back to the Vernal Equinox which had happened this year on March 20th, exactly three months before. That was at the end of Study Week in the Spring Semester but the students did not return the following week and we switched to remote teaching. I find it astonishing to think that was just three months ago. It seems like ancient history. Not only that but several major events took place during that period that I find it hard place in chronological order without looking at written records (including this blog).

I am not an expert on such matters but it seems to me that the isolation, disruption of social interaction, and the loss of familiar routines imposed by work are among the things responsible distorting perception of the passage of time. I have tried to impose a regular pattern on my day during this time but only with limited success. I suspect it’s not only me who has felt like this over the past weeks and months!

It’s not just the disruption to routine of course. There was also a genuine fear of becoming infected. My last in-person lecture was on 12th March, the Thursday before Study Week. From time to time I wondered if I would ever see those students again. I also made arrangements to write a will. For a time it looked likely that intensive care facilities in Ireland might be overwhelmed so I felt it important to make contingencies of that sort. Fortunately they weren’t needed. As far as I know the Coronavirus hasn’t reached me. I certainly haven’t had any symptoms, though I haven’t actually been tested.

Overall I found the lockdown very difficult at first but I think adjusted reasonably well despite (or perhaps because of?) having very peculiar dreams.

Now that the Covid-19 restrictions are gradually being wound down hopefully some measure of routine will resume and the sense of disorientation will fade. Time will tell.

Challenges Past and Future

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday afternoon we held our Departmental Examination Board in Theoretical Physics (via Microsoft Teams*) which all went remarkably well in the circumstances.

The most challenging thing to happen yesterday afternoon was that a bloke came to cut back the bushes outside my office with a very large and noisy hedge trimmer. I thought I was going to have to contend with that all afternoon but it seems he had done most of it the day before and only came back yesterday to finish off. He left before the Exam Board started.

The next stage of our Exams process is for all the Departmental results to be collated for those students on joint programmes before the final University Board takes place about ten days from now. After that students will get their results.

That doesn’t quite finish examination matters for 2019/20 however because some students will need to take repeat examinations in August. These will be a week later than usual as a knock-on effect of the extra week we were given to mark and correct the May exams. We anticipate that at least some of the repeats will be the traditional `in person’ on campus style, but some may be online timed assessments like the ones we held in May. That depends a bit on how the Covid-19 pandemic pans out in Ireland over the next few weeks (and of course how many students actually take repeats, as social distancing generates a capacity issue for the examination halls).

At the moment we are optimistic because the number of new cases of Covid-19 is low and stable. That coulld change, of course, if the virus starts to spread again so we have to have contingency plans.

Even more uncertain is what will happen in September, although I have been very annoyed by some reports in the media that seem to have been actively trying to put students off coming to University next academic year on the grounds that there won’t be any lectures. We certainly plan to offer as much face-to-face teaching as possible and I think other third-level institutions in Ireland will do likewise. There will of course have to be a backup if there is another lockdown, which may mean switching back to remote teaching at relatively short notice, but at least we’ve done that once already so know much better now what works and what doesn’t. Nevertheless I would encourage all potential students not to believe everything they read in the media nor be deterred from attending university by rumours from sources who don’t know what they are talking about.

Earlier this week I was starting to think about how we might build the required flexibility into our teaching for next year and two main things struck me.

The first is that while we have more-or-less been forced into making various kinds of video material available to students, this is something that I feel we should have been doing already. I’ve long felt that the more types of teaching we incorporate and the wider range of learning materials we provide the better the chance that students find something that works for them. Even if we do have a full programme of lectures next year, it is my intention to continue to provide, e.g., recorded video explainers as well because they might augment the battery of resources available to the student.

Some time ago I had to make some policies about `reasonable adjustments’ for some disabled students learning physics. In the course of providing extra resources for this small group I suddenly thought that it would be far better, and far more inclusive, simply to make these resources available to everyone. Likewise, we’ve been forced to adjust to providing material remotely but we should be thinking about how to keep the best things about what we’ve done over the last few months and embedding them in the curriculum for the (hopefully Coronavirus-free) future and not regard them all as temporary special measures.

The other thing that struck me is in the same vein, but a little more speculative. Over the last many years I have noticed that students use printed textbooks less and less for learning. Part of that may be because we in a digital age and they prefer to use online resources. The switch to remote learning has however revealed that there are some students who are disadvantaged by not having a good internet connection. I just wonder whether this might lead to a resurgence in the use of textbooks. I’ll certainly be making a strong recommendation to the new first-year students in Theoretical Physics that they should get hold of the recommended text, which I have previously regarded as an optional extra.

*At one point I got muddled up between Teams and Zoom and called it Tombs. It was a grave error, but it can only be a matter of time before Microsoft Tombs actually arrives…

Meanwhile, in Ireland…

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 17, 2020 by telescoper

It seems an eternity since we had the 2020 general election in Ireland on February 8th because of the intervention of the Covid-19 outbreak, but it’s still been over four months. Now however it seems we might have a new government fairly soon, as a deal has been agreed to form a coalition between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party; between them these parties have 84 seats (not counting the Ceann Comhairle), enough to create a majority in the Dáil Éireann. It’s not quite done and dusted, though, as the Green Party has to ballot its membership and a two-thirds majority is needed to endorse the agreement. We should know next week.

