Archive for the Education Category

An Exciting Opportunity in Experimental Physics at the University of Sussex!

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 14, 2015 by telescoper

After much planning and preparatory work, I’m pleased that I am now in a position to announce that the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex has an exciting opportunity in the form of a brand new Chair position in Experimental Physics. The advertisement will shortly appear in both Nature and the Times Higher but it has already appeared on the University of Sussex website. I’m taking the liberty of posting a description of the new position here, but for fuller details please visit the formal advertisement.


The School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences seeks to appoint a Professor in Experimental Physics in the Department of Physics & Astronomy to lead the next phase of expansion and diversification of the research portfolio within the School by establishing an entirely new research activity in laboratory-based physics.

Sufficient resources will be made available to the selected candidate to establish a new group at Sussex in their field of experimental physics including, for example, condensed matter (interpreted widely), materials science, nanophysics or biophysics. Applicants in research areas with scope for interdisciplinary collaborations with other Schools at the University of Sussex (e.g. Life Sciences, Engineering & Informatics or Brighton and Sussex Medical School) are encouraged, especially  those in areas with potential for generating research impact, as defined in the context of the UK Research Excellence Framework.

The successful applicant will have a proven track-record of success in obtaining substantial external funding through research grants and/or industrial sponsorship.

The appointee will be supported with substantial (seven-figure) sum for start-up funding and an extensive newly-refurbished laboratory space. The financial package on offer will also support the appointment of at least two further experimental lectureships; the appointed professor is expected to be strongly involved in recruitment to these positions.

Informal (and confidential) enquiries may be addressed in the first instance to the Head of School, Professor Peter Coles (


Should Academics be (Facebook) Friends with Students?

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on June 30, 2015 by telescoper

I noticed a short article in the Times Higher last week about a small survey that concluded that more than half academics count students among their Facebook friends. It’s actually a very small survey – of 308 academics, all based in America – of whom 54.4% admitted being “friends” with students.

For those of you who don’t use Facebook, a “Facebook friend” isn’t necessarily an actual real-life friend, it’s just someone else on Facebook with whom  you agree to share information, photographs, music and other stuff. Different people have different policies with regard to whether to accept or decline a friend request (or indeed initiate one). I only ever accept requests from people I know in another context, for example, which restricts the number of people who get to see my Facebook scribblings. Others are less selective and have many many more Facebook friends.

One of the things about Facebook is that people do sometimes share quite personal things, and sometimes things that might be quite compromising in a work context, e.g. pictures of themselves ina  state of inebriation. I suppose that’s why it’s a rather  contentious whether a member of academic staff in a University should or not be “friends” with their undergraduate students. I know many of my friends and colleagues  in academia flatly refuse to befriend undergraduate students (in the Facebook sense) and indeed this is the advice given by some institutions to staff. Most wouldn’t have a problem with having social media interactions with their graduate students, though. The nature of the relationship between a PhD student and supervisor is very different from that between an undergraduate and a lecturer.

There is a point on social media where professionalism might be compromised just as there is in other social interactions. The trouble is knowing precisely where that boundary lies, which is easy to misjudge. I’ve never felt that it was in any way improper to be friendly to students. Indeed I think that could well improve the students’ experience of education. If the relationship with staff is too distant students may not  feel comfortable asking for help with their work, or advice about wider things. Why should being “professional” mean not treating students as human beings?

One can take friendliness too far, however. There have to be some boundaries, and intrusive or demanding behaviour that makes students uncomfortable should be avoided.

I’ve thought about this quite a lot since I joined Facebook, which was in 2007. What I decided to do is simple. If a student initiates a friend request, I usually accept it (as long as I actually know who it is). Not many make such requests, but some do. More often, in fact, students send friend requests after they’ve graduated, when they perhaps feel liberated from the student-teacher relationship. On the other hand, I never initiate friend requests with students, for fear that they might feel pressured to accept it. It’s much the same as with other interactions.  For example, I rarely visit the extensive Student Spaces in the School without being invited there for a specific reason. If I did I’d just feel I was intruding. Many universities don’t bother to provide study space for their undergraduates, so this is probably only relevant here in Sussex.

