Archive for the Education Category

Great News for Astrophysics & Cosmology at Maynooth!

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 29, 2021 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick post in reaction to the announcement by the Irish Government of ten new senior professorial positions under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI). I blogged about this scheme here. Among the positions just announced is a new Chair in Observational Astrophysics or Cosmology at Maynooth University. You can find Maynooth University’s official response to the announcement here.

The pandemic has played havoc with my sense of the passage of time so I had to check my documents folder to see when we completed the application. It turns out to have been January this year; the deadline was 29th January 2021. It has taken much longer than expected to for the outcome of this, the second, round to emerge but I suppose it’s better late than never!

The key rationale for these SALI positions is clear from the statement from Simon Harris, the Minister responsible for Third Level education in Ireland:

“Championing equality and diversity is one of the key goals of my department. The Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) is an important initiative aimed at advancing gender equality and the representation of women at the highest levels in our higher education institutions.

We have a particular problem with gender balance among the staff in Physics in Maynooth, especially un Theoretical Physics where all the permanent staff are male, and the lack of role models has a clear effect on our ability to encourage more female students to study with us.

The wider strategic case for this Chair revolves around broader developments in the area of astrophysics and cosmology at Maynooth. Currently there are two groups active in research in these areas, one in the Department of Experimental Physics (which is largely focussed on astronomical instrumentation) and the other, in the Department of Theoretical Physics, which is theoretical and computational. We want to promote closer collaboration between these research strands. The idea with the new position is that the holder will nucleate and lead a new research programme in the area between these existing groups as well as getting involved in outreach and public engagement.

The next step will be to launch a recruitment campaign, and more details will be available when the position is formally advertised. Let me just say for now that we intend the position to appeal not only to people who have their own observational programmes (e.g. using facilities provided by ESO, which Ireland recently joined) but also working on data from space missions, multi-messenger astrophysics, gravitational waves, and so on.

Back to Online Examinations Again

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 26, 2021 by telescoper

This afternoon teaching staff at Maynooth University were informed of changes to the plans for the January examination session: all examinations will now be held remotely, apart possibly from those for some final-year modules; for the latter the lecturer will decide whether they should be on campus or remote.

It’s worth mentioning that a petition set up recently by the Maynooth University Students Union urging the University to switch exams online attractive over 4,000 signatures.

As I said a while ago I think this is a very sensible move. I was chatting to some students before a lecture earlier today and I think they will all be relieved that a decision has been taken and they can make sensible plans for the Examination Period. I am teaching one module for first-year students and one for second-years this semester so both of these will definitely be going online.

We now have done three full cycles of online examinations since the pandemic started: May 2020, January 2021 and May 2021, plus two sets of repeats. I think we have a pretty good idea what we are doing with them and have got three weeks before the end of term to make any changes to the papers we have written for January. Since the online examinations are effectively open-book tests we tend to exclude bookwork – stating results which the students could easily look up – and concentrate instead on problem-solving tasks. Online examinations done this way are certainly no easier than in-person papers, and emphasize what is probably the most useful skill we try to develop.

I am glad we have some clarity on the examinations. We still have three weeks of teaching to finish before the end of term, though, and no changes have been announced to plans for lectures and tutorials. I told my class this afternoon however that as of Wednesday 8th December I will have exceeded 6 months since my second Pfizer dose. There is very little chance I will get a booster dose by then so I will be working from home from that date until the end of term. That means I’ll be doing three first-year lectures and three second-year lectures from home using my famous blackboard. I explained this decision to my second-year class today and they were supportive.

A Free Online Course in Cosmology from SISSA

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 25, 2021 by telescoper

The nice people at the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (known to its friends as SISSA for short) have made available a free online course in cosmology. You can get all of it on Youtube.

The course comprises 16 professionally edited video-lectures delivered by lecturers of the SISSA Astrophysical and Cosmology and Astroparticle PhD Programs and some of their collaborators. I know some of the participants personally, including Paulo Salucci (who introduces the course though I haven’t met him in person for ages so it was nice to see him on camera.

Cosmology is a big subject, of course, and a short-ish course can’t cover everything so there is an emphasis on the research topics covered by SISSA scientists. I haven’t watched all the videos but those I have seen are pretty good. There are actually 17 videos in the playlist below but that includes a very short prelude to introduce the series. The others are between about 25 and 45 minutes in length so you probably don’t want to watch them all in one sitting!

Peppa Pig: An Apology

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics, Television with tags , on November 24, 2021 by telescoper
Offensive Item

I have over many years been using the item shown above in lectures to demonstrate the properties of spherical surfaces, for example in situations involving vector calculus and in astrophysics. Given recent events, however, I realize that my use of this specific object may cause offence through the possibility that it may be construed as an endorsement of the views of the UK Prime Minister. I would therefore like to make it clear that no such endorsement should be inferred, that I have never visited Peppa Pig World, and that I did not play any part in the writing of Mr Johnson’s speech to the Confederation of British Idiots earlier this week.

I can also confirm that I have now disposed of the above item in an authorised refuse and recycling centre.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Questions of Examinations and Lectures

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 20, 2021 by telescoper

The deterioration of the Covid-19 situation in Ireland continues apace, with a 7-day average of new cases currently around 4300 per day and 640 people in hospital with 121 needing intensive care.

No doubt due to vaccination the number of deaths remains mercifully low, just 43 reported last week. Let’s hope that lasts.

We have four more weeks of teaching at Maynooth University this semester after which we have the Christmas break and then, in January, the examination period. The current plan is for the examinations to be of the traditional kind, taken in an exam hall on campus but how long this will indeed be the plan is anyone’s guess.

Here at Maynooth we have been told here that a decision will be taken next Friday (26th November) on whether on-campus examinations will go ahead after Christmas. With just three weeks of the term left at that point, this seems very late. If the decision is taken next week to go ahead and the pandemic continues to deteriorate (which is likely, with a surge in transmission expected over the holiday) then that decision may have to be reversed in January.

The Minister responsible for Higher Education, Simon Harris, has indicated that third-level institutions may have to introduce special mechanisms to help students prevented from attending exams in person by Covid-19.

I really hope this is not going to be interpreted as meaning that we have to offer both online and on campus examinations.

That’s partly because of the workload issue: we’ve already written our examinations on the basis that they will be held in person and would have to write another set and get them ready with just three weeks of the term left. We’ve been landed with heavy increases in workload at short notice before I don’t think I’m the only person to be a bit fed with it. Another issue, is that is fairness. I think it is important that all students should take the same examination in the same way otherwise one group might be disadvantaged relative to the other. It would be fairer simply to allow students who can’t take the on-campus examinations in January to take the August repeat in the usual manner.

It’s not for me to decide, of course, but I think it would be sensible to take the decision immediately to switch to online examinations in January. That way staff and students will know straight away where they stand. If it turns out the pandemic does go as badly over the next two months then this might seem to have been excessively cautious, but what would really be lost? We have done three examination periods online now during the pandemic and I think that by now we know how to do it reasonably well.

Examinations are still some time in the future of course, but we still have four weeks of teaching to get through. I have seen anecdotal evidence from colleagues that attendance at lectures and tutorials has fallen rapidly since the mid-term break. I have heard directly from some students that they do not feel safe travelling to and from University and are wary of the large crowds on campus.

My own experience is that lecture attendance has held up reasonably well in my modules, but I deliver my lectures as webcasts and record them anyway so am quite happy if students want to watch them remotely or offline at a subsequent date. Many of them are taking other subjects which are taught in bigger classes which are all online anyway and in that case there is little incentive to come onto campus for one module when everything else is remote.

Simon Harris seems to have nailed his colours to the “return-to-campus” mast so even if there is a drastic surge in Covid-19 over the next few weeks I think the official line will be that we carry on teaching in person. Students however are probably more sensible that either politicians or University managers and will revert to online learning for all practical purposes by simply not coming to campus. And who could blame them?

The Hardest Problem

Posted in Cute Problems, Education, mathematics with tags , , , on November 19, 2021 by telescoper

The following Question, 16(b), is deemed to have been the hardest problem on the Maths Extension 2 paper of this year’s HSC (Higher School Certificate), which I think is the Australian Equivalent of the Leaving Certificate. You might find a question like this in the Applied Mathematics paper in the Leaving Certificate actually. Since it covers topics I’ve been teaching here in Maynooth for first-year students I thought I’d share it here.

I don’t think it’s all that hard really, probably because it’s really a physics problem (which I am supposed to know how to solve), but it does cover topics that tend to be treated separately in school maths (vectors and mechanics) which may be the reason it was found to be difficult.

Anyway, answers through the comments box please. Your time starts now.

Half Measures

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on November 16, 2021 by telescoper

Against the backdrop of rapidly rising numbers of Covid-19 cases the Irish Government today announced the return of some restrictions, including the closure of hospitality venues no later than midnight and a return to working from home “unless absolutely necessary”. On the latter, however, it has said that “There will be no reintroduction of remote learning for schools and third-level institutions at this point”.

