Archive for the Education Category

Back to Campus

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on September 20, 2021 by telescoper

Well here we are at last, back to campus. Returning students were back to lectures this morning and although our new students don’t begin their lectures until next Monday (27th September) a sizeable contingent who accepted first-round offers were also here today doing orientation activities.

I didn’t actually have a lecture today as my first-year module doesn’t begin until next week but I did go to the lecture theatre at 11am this morning to chat to students about the module and give them some tips for studying theoretical physics. As it happens, that is Physics Hall which is on the ground floor of the building shown in the picture above. I’ll see the full class next week. My second year module has lectures on Tuesdays so my first real lecture will be tomorrow (afternoon).

We’re still short of one lecturer who still hasn’t obtained his visa yet. He will be doing lectures remotely until such time as he can arrive. I won’t deny that this has caused a lot of stress. We’re short-handed enough anyway without this.

Aside from that I’ve been trying to organize a number of things, including tutorials and course materials, and change some timetable bookings. The latter has proved necessary because we do have significantly more students than we had last year and some of the rooms we have been given are too small.

With another week to go until first-year lectures begin, and second-round CAO offers just going out today, we could still have a few more new students enrolling between now and then. The number of returning students has probably settled down by now, though we might get a few late enrolments.

Views of Maynooth University Campus

Posted in Architecture, Education, Maynooth on September 16, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve been spending a lot of time doing various webinars and the like to help welcome new students to Maynooth University for the new academic year. During the course of this I discovered we had some semi-official photographs to use as backgrounds for Zoom or Teams. I thought it might be fun to share a few of them here as they provide nice views of some of the buildings you might see while walking around campus…

One week to go…

Posted in Education, Maynooth on September 13, 2021 by telescoper

It’s Monday 13th September 2021 which means that teaching begins a week today. Gulp.

We still don’t really have any idea how many students we’ll have on our courses in the first year. The 2021 Leaving Certificate Results only came out on Friday 3rd September and the first round of CAO offers went out last week (on Tuesday 7th). Today at 3pm is the deadline for accepting these offers, so we expect to have some reasonably firm information later this week. There are two more rounds of CAO offers, though, so there may be some late arrivals.

This week we’re having some orientation and induction sessions for the new students. I recorded several videos to help students make their choices and am doing two live webinars about Mathematical and Theoretical Physics. I’m not doing one for our denominated Theoretical Physics & Mathematics programme because students on that do not have options in the first year. There’s also a live online Q&A session.

Lectures for first-year students don’t start until 27th September (two weeks from today) but there will probably be quite a few students who accept their places this week and would be able to start with the rest of the students next Monday. I think we’ll devise some optional sessions for them to keep them amused until teaching starts in proper.

Meanwhile the returning students (second, third and fourth years) have been enrolling. That seems to have gone alright and we now have a good idea how many we’ll have in those classes.

Unfortunately we still have the problem I’ve already, mentioned that for visa reasons we’re short of a member of staff, who is likely to have to start giving his lectures remotely. He has been allocated one second year and one third year module. I’ll wait a day or two to see if his visa comes through and if not inform the students that these lectures will be online. I suspect the students won’t be happy but it’s out of my hands. The visa application has been waiting for months for an answer from the Immigration Service in Ireland, which is a very poor level of performance by them.


Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on September 10, 2021 by telescoper

I spent most of today in various virtual meetings to do with next Semester’s teaching which is due to start on September 20th for returning students (and a week letter for first-years). I’ve also been keeping an eye on the student record system, as the returning students have started to register. We don’t expect most first-years to start enrolling until next week, although I did see a few early acceptances coming through…

One of the meetings I had today was about how to handle the first-year “Omnibus” science course in which some of the modules are taught in large classes which have to be held remotely and others in smaller groups which will be in person. One of the complications is if students have, say, two lectures online, which they can view at home, will they really travel to campus to attend another one in person? And if they have an online lecture immediately before or after an in-person one, where will they view it if they haven’t got time to get between home and campus (or vice versa)?

All this reminded me of similar discussions we had at this time last year. Back then all the plans came to naught anyway because everything went online anyway a few weeks into term as infections rose (see left panel below):

Today 1620 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in Ireland. On this day last year the number was 196 I keep a full record here where you will see that between 10th September 2020 and 10th September 2021 3,378 deaths were recorded, most of them resulting from the big spike that followed Christmas. There is evidence of a dip right now, which is sincerely hope continues, but to me the rate of infections is alarmingly high. If infections start to climb then they’ll be starting from a much higher level than last year.

