Archive for the Education Category

Particle Physics Masterclass at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 26, 2021 by telescoper

I have already informed you of a Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology at Maynooth that will take place on March 25th 2021. For more information on that event including instructions on how to book see here.

Now it’s time to announce the International Masterclass on Particle Physics. The  Department of Theoretical Physics has hosted such event for secondary school students each Spring, apart from last year when it was cancelled because of Covid-19.  The next event will take place online on 21 and 22 March 2021. You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here.

These Masterclasses give secondary school students the opportunity to discover the world of quarks and leptons for themselves, by performing measurements on real data from CERN, meeting active particle physics researchers and linking up with like-minded students from other countries.  We will join thousands of other secondary school students at more than 100 universities and laboratories around Europe and worldwide in a programme stretching over four weeks.

Physics at the most fundamental level – the smallest and most basic building blocks of matter – is an exotic world.  But a few introductory talks and working with data from CERN will give the students insight into the fundamental particles of matter and the forces between them, as well as what went on during the Big Bang.

On Sunday afternoon, the students are introduced to particle physics, experiments and detectors in lectures given by active particle physics researchers.  On Monday, after a virtual visit to the ALICE detector at CERN, they work on their own with data from ALICE Afterwards they participate in a video conference with students from other countries and moderators at CERN, where they discuss and compare their results.

For more information on the Particle Physics Masterclasses, see the International Masterclasses web site.

I don’t know. You wait ages for a Masterclass in Physics at Maynooth University, and then along come two in quick succession!

Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 23, 2021 by telescoper

Regular readers of the blog – both of them – may remember that we planned to present a Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology on January 14th 2021 but this had to be postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions. After today’s announcements by the Government of  a phased return to school starting on March 1st we have now decided to proceed with a new date of March 25th 2021.

This will be a half-day virtual event via Zoom. It’s meant for school students in their 5th or 6th year of the Irish system, who should be returning to classrooms on March 15th, but there might be a few of them or their teachers who see this blog so I thought I’d share the news here. You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here.

Here is the updated official poster and the programme:

I’ll be talking about cosmology early on, while John Regan will talk about black holes. After the coffee break one of our PhD students will talk about why they wanted to study astrophysics. Then I’ll say something about our degree programmes for those students who might be interested in studying astrophysics and/or cosmology as part of a science course. We’ll finish with questions either about the science or the study!

Irish Bingo Lingo

Posted in Education with tags , on February 20, 2021 by telescoper

This week I had my third lunchtime Irish language class during which, among a few other things, we learned about numbers (just 1-10 so far). After some practice in pronunciation, we then had some practice in comprehension by playing Bingo in Irish. Out of interest I’ve put up the Irish numbers along with their counterparts in Welsh for reasons which will become clear:

The first thing to note is the presence of the particle “a” in front of the number in Irish. This is a consequence of something I didn’t know about before taking this course. In Irish there are different ways of using numbers depending on whether you’re using them just as numbers (in which case you put the “a” in front) or if you’re using them to denote a quantity of things or people (in which cases you don’t put the “a” in front but have to use a particular grammatical construction involving the thing being counted). Numbers in Irish are not used simply as adjectives, as in for example English. That’s not how it works in any other language I know. So far we haven’t been taught about these other counting systems so I can’t say any more.

The second thing concerns the similarity of these numbers to those in many other European languages, which is not surprising since they share an Indo-European origin. Integers are such basic things that they are embedded at a very deep level in languages. The Irish numbers resemble those in French particularly strongly. This may be a consequence of modern Irish being influenced by Norman French or may just be evidence of the common root.

Notice the comparison with Welsh, however, which gives very clear evidence of the ancient mutation that led to the distinct language branches of p-Celtic and q-Celtic. Look at the number 4. In Irish, this is a ceathair (which is pronounced “a ka-hir”; the t is weakened by the following h) which resembles the French quatre. There is no q in the standard Irish alphabet but the sound is similar. In Welsh we have pedwar which, apart from the initial letter being a “p”, is structurally similar to the Irish version. A similar change in initial consonant happens with the number five.

Anyway I’m enjoying learning Irish. It’s a very interesting challenge. In the rest of the class we learned how to answer questions like What is your name (Cad is ainm duit?) followed by an exercise in giving names to celebrities shown in photographs. I firmly established my status as the Old Fogey of the class in this part, by being unable to identify a person called Shakira who, I’m told, is a popular vocal artiste of some sort.

The Return to Schools in Ireland – The Facts

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Politics on February 20, 2021 by telescoper

There is some confusion going around about precisely when schools will reopen in the Republic of Ireland. In order to provide a service to the community I therefore thought I would summarize the main points here as clearly, concisely and coherently as possible.

