Archive for the Education Category

A Problems Class in Complex Analysis

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by telescoper

My theoretical physics examination is coming up on Monday and the students are hard at working revising for it (or at least they should be) so I thought I’d lend a hand by deploying some digital technology in the form of the following online interactive video-based learning resource on Complex Analysis:

R.I.P. Sir Sam Edwards

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 12, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve only found out this morning that Professor Sir Sam Edwards passed away last week, on 7th May 2015 at the age of 87. Although I didn’t really know him at all on a personal level, I did come across him when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge in the 1980s, so I thought I would post a brief item to mark his passing and to pay my respects.

Sam Edwards taught a second-year course at Cambridge to Physics students,entitled Analytical Dynamics as a component of Part IB Advanced Physics. It would have been in 1984 that I took it. If memory serves, which is admittedly rather unlikely, this lecture course was optional and intended for those of us who intended to follow theoretical physics Part II, i.e. in the third year.
I have to admit that Sam Edwards was far from the best lecturer I’ve ever had, and I know I’m not alone in that opinion. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, his lectures were largely incomprehensible and attendance at them fell sharply after the first few. They were, however, based on an excellent set of typewritten notes from which I learned a lot. It wasn’t at all usual for lecturers to hand out printed lecture notes in those days, but I am glad he did. In fact, I still have them now. Here is the first page:

Sam_Edwards

It’s quite heavy stuff, but enormously useful. I have drawn on a few of the examples contained in his handout for my own lectures on related concepts in theoretical physics, so in a sense my students are gaining some benefit from his legacy.

At the time I was an undergraduate student I didn’t know much about the research interests of the lecturers, but I was fascinated to read in his Guardian obituary how much he contributed to the theoretical development of the field of soft condensed matter, which includes the physics of polymers. In those days – I was at Cambridge from 1982 to 1985 – this was a relatively small part of the activity in the Cavendish laboratory but it has grown substantially over the years.

I feel a bit guilty that I didn’t appreciate more at the time what a distinguished physicist he was, but he undoubtedly played a significant part in the environment at Cambridge that gave me such a good start in my own scientific career and was held in enormously high regard by friends and colleagues at Cambridge and beyond.

Rest in peace, Sir Sam Edwards (1928-2015).

Examination Time Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2015 by telescoper

Once again it’s time for examinations at the University of Sussex, so here’s a lazy rehash of my previous offerings on the subject that I’ve posted around this time each year since I started blogging.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with those of  William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. On previous occasions, before I moved to the University of Sussex, I’ve bemoaned the role that modularisation has played in this process, especially in my own discipline of physics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way modules are used in many British universities fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of many module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

In most UK universities (including Sussex), tudents take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. In many institutions, these are split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester; there are two semesters per year. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, so the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

Such an arrangement means a heavy ratio of assessment to education, one that has risen sharply over the last decades,  with the undeniable result that academic standards in physics have fallen across the sector. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorising chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period. Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I think the system we have here at the University of Sussex is much better than I’ve experienced elsewhere. For a start the basic module size is 15 credits. This means that students are usually only doing four things in parallel, and they consequently have fewer examinations, especially since they also take laboratory classes and other modules which don’t have a set examination at the end. There’s also a sizeable continuously assessed component (30%) for most modules so it doesn’t all rest on one paper. Although in my view there’s still too much emphasis on assessment and too little on the joy of finding things out, it’s much less pronounced than elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Department of Physics & Astronomy does so consistently well in the National Student Survey?

We also have modules called Skills in Physics which focus on developing the problem-solving skills I mentioned above; these are taught through a mixture of lectures and small-group tutorials. I don’t know what the students think of these sessions, but I always enjoy them because the problems set for each session are generally a bit wacky, some of them being very testing. In fact I’d say that I’m very impressed at the technical level of the modules in the Department of Physics & Astronomy generally. I’ve been teaching Green’s Functions, Conformal Transformations and the Calculus of Variations to second-year students this semester. Those topics weren’t on the syllabus at all in my previous institution!

