Archive for the Education Category

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…

How to Solve Physics Problems

Posted in Cute Problems, Education with tags , , , , , , on September 18, 2015 by telescoper

It’s Friday afternoon at the end of Induction Week here at the University of Sussex. By way of preparation for lectures proper – which start next Monday – I gave a lecture today to all the new students in Physics during which I gave some tips about how to tackle physics problems, not only in terms of how to solve them but also how to present the answer in an appropriate way.

Richard-Feynman-cornellI began with Richard Feynman’s formula (the geezer in the above picture) for solving physics problems:

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Think very hard.
  3. Write down the answer.

That may seem either arrogant or facetious, or just a bit of a joke, but that’s really just the middle bit. Feynman’s advice on points 1 and 3 is absolutely spot on and worth repeating many times to an audience of physics students.

I’m a throwback to an older style of school education when the approach to solving unseen mathematical or scientific problems was emphasized much more than it is now. Nowadays much more detailed instructions are given in School examinations than in my day, often to the extent that students  are only required to fill in blanks in a solution that has already been mapped out.

I find that many, particularly first-year, students struggle when confronted with a problem with nothing but a blank sheet of paper to write the solution on. The biggest problem we face in physics education, in my view, is not the lack of mathematical skill or background scientific knowledge needed to perform calculations, but a lack of experience of how to set the problem up in the first place and a consequent uncertainty about, or even fear of, how to start. I call this “blank paper syndrome”.

In this context, Feynman’s advice is the key to the first step of solving a problem. When I give tips to students I usually make the first step a bit more general, however. It’s important to read the question too. The key point is to write down the information given in the question and then try to think how it might be connected to the answer. To start with, define appropriate symbols and draw relevant diagrams. Also write down what you’re expected to prove or calculate and what physics might relate that to the information given.

The middle step is more difficult and often relies on flair or the ability to engage in lateral thinking, which some people do more easily than others, but that does not mean it can’t be nurtured.  The key part is to look at what you wrote down in the first step, and then apply your little grey cells to teasing out – with the aid of your physics knowledge – things that can lead you to the answer, perhaps via some intermediate quantities not given directly in the question. This is the part where some students get stuck and what one often finds is an impenetrable jumble of mathematical symbols  swirling around randomly on the page. The process of problem solving is not always linear. Sometimes it helps to work back a little from the answer you are expected to prove before you can return to the beginning and find a way forward.

Everyone gets stuck sometimes, but you can do yourself a big favour by at least putting some words in amongst the algebra to explain what it is you were attempting to do. That way, even if you get it wrong, you can be given some credit for having an idea of what direction you were thinking of travelling.

The last of Feynman’s steps  is also important. I lost count of the coursework attempts I marked this week in which the student got almost to the end, but didn’t finish with a clear statement of the answer to the question posed and just left a formula dangling.  Perhaps it’s because the students might have forgotten what they started out trying to do, but it seems very curious to me to get so far into a solution without making absolutely sure you score the points.  IHaving done all the hard work, you should learn to savour the finale in which you write “Therefore the answer is…” or “This proves the required result”. Scripts that don’t do this are like detective stories missing the last few pages in which the name of the murderer is finally revealed.

So, putting all these together, here are the three tips I gave to my undergraduate students this morning.

  1. Read the question! Some students give solutions to problems other than that which is posed. Make sure you read the question carefully. A good habit to get into is first to translate everything given in the question into mathematical form and define any variables you need right at the outset. Also drawing a diagram helps a lot in visualizing the situation, especially helping to elucidate any relevant symmetries.
  2. Remember to explain your reasoning when doing a mathematical solution. Sometimes it is very difficult to understand what students are trying to do from the maths alone, which makes it difficult to give partial credit if they are trying to the right thing but just make, e.g., a sign error.
  3.  Finish your solution appropriately by stating the answer clearly (and, where relevant, in correct units). Do not let your solution fizzle out – make sure the marker knows you have reached the end and that you have done what was requested. In other words, finish with a flourish!

There are other tips I might add – such as checking answers by doing the numerical parts at least twice on your calculator and thinking about whether the order-of-magnitude of the answer is physically reasonable – but these are minor compared to the overall strategy.

And another thing is not to be discouraged if you find physics problems difficult. Never give up without a fight. It’s only by trying difficult things that you can improve your ability by learning from your mistakes. It’s not the job of a physics lecturer to make physics seem easy but to encourage you to believe that you can do things that are difficult.

To illustrate the advice I’ve given I used this problem, which I leave as an exercise to the reader. It is a slightly amended version the first physics problem I was set as tutorial work when I began my undergraduate studies way back in 1982. I think it illustrates very well the points I have made above, and it doesn’t require any complicated mathematics – not even calculus! See how you get on…


Widening Participation in Physics

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on September 9, 2015 by telescoper

Following on from a provocative post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on this blog (which was subsequently reblogged by the Times Higher), I was contacted by Paul Crowther who sent me a copy of the slides used by Peter Main of the Institute of Physics in a talk in May 2015 on the subject of Widening Participation in Physics. With Peter Main’s permission I’m sharing those slides here as a service to the Physics community. There’s a lot of interesting information in these slides, which I think many UK physicists would be interested in.

Research Funding – A Modest Proposal

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on September 9, 2015 by telescoper

This morning, the Minister for Universities, Jo Johnson, made a speech in which, among other things, he called for research funding to be made simpler. Under the current “dual funding” system, university researchers receive money through two main routes: one is the Research Excellence Framework (REF) which leads to so-called “QR” funding allocations made via the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE); and the other is through research grants which have to be applied for competitively from various sources, including the Seven Research Councils.

Part of the argument why this system needs to be simplified is the enormous expense and administrative burden of the Research Excellence Framework.  Many people have commented to me that although they hate the REF and accept that it’s ridiculously expensive and time-consuming, they didn’t see any alternative. I’ve been thinking about it and thought I’d make a suggestion. Feel free to shoot it down in flames through the box at the end, but I’ll begin with a short introduction.

Those of you old enough to remember will know that before 1992 (when the old `polytechnics’ were given the go-ahead to call themselves `universities’) the University Funding Council – the forerunner of HEFCE – allocated research funding to universities by a simple formula related to the number of undergraduate students. When the number of universities suddenly increased this was no longer sustainable, so the funding agency began a series of Research Assessment Exercises to assign research funds (now called QR funding) based on the outcome. This prevented research money going to departments that weren’t active in research, most (but not all) of which were in the ex-Polytechnics. Over the years the apparatus of research assessment has become larger, more burdensome, and incomprehensibly obsessed with short-term impact of the research. Like most bureaucracies it has lost sight of its original purpose and has now become something that exists purely for its own sake.

It is especially indefensible at this time of deep cuts to university core funding that we are being forced to waste an increasingly large fraction of our decreasing budgets on staff-time that accomplishes nothing useful except pandering to the bean counters.

My proposal is to abandon the latest manifestation of research assessment mania, i.e. the REF, and return to a simple formula, much like the pre-1992 system,  except that QR funding should be based on research student (i.e. PhD student) rather than undergraduate numbers. There’s an obvious risk of game-playing, and this idea would only stand a chance of working at all if the formula involved the number of successfully completed research degrees over a given period .

I can also see an argument  that four-year undergraduate students (e.g. MPhys or MSci students) also be included in the formula, as most of these involve a project that requires a strong research environment.

Among the advantages of this scheme are that it’s simple, easy to administer, would not spread QR funding in non-research departments, and would not waste hundreds of millions of pounds on bureaucracy that would be better spent actually doing research. It would also maintain the current “dual support” system for research, if that’s  a benefit.

I’m sure you’ll point out disadvantages through the comments box!

Walky Talky

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , on August 19, 2015 by telescoper

One of the regular indignities we university teachers have to face is the “Peer Review of Lectures”, during which another member of teaching staff sits in on a lecture in order to give, hopefully constructive, criticism. I first went through this many years ago and among the negative comments made by my reviewer – who shall remain nameless – concerned my tendency to pace around while lecturing. I wasn’t aware that I did it until it was mentioned in that context but try as I might I haven’t really been able to stop doing it. It’s probably just nerves, but the excuse I usually give is that I like to present a moving target. Anyway, it’s not such a bad thing to move around when you’re lecturing, is it? A little animation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Or is it?