At Primary schools, Junior infants or perhaps Junior and Senior infants and perhaps also including First and Second Class will return either separately or together on either 1st March or possibly 8th March. All other pupils will definitely return on 15th March or possibly a week or two weeks later but definitely by three weeks later than that unless there’s a change of plan.

At Secondary schools, the Junior Cycle will continue as normal apart from not actually happening: the Junior Certificate will be replaced by a voucher to spend on computer games. The Senior Cycle will return at the same time as Primary Schools, or at some different time depending on the circumstances, or perhaps just for the day before the Leaving Certificate examinations. Pupils will be able to choose either to take the examination or to receive a grade based on all the coursework they haven’t done because the schools have been closed or to receive a grade based on how much their parents can afford to pay. Leaving Certificate examinations will take place according to the published timetable unless they’re cancelled at the last minute.

Transition Year students have been completely forgotten but no doubt somebody will think of something when they remember.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Norma Foley is 51.


Teaching from Home

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on February 3, 2021 by telescoper

Determined to follow the public health advice and work from home I decided to set up a blackboard in my study so I can do lectures online. I find the blackboard shows up better on camera than a whiteboard and using this arrangement allows me to stand up while I deliver the material, which I find much more comfortable than sitting down.

I’m fortunate of course in having enough space to do this. Not every University lecturer can do this.

The bit you see on the board was the start of my second Engineering Mathematics lecture to first-year students. I had asked the students at the end of Lecture 1 to think about the Laplace Transform of f(t)=t and began Lecture 2 by going through the necessary integration on the board.

Today I have three lectures – another Engineering Maths and two Advanced Electromagnetism to give so the board will be more extensively used. I just hope my internet connection stays up!

P. S. Playing back today’s videos I have discovered an optical defect in the Panopto system that makes my hair look grey.

P.P.S. Three lectures in an afternoon (12-1, 2-3 and 4-5) is quite hard work but at least I had breaks between them!

The Start of Spring Semester

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on February 1, 2021 by telescoper

It’s February 1st 2021, which means that today is Imbolc, a Gaelic festival marking the point halfway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox, i.e. it’s a Cross-Quarter Day. To be pedantic, Imbolc is actually the period between this evening and tomorrow evening as in the Celtic calendar days were counted from sunset to sunset.

The first Day of February is also the Feast day of St Brigid of Kildare (c. 451-525), one of Ireland’s patron saints along with Saints Patrick and Colm Cille. One of her miraculous powers was the ability to change water into ale, which perhaps explains her enduring popularity among the Irish.

In Ireland this day is sometimes regarded as the first day of spring, as it is roughly the time when the first spring lambs are born. It corresponds to the Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau and is also known as the `Cross Quarter Day’ or (my favourite) `The Quickening of the Year’. According to legend it is also the day on which jackdaws mate. Given how many of them there are around Maynooth there should be a lot of action today.

Today is, appropriately enough in the light of all this, the start of the Spring Semester of teaching at Maynooth University, the fourth Spring Semester I will have experienced here although this is obviously not like the others in that we’ll be teaching online at least for the first half and probably for the entirety. I was planning to stay at home today but I realised I’d left some things I need in the office on campus so will have to go to collect them. That’s why I’m up early. That and the need to shake myself out of the lockdown torpor that has afflicted me since New Year. It’s time to get my act together, pull my finger out, put my best foot forward, etc.

This Semester I am teaching Engineering Mathematics II, Computational Physics I and Advanced Electromagnetism. The former, what you would probably call a `service course’, covers a mixture of things, mainly Linear Algebra but with some other bits thrown in for fun, such as Laplace transforms. Interestingly I find the Mathematical Physics students do not encounter Laplace Transforms in the first year, but perhaps engineers use them more often than physicists do? I think I’ve written only one paper that made use of a Laplace transform. Anyway, I have to start with this topic as the students need some knowledge of it for some other module they’re taking this semester. I reckon six lectures will be enough to give them what they need. That’s two weeks of lectures, there being three lectures a week for this module.

Once again my teaching timetable for this module is quite nice. I have lectures on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then the students have a choice of tutorial (on either Thursday or Friday). That means I can get through a decent amount of material each week before each tutorial. I don’t do the tutorials, by the way: that’s left to one of our PhD students, who gets paid for doing that and correcting the weekly coursework. There are about 50 students on this module, divided into two courses: Electronic Engineering and Robotics and Intelligent Devices. We don’t have Civil or Mechanical or Chemical Engineering, etc, at Maynooth, in case you were wondering. Lectures will be done as webcasts using Panopto but also recorded for later viewing.