Anyway, that’s my response. I know it’s a sort of compromise, but there you are. I am however interested in how other academics approach this issue. Plus, I haven’t done a poll for a while. So here we go:



It is important that the DfE publish correct science content in their GCSE subject content

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 28, 2015 by telescoper


You would think that the people in the Department for Education who draft the subject content for GCSE science would know stuff about science…

Sadly, it seems not…

Sadly, it seems this is not the case…

Originally posted on Teaching science in all weather:

Yesterday I posted this reaction to the publication by the DfE of the GCSE_combined_science_content (copy taken – original link here). Others, including @alby and @hrogerson have written and commented about this as well.

[Another update: in the comments Richard Needham from the ASE has reminded me that over the next few weeks QfQual will be using these documents to ratify the Exam Boards’ science GCSE specifications. Not a good situation.]

[An update: the DfE released the GCSE_single_science_content in another document (original link here). Some of the errors below including the kinetic energy formula have not made it into this document and the space physics is obviously only considered interesting enough for the triple scientists. I will check the rest.]

I thought it relevant to post some specific points (just from the physics section – which didn’t even appear correctly in the table of contents). Now…

View original 935 more words

Religion is a Diversity Issue

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 22, 2015 by telescoper

Equality and Diversity issues in Higher Education  have been very prominent in the media recently, though usually in the context of gender. A recent article in the Times Higher urges academics to include religion as a diversity issue, which prompted me to make a few comments here. Then my attention was drawn to the following Code of Conduct for lecturers at the forthcoming STFC Summer School for new Astronomy PhD students. I’m one of the invited speakers, actually:

Code of Conduct

I gather that there are some who find the inclusion of “religion” to be somehow inappropriate…

Before I go on I should declare that I am an atheist and a secularist. I’m a paid-up member of the National Secular Society, in fact. That means that I’m in favour of the removal of religious privilege from all aspects of the government of this country. What it does not mean is that I think I know all the answers. I may be an atheis, but I am not a fundamentalist like Richard Dawkins. In fact, I think Dawkins does more harm than good to secularism.

People far cleverer than me – including many of my colleagues in astrophysics and cosmology – are deeply religious and I don’t respect them any the less for that. I may not understand their beliefs, but I respect their right to hold them. I don’t delude myself into thinking that everything that I think do or say is perfectly rational, so I don’t judge people whose beliefs I find hard to comprehend.

Sir Isaac Newton was a great scientist, but he was also a deeply religious man who also dabbled in alchemy and other forms of magic. Science may have displaced some of the more esoteric parts of Newton’s belief-system, but it hasn’t banished the magic of our Universe. It just describes it better.

I believe in free speech. As a consequence, I do not believe that it should be illegal or unlawful to say things that insult a religion. I have myself made jokes about religion, e.g. on Twitter, that some have found offensive. I have also mocked the bigotry and hypocrisy which seems to me all too frequently associated with certain types of religious belief. And those who use religion as a pretext for racism, homophobia or gender discrimination. But that’s not the same as poking fun at someone just because they have a religious beleief.

Although I don’t think such things should ever be made unlawful – there is too much law about this already – there are circumstances in which such things should not be said. This seems to be an aspect of free speech that people get very wound up about. If you don’t say what you’re thinking then surely that’s cowardly “self-censorship”? No. In everyday life there are countless situations in which things are better left unsaid. We make such decisions all the time. That’s not about cowardice, unless you hold your tongue just because you’re frightened of making waves. There can be many reasons for discretion including, and these certainly apply in the context of the Summer School, professionalism and respect for your audience. Just because you can say something doesn’t always mean you should.