In case you think this delay means that Ireland has been in political crisis since February, it hasn’t really. The constitution makes it clear that if a new government can’t be formed the old one continues until one can (or until another election can be held). Leo Varadkar has continued as Taioseach in the mean time. His popularity has increased in this period, at least partly because as a trained medical person, he is perceived to have handled the Covid-19 crisis rather well. It seems that incumbents have generally received the backing of the public when they have coped reasonably with the pandemic. Whether that continues in Ireland remains to be seen. When the truth comes out about how many patients were transferred from hospitals into nursing homes where they were left to die perhaps opinions will change.

It has taken over four months for the the parties to agree a `draft programme for government’ which you can find here. That document is 139 pages long but largely devoid of concrete commitments and indeed devoid of anything other than vague discussions, platitudes, and `reviews’. At a quick reading I’d say the Greens have been far more effective at getting their agenda into it than Fianna Fáil, perhaps because the latter don’t really have an agenda other than wanting to be in power. The Green initiatives are in my opinion the strongest parts of the programme, but the rest seems to me to be just “more of the same”.

I’d say that the one redeeming factor is the document is the emphasis on stimulus rather than austerity as a way out of the current crisis but of course that may turn out not to be what actually happens.

From the point of view of Ireland’s universities and research community there is little to rejoice. On page 114 you can find this:

Higher and Further Education have been greatly affected by the COVID-19 crisis and we will support the sector through these challenges to ensure that educational opportunities remain and are made more accessible to everyone, particularly the most vulnerable in our society. In addition, we will continue to support our research community to tackle the social and scientific problems posed by COVID-19 now and into the future.

We are committed to addressing the funding challenges in third-level education. We want a Higher and Further Education sector that sees education as a holistic and life-long pursuit. We will continue to build strong connections with other education sectors and wider society, while recognising our global and environmental responsibilities. It is vital we invest in our Higher and Further Education sectors so we can continue to tackle inequality based on race, gender, and socio-economic background. We recognise the potential for our Higher and Further Education institutions to be exemplars regionally, nationally and internationally.

At a time of great economic uncertainty, when so many people fear for their future employment, we will ensure that Higher Education plays a vital role in our recovery. We will equip students with the skills necessary to secure employment, while preparing for the opportunities and challenges posed by a changing economy, the move to a low-carbon future and disruptive technologies, as well as offering retraining and reskilling opportunities to help people into employment.

Warm words at the start and then a worryingly blinkered emphasis on universities simply as providers of skills training. We do that of course, but we do so much more that Irish governments seem not to recognize.

Later on we get a commitment to

Develop a long-term sustainable funding model for Higher Level education in collaboration with the sector and informed by recent and ongoing research and analysis.

Sigh. There’s been an OECD Report (2004), the Hunt Report (2011), the Cassells Report (2016), etc. How many times will this issue be kicked into the long grass?

The Fianna Fáil `pledge’ to introduce a Minister for Higher Education and Research has, needless to say, fallen by the wayside in the negotiations.

The plan for the new Government is that the plan is as the leader of the largest party in the coalition, Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin will take over as Taoiseach for two years, after which Leo Varadkar will return. This is being referred to as a `Rotating Taoiseach’, which is a pretty apt given that the programme has more spin than substance.

Marking Time

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 12, 2020 by telescoper

In among all the other things I have to do I’ve just finished marking my portion of examinations and other assessments in time for next week’s Examination Boards. I have to attend two (virtually), one for Theoretical Physics and one for Engineering Mathematics. You may recall that, this year, along with many other universities, we switched from the usual examination format to online timed assessments.

Obviously I can’t talk about any actual results here but I can relay a few general points.

First, there were remarkably few hitches in the examination process. I would like to say that I was totally confident that the new system would work, but I’m afraid I was very nervous during the examination period. I’m glad that I was proved wrong. That’s not only due to very hard work by the teaching staff in getting everything together to go online and the technical support staff for ensuring the submission portals could handle the load, but also due to the students who coped admirably well with the new assessment style.

That said, I think if we are going to have such assessments again in the future there are things we could improve.In particular the mathematical nature of our work means that students have to do their working, diagrams etc by hand and sometimes the quality of scanning made the resulting submissions very difficult to read. If we had had time we could have offered more training to the students on how to scan their work more legibly, so next time we will probably do that too. Indeed we will probably be doing most of the coursework that way next term so they will probably get more practice anyway.

Printing the work out usually made the legibility problem worse, so I generally marked as much as I could on the screen. We don’t have very good software for doing this in bulk so it was painfully slow. I estimate it took me about three times as long to mark an examination script this way than doing it on paper. I’d be very interesting to hear via the comments box of any suggestions or recommendations of software to help this process!

The main purpose of this post however is to say a very public thank you to all the teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics and to our admirable Departmental Administrator Suzie  for working so hard in difficult circumstances to get everything done in time!