My first Computational Physics lecture, which I will do from home, is on Thursday, after which there is a lab session which we will do via Microsoft Teams. That’s the way we did it after lockdown last year and it worked OK. Students attend one two-hour lab session in addition to the lecture, on either Thursday or Tuesday. The first lecture being on Thursday the first lab session will be Thursday afternoon, with the same material being covered the following Tuesday. Fortunately, Python is free to download and easy to install so it’s quite straightforward to run the labs remotely. Teams has a screen sharing facility so it’s quite easy for myself or my demonstrator to see what is wrong in the same way we would do in a laboratory class.

The Advanced Electromagnetism module is a new one for me but I’m quite looking forward to it. Being a final-year module its content is less prescriptive than others and I’ll be adding a few things that I find interesting. Both lectures for that one are on Wednesdays and again will be given as webcasts with recordings available later.

Today is a particularly busy day because in addition to my first lecture (at 2pm) I have a meeting of Academic Council (3pm via Teams), a Euclid telecon (via Zoom) and a meeting with my PhD student via Teams. I have also been trying to sort out tutors and tutorials for the forthcoming Semester: these don’t start until next week so there’s time, but it has been quite a challenge to get everyone sorted. Fortunately I think that’s now done.

Oh, and another thing. I signed up for Irish language lessons (Beginners Level) and will be having classes once a week from now on.

It’s going to be a very busy term but I reckon being busy is probably going to be a good way to get through the next few months.

The Term Ahead

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on January 28, 2021 by telescoper

After a recent Government announcement that current Covid-19 restrictions would be extended until at least March 5th, this morning we received the expected communication from the University authorities that almost all our teaching at Maynooth University would be online until March 22nd at the earliest. This is because the half-term “study break” is from 15th to 19th March (to include St Patrick’s Day) and there would be no point in trying to get students back for one week (8th-12th March) before breaking up for the following week. In fact, if I had to bet money on it I would say we’ll probably be online all the way through to the summer, and possibly beyond, but that decision has not been made yet.

To nobody’s surprise we’re also going to have online examinations in the summer again. We’ve done two rounds of these already so are getting used to them now so that’s not a problem.

The St Patrick’s Day break was basically when we flipped – by which I mean “changed teaching methods” rather than “went mad” – last year so at least we’ve already got teaching prepared for the second half of the forthcoming semester if Level 5 restrictions do continue.

I am actually a bit annoyed at the politicians for making hints about when the restrictions might end. It is clearly far too early to be talking about that. Here are yesterday’s numbers:

If you prefer them on a linear scale here they are:

New cases have fallen significantly since the latest peak but at least part of that is due to the fact that automatic close contact tracing couldn’t cope and was abandoned. Testing positivity rate has fallen to around 8.2% (from over 20%) , hospital admissions admissions are falling, and deaths may have peaked, so the evidence suggests there is a is a reduction, but the numbers are still way too high. They need to come down to much less than a 100 before any lifting of restrictions can be contemplated. At the current rate of decline that will take many weeks.  Suggesting opening up is going to happen soon will only make people impatient and reduce compliance.

Teaching term at Maynooth starts on Monday (1st February) and I have three modules to deliver, one of them a module I’ve never given before. Because there has been so much to do behind the scenes since Christmas I don’t think I’ll ever have started a term feeling so exhausted. The cycle of academic life carries on remorselessly despite the fact that everything takes longer to do under Covid-19 restrictions. It is an effort just to keep up.

Still at least we’ve all still got jobs to do and are still getting paid. It’s time to knuckle down and focus on reaching the mid-term break in one piece and then seeing where we go thereafter.


Teaching after Covid

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

I know it’s a Business lecture, but at least there is a periodic table on the wall to remind students of the time when Universities used to care about science.

Near the end of a planning meeting this morning I was asked to give my thoughts about any long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on teaching and/or research. That also echoed a discussion I had with staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics on Teams a while ago, which touched on the same question.

My own view in general is that although we find ourselves constantly saying things like “When we get back to normal…” I think we have to accept that the pandemic is going to change many things irreversibly. We’re going to have to get used to new ways of working in both teaching and research. Some changes will be made to make financial savings owing to loss of income over however long the pandemic lasts, and some of those will no doubt be painful and sad. Others will be opportunities created by us learning how to do things differently and a number of these could be very positive, if we seize the initiative and make the most of them.