Anyway, my Theoretical Physics paper is next week (on 18th May) so I’ll find out if the students managed to learn anything despite having such a lousy lecturer. Which reminds me, I must remember to post some worked examples online to help them with their revision.

100 Years of Ladybird Books

Posted in Biographical, Education, Literature with tags , , , , on May 10, 2015 by telescoper

And now for something completely different.

Not a lot of people know that this year marks the centenary of Ladybird Books. That name is redolent with nostalgia for me and I suspect also for many other readers of this blog, as the Ladybird series played a major part in my education. I’ve written on a previous occasion about what a slow learner I was as a child – I didn’t really speak until I well after my third birthday  – but once I got the hang of books I became a voracious reader, with the Ladybird series forming a large part of my diet. Once a month or so on a Friday in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences we have afternoon tea and cake just to bring staff and students together for an informal gathering. Each time the cake has a different theme and this time we decided to celebrate the centenary of  Ladybird Books, not least because they played such a significant role in my education.

Here is the cake (designed by the inestimable Dorothy Lamb, who also knitted some Ladybird toys for the occasion). The two covers chosen were from the Ladbybird Junior Science Series, Lights, Mirrors and Lenses and Magnets, Bulbs and Batteries both of which editions were published in 1962. Seeing these covers again brought back a flood of memories of my own childhood in the 1960s.

LadyBird

I wish to make it clear that we did request, and were granted, copyright clearance by Penguin Books (who own the Ladybird imprint) to reproduce the covers, not that they lasted very long – about 20 minutes after that picture was taken the cake had been entirely consumed.

Anyway, we weren’t the only people in Sussex to be celebrating the centenary of Ladybird books.  Today (10th May 2015) was the last day of an exhibition called Ladybird by Design at the splendid De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea. If you missed it here’s a video describing it.

P.S. I should also mention that one of the interesting things about Sussex University  is the abundance of ladybirds on Falmer campus. I’m not sure what makes it such an attractive residence for these fascinating creatures, but no doubt there will be an entomologist out there who can tell me!

Loans for PhD Fees?

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , on May 5, 2015 by telescoper

Just a short post to remind (or perhaps just tell) interested parties that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is running a consultation on issues connected with postgraduate education. According to the BIS website:

We’re seeking views on proposals to introduce loans for postgraduate taught master’s degrees and to improve support for research students.

The consultation closes on May 29th 2015. The Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society are putting together collective responses for Physics and Astronomy respectively, but anyone can submit an opinion.

The scope of the consultation seems carefully worded as not to suggest explicitly  that loans might be extended to postgraduate research (i.e. PhD) students, but the implication is there. If the system of providing research council scholarships to PhD students were to be scrapped in favour of loans I think that would have a devastating effect on the future of UK science, as another sizeable loan on top of the debts accumulated as an undergraduate would put most potential research students completely off the idea of doing a PhD.

I wonder though if there might be actually be a limited role for loans in funding PhD students that might actually have a positive effect. I’ve stated before on this blog that I’m not opposed to the principle that students who can afford to make a contribution to the cost of their education should be required to do so, as this releases funding to support students who can’t afford to make such a contribution. I’ve never agreed with transferring the entire burden onto the student – which the current system effectively does – but I think it is reasonable for students to chip in a few grand when they can. It is true that having a better educated population benefits the country as a whole, which is why the taxpayer should support university students, but there is no question that the students themselves do benefit financially so they should share some of the cost too. Offering susbsidised loans to enable them to do this makes it quite a reasonable proposition.

One advantage of students having to contribute to their fees emanates from the fact that people tend to value things more if they have to pay for them. It seems quite clear to me that students, generally speaking, show far greater levels of engagement with their courses now that they are investing their own money in them.

Universities charge fees for posgraduate courses too, including the PhD, though these are much lower than for undergraduates. At my institution, the University of Sussex, for example, fees for a PhD in a science subject are about £4K per annum. Students funded by a research council bursary get this fee paid on their behalf on top of a stipend of around £14k per annum, and most are probably not even aware that the fee even exists. Students not in receipt of external funding usually have either have to pay their fee by working for it (possibly by teaching) or have to convince the institution to waive it, in which case the Department concerned does not cover its costs. If a student has a bursary that covers a fee plus a stipend for up to 4 years there isn’t much of an incentive for a PhD student to take a shorter time to complete.

So my suggestion is that it might be worth thinking about moving to a system wherein PhD students would be able to access loans to cover their fees rather than having them funded by a research council bursary or by having to work to earn the money. Such a scheme would save the cash-strapped research councils part of what they currently contribute and it would actually help students finance their own PhD if they had no access to such contributions. Having to borrow the money to pay the fee might deter some potential PhD applicants, but it might also improve completion rates by giving an incentive to finish promptly rather than hanging about. Note that a student with a PhD can expect to earn, on average, about 23 per cent more over a lifetime than someone only holding a Bachelors degree so it seems to me to be reasonable to ask a student to stump up part of the cost of doing a research degree through a loan which need only be paid back when the salary reaches a certain level.

I think this suggestion does have a positive side, but it is by no means a complete solution to the problem that, at least in the UK, we produce many more people with PhDs than are needed to sustain academic research and we need to think much more carefully about whether this route provides the correct career development for scientists in the wider world.

The Critical Shortage of UK Physics Teachers

Posted in Education with tags , , on May 1, 2015 by telescoper

I came across this little video at the Gatsby Charitable Foundation website and thought I would share it here.

The video (or “motion graphic”) makes the point that the impact of innovative thinking and interventions resulted in an increase in the supply of physics teachers until 2012 but since then it has subsequently declined, with serious implications not only for physics but for the country as a whole.

I quote:

Modelling by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Institute of Physics (IoP) suggests that we need to recruit around 1,000 new physics teachers every year for at least the next decade in order to meet demand. This year, just 661 teachers started physics teacher training, down from a peak of 900 in 2012. The stark reality is that, if we are to meet the demand for physics teachers and ensure that all pupils have access to well-qualified, specialist teachers, we must look at new ways to recruit, train and retain physics teachers.

Indeed. We’re planning a bit initiative here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, of which more anon..

It seems to me that the basic problem is threefold: (a) that there aren’t enough physics students at University in the first place; (b) that good physics graduates are very employable and get snapped up quickly by employers; (c) that teaching doesn’t seem an attractive career option compared to the many others available. Many efforts focus on (c) but the root cause of the problem is actually (a)…

..nevertheless, I will use this opportunity to point out that bursaries of £25K are available to excellent physics graduates wanting to become physics teachers, courtesy of the Institute of Physics. The deadline for the latest round of applications is this Monday (4th May). Here’s a promotional video:

SEPnet Awayday

Posted in Education with tags , , , on April 20, 2015 by telescoper

Here I am in Easthampstead Park Conference Centre after a hard day being away at an awayday. In fact we’ve been so busy that I’ve only just checked into my room (actually it’s a suite) and shall very soon be attempting to find the bar so I can have a drink. I’m parched.

The place is very nice. Here’s a picture from outside:

Eastham

I’m told it is very close to Broadmoor, the famous high-security psychiatric hospital, although I’m sure that wasn’t one of the reasons for choice of venue.

I have to attend quite a few of these things for one reason or another. This one is on the Future and Sustainability of the South East Physics Network, known as SEPnet for short, which is a consortium of physics departments across the South East of England working together to deliver excellence in both teaching and research. I am here deputising for a Pro Vice Chancellor who can’t be here. I’ve enjoyed pretending to be important, but I’m sure nobody has been taken in.

Although it’s been quite tiring, it has been an interesting day. Lots of ideas and discussion, but we do have to distil all  that down into some more specific detail over dinner tonight and during the course of tomorrow morning.  Anyway, better begin the search for the bar so I can refresh the old brain cells.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,143 other followers