Of course we now have vaccines and the good news is that it seems that well over 90% of those over the age of 18 in Ireland will have been vaccinated by the start of term but with the Delta variant in circulation will this be enough?

At least we have had a significant change in the wording given to students: masks are now “mandatory” in lecture theatres.

I still think there’s a significant chance we have to revert to online teaching just as we did last year. Looking on the bright side at least we know how to do that now, as we’ve done it before.

But that’s enough worrying for this week. I’m now going to have a glass of wine and cook myself some dinner. Sautéed chicken with Cavolo Nero and Parmesan, in case you were wondering.

Offers and Points

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 8, 2021 by telescoper
Today’s Irish Times Supplement

Yesterday the Central Admissions Office released the first round offers for entry to Irish Universities; today the details appeared in the Irish newspapers. I don’t usually buy a newspaper on a weekday but I couldn’t resist getting a copy of the Irish Times so I could pore over the information presented in the CAO supplement, of which the picture above shows only a part, rather like I tend to do with the football results or cricket scores.

As expected, the points required for courses are significantly higher than last year. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic the School Leaving Certificate involved a combination of school-based assessment and examinations that obviously worked to the benefit of the students. Looking through the results I struggled to find courses where the points requirement had fallen, but there are a few examples.

Students who have met the requirements for a course they applied to have until 13th September to decide whether to accept. There is then another round of offers starting on 20th September and closing on 22nd September. Here in Maynooth we start teaching new students on 27th September so the CAO process is very truncated this year. I’d imagine that most students will settle on their choices in the first round.

My biggest worry this year is now not to do with the business of offers and acceptances but the mad scramble for accommodation at the start of term. It’s going to be a stressful few weeks for everyone.

Anyway, let’s take a look a the offers for Maynooth. Most students in the Department of Theoretical Physics come either through our denominated programme MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (TP&M for short) or through MH201 Science (the so-called “Omnibus” Science programme):

The denominated programme in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics (MH206) is up 11 points on 521 from last year’s 510 but that’s not an exceptionally high figure in historical terms although it is one of the higher offers for Maynooth. Points for MH201 Science are also up this year to 401 from 360 last year. This is higher than I can remember any previous year I have been here.

We don’t normally publish information on how many offers have been made* so I’ll just say that on the basis of first-round offers it looks like we have done pretty well on TP&M. A good thing about this course is that it doesn’t involve laboratory work so is not constrained by capacity in the way that experimental subjects are. The total number of first-year students on MH201 for example is largely constrained by space in Chemistry labs: students are given a free choice of subjects in Year 1 so we have to allow for them all to choose any subject which leads to a bottleneck. Students on MH201 don’t choose their first-year subjects until they enrol so we won’t find out what numbers are like on this course for some time.

*I know, and could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

Two weeks to go…

Posted in Education, Maynooth on September 6, 2021 by telescoper

Science Building Foyer

I’ve decided to escape from the boxes and packing materials in my house in order to come onto campus. The Science Building is still rather empty but, despite the deserted appearance of the foyer above, there are a few other people working here. In fact, later this afternoon I’ll be having the first in-person meeting I’ve had with my PhD student for about a year; we’ve met regularly once a week via Teams so this will be a change!

It’s 6th September 2021 which means that teaching begins two weeks today. On top of the problem I’ve already mentioned that we’re short of a member of staff, we still don’t really have any idea how many students we’ll have on our courses. The 2021 Leaving Certificate Results only came out on Friday 3rd September and the first round of CAO offers will be published tomorrow (7th September) so please spare a thought for the admissions teams who have been working through the weekend to sort things out. We’ll get our first information tomorrow afternoon how things have gone, but we won’t have firm numbers until very close to the start of term, which is why teaching for new students won’t begin until 27th September, a week later than returning students.

Today is also Consultation Day, on which students can discuss their results in the August Repeat Examinations with members of staff (including myself).  Students who had disappointing results may need to repeat the year; others may progress to the next year of studies, having passed their repeats. Others who passed some but not others may be able to progress but with a restricted range of options. It’s all quite complicated but the few inquiries I’ve dealt with today have been resolved quite straightforwardly.

There’s a lot to do over the next fortnight, but it’s quite a relief to be in a situation where we can actually start doing out jobs rather than  just wait for others to do theirs. As Gandalf said on the eve of the Battle for Minas Tirith:

The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last…


Messers, Dreamers and Misfits

Posted in Art, Education, Music with tags , , , on September 5, 2021 by telescoper

After the death of Charlie Watts last week, Fintan O’Toole wrote a piece in the Irish Times (here, unfortunately behind a paywall) pointing out that, along with a large fraction of the English rock musicians that began their careers in the 1960s, Charlie Watts went to Art School; Harrow Art School in his case. O’Toole goes on to argue that society needs to find ways to nurture its creative talents and that modern education is far too utilitarian to allow space for “Messers, Dreamers and Misfits”.

I agree with the broad thrust of Fintan O’Toole’s argument. I think the School and University systems are far too focussed on examination and assessment at the expense of genuine education. What I disagree with is the idea that creativity is only to be found in the Arts. When I saw the phrase “Messers, Dreamers and Misfits” it struck me that this could very well describe many of my colleagues in physics, and in science generally – and I don’t mean that in any way as an insult!

There is an explicit assumption in much of the world that creativity is only to be found in the Arts. That’s just not true. Who can say that Einstein didn’t have a creative mind? It is true that if you want to be, say, a theoretical physicist you do have to do formal training in the methods used, especially mathematics. But that is no different from an art school really. To be a painter you have to learn the techniques needed to manage the media you are using. To be a musician you have to learn the basics of harmony and solve the technical problems involved with playing an instrument. Artists have to pay their dues just like scientists. I wrote about this here, in the context of the great Jazz pianist Bill Evans, where I said:

All subjects require technical skill, but there is more to being a great jazz musician than mastery of the instrument just as there’s more to being a research scientist than doing textbook problems. So here’s to creativity wherever it is found, and let’s have a bit more appreciation for the creative aspects of science and engineering!

Anyway, here in Ireland, the Leaving Certificate results came out on Friday and next week we’ll begin the process that determines how many students we’ll have doing Mathematical and Theoretical Physics at Maynooth. It always surprises me how many students choose study subjects other than Physics, but then I remember that I went from School to Cambridge in 1982 to read Natural Sciences, fully expecting to specialize in Chemistry but just found Physics more interesting and, yes, more fun.

I don’t know whether I count as a creative person at all, but I’m definitely a misfit, prone to dreaming and – especially at the moment in the middle of unpacking my belongings – my house is a mess!

Anyway, here is a message for students just about the start their Third Level education here in Ireland or elsewhere. The most important advice I can give is to choose the subject that you will enjoy most, but pursue your other interests too. Charlie Watts was interested in music while at art school. There’s no reason why a theoretical physicist can’t pursue an interest in music too. I can think of at least one prominent example of a person who managed to become a pop musician and a physicist.

Given my own background I read Fintan O’Toole’s article as clear encouragement to students to pick theoretical physics.

Back to School….

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on August 30, 2021 by telescoper

It’s a Bank Holiday in the United Kingdom but not here in Ireland; we had our August Bank Holiday at the start of the month. In fact this week sees school students of various ages returning to the classroom. That reminded me of this, from last year:

On my way back from the shops just now I passed a group of boys who were obviously going home after their first day back at school. Their uniforms look very new and in pristine condition. I bet that won’t last.

Three weeks today, on September 20th, we are supposed to start teaching returning students; first years won’t start until 27th September. I wish I could say I was optimistic about this. With Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations climbing it feels very much like it did at this time last year. Nevertheless the powers that be are insisting that we proceed with full lecture theatres without social distancing, with mask wearing not mandatory and with no vaccine certificates. Students can crowd into lecture theatres and rub shoulders with others for an hour, but to use the Student Union bar they have to show a vaccine certificate. This seems to me to be madness. I hope I’m proved wrong but I give it two weeks maximum until we’re forced to revert to online teaching yet again.

In the Department of Theoretical Physics I have a particular headache to deal with on top of this. One of the three temporary lecturers we have appointed this year was supposed to start on 23rd August but he hasn’t got a visa yet. I have therefore to plan on him not being able to arrive in time for the start of teaching. It’s not unusual at this time of year to be wondering how many students are going to be with us at the start of term, but this year we have the additional worry about how many staff we’re going to have available to teach them.