One specific thing in the latter category is that Maynooth University installed a system of lecture capture to help deliver teaching when access to campus was restricted (as it is now). The hardware and software installed is fairly basic and isn’t by any means perfect, but it has worked pretty well. The main problem is that the cameras that have been installed are very limited webcams and are not capable of capturing, e.g. a blackboard.

One thing I hope will happen in the long term is that we include lecture capture as a routine way of augment students’ learning. That will require additional investment in infrastructure, but I think it would be well worth it.

Some years ago I blogged about this at another institution, which had facilities allow lecturers to record videos of their own lectures which are then made available for students to view online.

This is of course very beneficial for students with special learning requirements, but in the spirit of inclusive teaching I think it’s good that all students can access such material. Some faculty are apparently a little nervous that having recordings of lectures available online would result in falling attendances at lectures, but in fact there is evidence that indicates precisely the opposite effect. Students find the recorded version adds quite a lot of value to the “live” event by allowing them to clarify things they might not have not noted down clearly. In my experience they rarely watch the whole video, instead focusing on things they didn’t get first time around. And if a few students decide that it’s good enough for them just to watch the video, then so what? That’s their choice. They are adults, after all.

I’ll add that I do feel we should still make the effort to return to doing live lectures in some form and not rely entirely on recordings. I think that what you can do in a lecture is fairly limited part of the overall educational package, but that’s not the same as saying that they should be scrapped. Many students do enjoy lectures and find them very helpful. I just think we should make the best of the available technology to offer as wide a range of teaching methods as possible. No two students are the same and no two students learn precisely the same way. Let us offer them a variety of resources and they can choose which serves them best.

Another important, but perhaps less tangible, aspect of this is that I think education is or should be a shared experience for students. Just having everyone sit in the same room “enjoying” the same teaching session is a great benefit compared with having them sit in their room watching things on a laptop screen. I think that’s one of the worst issues with remote teaching, and wish we had found better ways of dealing with that over the past year.

There is a benefit for the lecturer of having a live audience too, in that actually seeing the people you’re trying to teach helps you gauge how well you’re getting it across.

Anyway, I started a poll on lecture capture a while ago before the pandemic. Feel free to add your opinion. It will be interesting to see if opinions have changed!

Thought For The Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on January 13, 2021 by telescoper

In the midst of the January examination period I’ve been thinking about how tough this year has been nd will continue to be for all students in third-level institutions, but especially the cohort currently in the first year of their course. I think it’s now fairly clear that nearly all their study this year will be done remotely. We on the teaching side have all tried to make the best of this situation but there’s no question that the learning experience we have been able to offer is not as good this year as in other years. On top of that the students – especially in the first year – have been denied the chance to get to know other students through personal interactions, clubs & societies, or through joint interests. Those of us who went to University in more normal times know that many of the friendships we made when we first arrived at college stayed with us for the rest of our lives.

Thinking about this I want to make a suggestion. It is that every student currently in their first year of study at a third-level institution should be offered the chance to start again in the autumn and repeat the whole academic year, regardless of how well they do this time round. Not all students will want to do this, and not all will be able to because of personal circumstances, but I feel we should at least offer them the possibility and back it up with funding for the repeated year. My own suspicion is that it would be a minority, but probably a significant minority, that would opt for this. It would cost money, but I think it would mean a lot to a considerable number of students.

I can anticipate an objection that students repeating their first year will take up places that would normally go to next year’s new intake. That depends on how many would take up the repeat offer, of course. Extra capacity may be needed for some but not all courses. But it also seems to me that this year’s Leaving Certificate students will have had their studies affected too. Perhaps final-year school students should be offered the chance to repeat their year too?

Would starting and/or finishing college a year later really be such a problem given the extraordinary nature of the Covid-19 crisis?

P.S. I’ve talked about the situation in Ireland, but everything I’ve said will apply elsewhere too.

Postponed: Astrophysics & Cosmology Masterclass at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 10, 2021 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog may recall that the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University  planned to host a Masterclass in Astrophysics & Cosmology on January 14th 2021 (i.e. next Thursday). Unfortunately the closure of schools in Ireland until at least the end of January has given us no alternative but to postpone this event. It’s not cancelled though and we intend to run it as soon as possible: the date is now set provisionally for 25th February.  Limited places remain available and bookings are still open. You can find more information, including instructions on how to book a place, here.

Here is the official poster and the programme (timings still apply, but not the date..):

I’ll be talking about cosmology early on, while John Regan will talk about black holes. After the coffee break one of our PhD students will talk about why they wanted to study astrophysics. Then I’ll say something about our degree programmes for those students who might be interested in studying astrophysics and/or cosmology as part of a science course. We’ll finish with questions either about the science or the courses.

For updates please follow the Department’s on twitter-feed: