Archive for the Education Category

The Higher Education Green Paper – Expert Commentary

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on November 6, 2015 by telescoper

Hot news in Higher Education today is that the long-awaited Higher Education Green Paper is now published. A summary of this discussion document which is called Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice can be found here. I haven’t got time to provide a detailed response this morning, so I will defer to an acknowledged expert on the subject of “fulfilling potential”, Dylan Moran:

From Physics to Powerlifting!

Posted in Education, Sport on November 3, 2015 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist posting a quick item relating to Nathaniel Wiesendanger Shaw, a student in the Department of Physics & Astronomy here at the University of Sussex. Nathaniel is a student on our Theoretical Physics (Research Placement) programme, which means that he works during the summer gaps in his course attached to one of our research groups. He also survived my attempts to teach the joys of Green’s functions, conformal transformations and assorted topics in mathematical physics when he was in his 2nd year.

However that’s not the focus of a recent news item about him. Here he is in action:


In fact Nathaniel is an accomplished powerlifter and, after a win in the All England Powerlifting Championships in August, he will soon be travelling to Canada to compete in the Commonwealth Championships in Vancouver. I don’t know the first thing about powerlifting, but I think this story just demonstrates that physics students can and do get involved in interesting stuff outside physics. In fact when I welcome new students at the start of each academic I stress how important it is to achieve a balance between work and life. I honestly believe that taking a break from studies to do something different every now and then – whether it’s sport or music or whatever – actually makes you a better student.

Anyway, good luck to Nathaniel in Vancouver in December!



Helping Blind Students with Mathematics and Physics

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on October 16, 2015 by telescoper

This short video clip features Daniel Hajas, a third-year theoretical physics student in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex who has been working on technology intended to help visually impaired students to   engage with the charts, graphs and equations involved in studying mathematics and physics. Here is a news item arising from a recent poster competition for which Daniel, who is himself visually impaired, highlighted the challenges faced by blind students by exhibiting a completely blank poster, explaining that this was how a blind person would experience a complex equation. In the video he explains a little more about the work he has been doing.


The Crocodile Maths Challenge

Posted in Cute Problems, Education with tags , , , , on October 14, 2015 by telescoper

I’m indebted to an anonymous informant (John Peacock) for drawing my attention to a BBC Scotland story about an allegedly challenging examination question that appeared on a “Higher Maths” paper. For those of you not up with the Scottish examination system, “Highers” are taken in the penultimate year at school so are presumably roughly equivalent to the AS levels taken in England and Wales.

Anyway, here is the question that is supposed to have been so difficult. For the record, it’s Paper 2, Question 8 of the SQA examination 2015.

crocodile_questionCall me old-fashioned, but it doesn’t seem that difficult to me  but I never took Scottish Highers and there have been many changes in Mathematics education since I did my O and A-levels; here’s the O-level Mathematics paper I took in 1979, for example.  I wonder what my readers think? Comments through the box if you please.

Feel free to give it a go. If you get stuck here’s a worked solution!

An Open Letter to the Times Higher World University Rankers

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2015 by telescoper

Dear Rankers,

Having perused your latest set of league tables along with the published methodology, a couple of things puzzle me.

First, I note that you have made significant changes to your methodology for combining metrics this year. How, then, can you justify making statements such as

US continues to lose its grip as institutions in Europe up their game

when it appears that any changes could well be explained not by changes in performance, as gauged by the metrics you use,  but in the way they are combined?

I assume, as intelligent and responsible people, that you did the obvious test for this effect, i.e. to construct a parallel set of league tables, with this year’s input data but last year’s methodology, which would make it easy to isolate changes in methodology from changes in the performance indicators.  Your failure to publish such a set, to illustrate how seriously your readers should take statements such as that quoted above, must then simply have been an oversight. Had you deliberately witheld evidence of the unreliability of your conclusions you would have left yourselves open to an accusation of gross dishonesty, which I am sure would be unfair.

Happily, however, there is a very easy way to allay the fears of the global university community that the world rankings are being manipulated: all you need to do is publish a set of league tables using the 2014 methodology and the 2015 data. Any difference between this table and the one you published would then simply be an artefact and the new ranking can be ignored. I’m sure you are as anxious as anyone else to prove that the changes this year are not simply artificially-induced “churn”, and I look forward to seeing the results of this straightforward calculation published in the Times Higher as soon as possible.

Second, I notice that one of the changes to your methodology is explained thus

This year we have removed the very small number of papers (649) with more than 1,000 authors from the citations indicator.

You are presumably aware that this primarily affects papers relating to experimental particle physics, which is mostly conducted through large international collaborations (chiefly, but not exclusively, based at CERN). This change at a stroke renders such fundamental scientific breakthroughs as the discovery of the Higgs Boson completely worthless. This is a strange thing to do because this is exactly the type of research that inspires  prospective students to study physics, as well as being direct measures in themselves of the global standing of a University.