And on a personal level I am hoping for my belongings to arrive sometime this week, although I am yet to have this confirmed and to be given the precise date and time. If the delivery is postponed doesn’t happen before the end of September it’s going to be very difficult, as I will probably be teaching every day from September 20th until Christmas.

Waiting for things to happen that are outside your control is a major cause of stress, but please don’t tell anyone I’m feeling stressed or I’ll be forced to attend a resilience webinar. I think I’d rather resort to the remedies on offer in the picture…


Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 23, 2021 by telescoper

This time last week I started trying to readjust to working from my office in Maynooth University but I’ve already had to put that on pause (hopefully temporarily).

Over the last several days I’ve been experiencing bouts of sneezing, a frequent runny nose, some sinus pressyre, and uncomfortably dry eyes. These seem to me symptoms of hay-fever (though it is a bit late in the year for that) or some other allergy, rather than Covid-19, but based on what I’ve read about the so-called Delta variant I phoned my GP.

I don’t have the more usual symptoms of Covid-19 (neither cough nor sore throat nor fever) – in fact I don’t really fall unwell at all apart from the sporadic sneezing – so my GP said he thought it was very unlikely to be the Coronavirus. I’m also fully vaccinated, though that doesn’t mean I can be infected. Nevertheless he recommended I self-isolate as a precaution for a few days to see what, if anything, develops. So that is what I am doing.

I’m supposed to be recording video material for orientation week, which I can do just as easily at home. To counter the sneezing I’ll just record everything in small chunks.

As for the symptoms, my money is on some kind of allergy, but I wonder what? I’ve never experienced hay-fever in late August before!

Anyway, I’m glad this has happened before the start of teaching: as we’re supposed to do lectures and tutorials in person from next month, a person who is self-isolating won’t be able to teach and we have so few staff it will be difficult to find cover…

Update: the likeliest explanation seems to be a fungal spore allergy, as the release of fungal spores is triggered by crop harvesting. Maynooth is in an agricultural area and August is harvest time. Allergens of this sort also thrive in humid weather which we certainly have had recently.

Vaccination for Lectures?

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

The full guidelines on the return to on-campus teaching in September that I referred to on Monday have now been distributed to all staff, not without comment.

Basically the new advice is that in-person teaching will return in September (in fact a month from today in Maynooth) for all forms of class except lectures containing over 250 people, which will be online. Lecture halls and labs will be at full capacity, i.e. with no social distancing requirement. Students will be “asked” to wear face coverings, but we are told not to attempt to enforce this. Importantly, there will be no requirement for students to have been vaccinated in order to attend lectures.

In Ireland there is a vaccination passport system so that those who wish to dine indoors at a bar or restaurant have to show vaccination status. Perhaps someone can explain to me how it makes sense for this to be a requirement in a restaurant while it is not a requirement for a student having to sit for an hour in close proximity to up to 249 others with no social distancing and no mandatory face coverings.

This conundrum is taken to another level of absurdity when you consider that a student wishing to get lunch indoors on campus will presumably have to show their vaccine passport?

There is an article here that argues that a safe return in the presence of the delta-variant requires 90% of the student population to have been vaccinated.

A more acceptable plan would have students show their vaccination status when enrolling on the course. Those who are unvaccinated but willing to have a vaccination shot could be vaccinated there and then and be allowed to attend lectures when the vaccine takes effect. Or I should say “could have been” because the facilities required to do on-campus vaccinations have not been set up and now there probably isn’t time. Those that refuse to have a vaccine should attend lectures online on a permanent basis.

(How such a scheme would be policed is a difficult question: we don’t usually have people on the doors of lecture theatres checking student IDs or anything and there is a far greater rate of traffic at the start of a lecture than you would have at a restaurant…)

There will of course be some students who are at very high risk and should not be attending lectures anyway even if vaccinated. For them we should be providing lecture recordings. Unfortunately I don’t think we have good enough facilities to record live lectures from theatres as there has been inadequate investment in cameras etc. If we’re told we have to provide lecture recordings, for many of us that means doing the lectures twice. And so our workload increases.

On the other hand it seems increasingly likely to me that all this will be irrelevant. New case numbers are running at about 1800 per day, a level that the HSE admits to being “unsustainable”. When the first colleges return in September, a substantial surge can be expected and everything will be back online anyway.

It’s like déjà vu all over again…