I think the key phrase is “at this point”. I don’t think the new measures go nearly far enough and they will have to be revisited in a week or two, at which point we will revert to remote (online) teaching. Although we haven’t been give guidance yet, I think we’ll be carrying on with in-person lectures and tutorials at Maynooth for the time being, but it’s no more than an even money bet that we’ll stay that way until the end of term. I would also suggest that the odds are very much against us actually having examinations on campus in January. We await further guidance from the University about this, so I don’t know. The timetable for the January examinations is due to be published next week so a decision will have to be made very quickly.

What I do know, though, is that my second vaccine dose was on June 8th. The Government has now announced that 50-59 year olds (which includes me) can now get a third (booster) dose six months from their last one. In my case that is December 8th. But the roll-out of boosters has been painfully slow in Ireland, and most of the over-60s haven’t had theirs yet. It’s likely to be weeks or months until I get an appointment for mine.

We might have to switch to remote teaching in a while anyway if the rules are changed but I have made the decision that if I haven’t got my booster by December 8th I’ll be working from home and switching all my lectures online. Term ends on December 17th so I’ll only have to give a few remote lectures, but for me it is a matter of principle.

By deciding that in person teaching is “absolutely essential” the Government has admitted that lecturers are frontline staff and we should accordingly get a booster dose at the appropriate time. I’ve worked countless hours of unpaid overtime during this pandemic and I’m not going to continue without adequate protection from infection.

Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass – The Video!

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff, YouTube with tags , , , on November 15, 2021 by telescoper

As promised here is the video recording of the Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass we held by Zoom last Friday.

Worrying Times…

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on November 14, 2021 by telescoper

So here I am, trying to plan my teaching for next week and wondering what’s going to happen between now and the end of term. Here at Maynooth University lectures finish on 17th December, five weeks from now. I’m just about on schedule to cover everything I’m supposed to, so I’m not worried about that.

What I am worried about is that Covid-19 cases are continuing to climb. The latest 7-day rolling average of new cases is over 3900 per day and the increasing trend show no sign of slowing down. It will reach the 5000 mark in a week or two. Some daily figures have already passed that milestone. The death rate is still relatively low – 74 Covid-19 related deaths were recorded in the last week – but is edging up; over a hundred people with Covid-19 are being treated in ICU as of today.

The Irish Government seems to have no intention of introducing effective countermeasures and is instead just advising people to cut down the amount of socializing they do. I don’t think that will work. It seems very clear to me that the Government lost the room many weeks ago by frequently implying that the Covid-19 pandemic was over. They then caved in to the hospitality industry by allowing nightclubs to open. It is no doubt in such places that the virus is spreading. The Government keep stating that they are concerned but do nothing, blinking at the onrushing disaster like rabbits caught in the headlights of an approaching car.

Case numbers on campus at Maynooth remain fairly low, though the latest figure (69) is almost double last week’s figure (35). Students in my classes continue to wear face coverings and observe the other protocols and all the signs are that lecture halls and labs are pretty safe environments but we have no say in what happens off campus. As well as being concerned for the health of students and staff, I have particular worries about my Department. We’ve been short-staffed since the start of term and simply have no spare effort to provide cover for lectures or tutorials if anyone becomes sick.

The Irish Health Service is under extreme pressure and the delivery of booster shots is being rolled out very slowly. I had my second Pfizer dose in June so should get a third shot in December but it is not clear that I will. I’m not going anywhere at Christmas anyway so that’s not a big deal but I’m worried by the broader picture. A cartoon in a recent issue of Private Eye is very apt:

Might we have to switch our lectures back online again before Christmas? Might our examinations be online again in January? Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see but I think the blackboard in my study might be back in use very soon.

That Was The Masterclass That Was

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 12, 2021 by telescoper

This morning we did the Astrophysics and Cosmology Masterclass advertised here. I think it went quite well. Apparently we had over sixty schools registered – at least one in every County – about a 1,000 schoolkids altogether. Certainly there were lots and lots of questions, which is a good sign!

Here is a screen grab of part of the event. I didn’t realize my camera was a bit wonky!

In case anyone is interested here are the slides I used for my part of the talk:

I’ll post a recording of the whole event when it becomes available. Here is the recording of the workshop:

I had to leave before the end to go to a vector calculus lecture that was interrupted by the arrival of the Power Rangers, but that’s a different story…