My current institution, the University of Sussex, is heavily involved in experiments at CERN. For example, Dr Iacopo Vivarelli has just been appointed coordinator of all supersymmetry searches using the ATLAS experiment on the Large Hadron Collider. This involvement demonstrates the international standing of our excellent Experimental Particle Physics group, but if evidence of supersymmetry is found at the LHC your methodology will simply ignore it. A similar fate will also befall any experiment that requires large international collaborations: searches for dark matter, dark energy, and gravitational waves to name but three, all exciting and inspiring scientific adventures that you regard as unworthy of any recognition at all but which draw students in large numbers into participating departments.

Your decision to downgrade collaborative research to zero is not only strange but also extremely dangerous, for it tells university managers that participating in world-leading collaborative research will jeopardise their rankings. How can you justify such a deliberate and premeditated attack on collaborative science? Surely it is exactly the sort of thing you should be rewarding? Physics departments not participating in such research are the ones that should be downgraded!

Your answer might be that excluding “superpapers” only damages the rankings of smaller universities because might owe a larger fraction of their total citation count to collaborative work. Well, so what if this is true? It’s not a reason for excluding them. Perhaps small universities are better anyway, especially when they emphasize small group teaching and provide opportunities for students to engage in learning that’s led by cutting-edge research. Or perhaps you have decided otherwise and have changed your methodology to confirm your prejudice…

I look forward to seeing your answers to the above questions through the comments box or elsewhere – though you have ignored my several attempts to raise these questions via social media. I also look forward to seeing you correct your error of omission by demonstrating – by the means described above – what  changes in league table positions are by your design rather than any change in performance. If it turns out that the former is the case, as I think it will, at least your own journal provides you with a platform from which you can apologize to the global academic community for wasting their time.

Yours sincerely,


The 9 kinds of physics seminar

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff on October 2, 2015 by telescoper


I just couldn’t resist reblogging this!! :-)

Originally posted on Many Worlds Theory:

As a public service, I hereby present my findings on physics seminars in convenient graph form.  In each case, you will see the Understanding of an Audience Member (assumed to be a run-of-the-mill PhD physicist) graphed as a function of Time Elapsed during the seminar.  All talks are normalized to be of length 1 hour, although this might not be the case in reality.


The “Typical” starts innocently enough: there are a few slides introducing the topic, and the speaker will talk clearly and generally about a field of physics you’re not really familiar with.  Somewhere around the 15 minute mark, though, the wheels will come off the bus.  Without you realizing it, the speaker will have crossed an invisible threshold and you will lose the thread entirely.  Your understanding by the end of the talk will rarely ever recover past 10%.


The “Ideal” is what physicists strive for in…

View original 763 more words

Flexible Degrees through Sussex Choice

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2015 by telescoper

I just noticed an item in the Times Higher about a new development in the approach to degree structures at the University of Leicester. The piece begins

A growing number of students undertake several work placements and internships over the course of their degree to increase their chances of securing a graduate-level job. But an initiative at the University of Leicester aims to make it easier for undergraduates to learn the range of skills that employers are looking for during their studies.

I feel obliged to point out that, in fact, here at the University of Sussex we already have a scheme (called “Sussex Choice”) that already allows this, as well as a number of other initiatives under the same banner. The University of Leicester’s “initiative” is of course a good development, but it’s not as ground-breaking as the Times Higher story suggests.

Sussex choice allows students the following opportunities:

  • “Electives” in topics not connected with the main subject of their course, e.g. science modules for Arts and Humanities students. I teach on one of these, actually.
  • “Pathways” allowing students to transform their degree into a major/minor combination. This is basically what the University of Leicester is proposing to start.
  • “Placements”, i.e. paid internships, which can be either professional (e.g. in industry) or research-based (e.g. working with a research group inside our outside the University). These can be either integrated within the course of study, leading to (for example) a  degree title which includes (“with a Professional Placement” or “with a Research Placement”) or “voluntary”, usually in subject not directly related to the degree subject.
  • “Study Abroad” opportunities, allowing students to take a term or a year abroad at one of our partner universities.

With very few exceptions – generally due to restrictions imposed by accrediting bodies for some degree programmes – It is possible, for example,  in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, for students to do a Research Placement abroad, combining the latter two of these opportunities; two of our students went to Tsinghua University in China to do precisely this, as part of an exchange agreement. You can read about the students’ experiences of these and other opportunities at Berkeley and  Texas in the United States and Uppsala University (Sweden) here.

Here is the PVC Clare Mackie (my boss!)  explaining the Sussex Choice scheme in a little video…


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