So I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have a Code of Conduct to remind speakers that they should refrain from making “offensive verbal comments” related to religion (or the other things listed). I welcome it, in fact. Religion is a diversity issue, in science as it is everywhere else.

(Almost) Fifty Years of Astronomy at Sussex

Posted in Education, History with tags , on June 19, 2015 by telescoper

I came across this booklet earlier this morning, whereupon I realised that Thirty is about to turn into Fifty…


The date on the front of the booklet is November 1996, but inside it explains that the content is based on a seminar given at Sussex about a year earlier. In fact the first MSc students in Astronomy started in October 1965. However, they were all part-time students (they were all staff at the Royal Greenwich Observatory which at that time was in Herstmonceux, Sussex) and none graduated until 1967. The 40th anniversary of that graduation was recognized with an event in 2007. The first full-time staff astronomer arrived in 1966, along with the first full-time MSc students. The first MSc students to graduate did so in 1967.

In fact I joined the Astronomy Centre at Sussex as a DPhil student in October 1985, 20 years after the arrival of the first cohort.

It’s interesting to note that originally astronomy existed at Sussex only as a postgraduate course. The attitude in most Universities in those days was that students should learn all the necessary physics before applying it to astronomy. Over the years this has changed, and most departments offer some astronomy right from Year 1. I think this change has been for the better because I think the astronomical setting provides a very exciting context to learn physics. If you want to understand, say, the structure of the Sun you have to include atomic physics, nuclear physics, gravity, thermodynamics, radiative transfer and hydrostatics all at the same time. This sort of thing makes astrophysics a good subject for developing synthetic skills while more traditional physics teaching focusses almost exclusively on analytical skills.

Anyway, I’m now left with a quandary. Should Fifty Years of Astronomy at Sussex be celebrated in 2015, 2016 or 2017?

Answers on a postcard please….

Pass List Party

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on June 12, 2015 by telescoper

Well, just as it happened last year the pass lists for students in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex went up at noon today. Students and staff started to gather a bit in advance and we also made a few preparations for the celebration with bunting to welcome people into Pevensey 2…

pass_list party well as food and refreshments indoors:

Pass_list_part 2

We had toyed with the idea of having a barbecue, but reckoned that was taking too much of a chance with the weather. Of course it turned out fine.

When the results were wheeled out there was an immediate scrum accompanied by plentiful popping of Prosecco corks.

pass _list_party 3

I made a short speech to congratulate all our students on their success and then handed over to the Head of Department for Physics & Astronomy, Prof. Claudia Eberlein, to announce the prize winners. I had to leave at 12.30 to attend the University Senate which always takes place on the last day of term. When I came back the party was still going on, and there was even a little bit of booze left. There had been one or two glitches, including me signing one of the lists in the wrong place necessitating the printing of another copy and also some of the progressing students were accidentally omitted from one of them. That latter event caused a bit of consternation but was all remedied quickly.

We had another excellent set of results this year so the students can be justifiably proud of their achievements. I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate them again and I look forward to presenting the graduands for their degrees at the Brighton Dome in a month or so.


Hannah and her Sweets: that EdExcel Examination Question…

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 5, 2015 by telescoper

You may or may not know that yesterday there was a bit of a Twitterstorm of students complaining about an “unfairly difficult” examination question on the GCSE Mathematics paper set by EdExcel.

This is the question:

There are n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow.

Hannah takes a sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet.

The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that n²-n-90=0.

Not sure what all the fuss is about. Seems very straightforward. The question tells you that 6/n × 5/(n-1)=1/3 whence the equation follows by a trivial rearrangement. In fact I’m a little surprised the question didn’t go on to ask the students to solve the quadratic equation n²-n-90=0 to show that n=10…

I don’t really know what is on the GCSE Mathematics syllabus these days. In fact I never did GCSE Mathematics, I did O-level Mathematics which was quite a different thing. You can see the papers I took – way back in 1979 – here.



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