On the other hand, one can obviously take this too far. Anyone who saw Gordon Brown’s speech about the Labour leadership contest a few days ago will have seen this taken to an extreme. He moved backwards and forwards so regularly that it was almost hypnotic, like those ducks you see at a fairground shooting gallery. It was inevitable that someone would give him this treatment..

Jeremy Corbyn is 66.

Have we reached Peak Physics?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 17, 2015 by telescoper

One of the interesting bits of news I picked up concerning last week’s A-level results is a piece from the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics. The opening paragraph reads:

Although there was an overall rise of 2% in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

The decline is slight, of course, and it’s obviously too early to decide whether we’ve reached Peak Physics or not. It remains the case however that Physics departments in UK universities are competing for a very small pool of students with A-levels in that discipline. With some universities, e.g. Newcastle, opening up physics programmes that they had previously closed, competition  is going to be intense to recruit students across the sector unless the pool of qualified applicants increases substantially.

The article goes on to speculate that students may be put off doing physics by the perception that it is harder than other subjects. It may even be that some schools – mindful of the dreaded league tables – are deliberately discouraging all but the brightest pupils from studying physics in case their precious league table position is affected.

That’s not a line I wish to pursue here, but I will take the opportunity to rehearse an argument that I have made on this blog before. The idea is one that joins two threads of discussion that have appeared on a number of occasions on this blog. The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at 20% for over a decade. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within our school system. This year’s modest increase doesn’t change the picture significantly.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is simply not a useful preparation for a Physics degree anyway because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills, or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language, on both of abilities which university physics depends. Most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics when it comes to selecting “near misses” during clearing, for example.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been successful.

I now believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix at entry). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists. Not all UK universities seem very interested in widening participation, but those that are should seriously consider this approach.

I am grateful to fellow astronomer Jonathan Pritchard for pointing out to me that a similar point has been made to drop A-level Physics as an entry requirement to  Civil Engineering degrees, which have a similar problem with gender bias.

Sussex Physics – Among The World’s Best Again!

Posted in Education on August 15, 2015 by telescoper

After a hectic week, filled with loads of other Head of School type things besides UCAS Clearing, I’ve decided to take a rare Saturday off. I did however see some good news about the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex, so I thought I would share it here.

The latest (2015) Academic Rankings of World Universities (often called the “Shanghai Rankings”) have just come out so, as I suspect many of my colleagues also did, I drilled down to look at the rankings of Physics departments.

Not surprisingly the top six (Berkeley, Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Caltech, & Stanford) are all based in the USA, as are many others in the Top 100.

The top British university is, also not surprisingly, Cambridge in 9th place. That’s the only UK university in the top ten for Physics. The other leading UK physics departments are: Manchester (13th), Imperial (15th), Edinburgh (20th), Durham (27th), Oxford (35th). I don’t think there will be any surprise that these all made it into the top 50 departments worldwide.

Just outside the top 50  in the world is the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. For a relatively small department in a relatively small university it is a truly remarkable result to be in the Top 100. These rankings place the Department  in joint 8th place in the UK, just behind UCL,  level with Bristol, and ahead of Birmingham, Lancaster, Leicester, Queen Mary, Nottingham, St Andrews, and Warwick all of whom also made the top 200 in Physics.

Although I have deep reservations about the usefulness of league tables, I’m not at all averse to using them as an excuse for a celebration and to help raise the profile of Physics and Astronomy at Sussex generally.  I’d therefore like to take the opportunity to offer hearty congratulations to the wonderful staff of the Department of Physics & Astronomy on their achievement. 

With the recent investments we’ve had and further plans for growth I hope over the next few years we can move even further up the rankings. Unless of course the methodology changes or we’re subect to a “random” (i.e. “downward”) fluctuation…


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