Archive for the Education Category

Clearing Advice for Physics and Astronomy Applicants!

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 18, 2016 by telescoper

Today’s the day! This year’s A-level results are out today, Thursday 18th August, with the consequent scramble as students across the country to confirm places at university. Good luck to all students everywhere waiting for your results. I hope they are what you expected!

For those of you who didn’t get the grades they needed, I have one piece of very clear advice:

1-dont-panic

The clearing system is very efficient and effective, as well as being quite straightforward to use, and there’s still every chance that you will find a place somewhere good. So keep a cool head and follow the instructions. You won’t have to make a decision straight away, and there’s plenty of time to explore all the options.

As a matter of fact there are a few places still left for various courses in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. Why should you choose Cardiff? Well, obviously I have a vested interest since I’m rejoining the University this September so I’m biased. However you could take into account that Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff is top of the Russell Group in the latest National Student Survey and that there are wonderful newly expanded and refurbished teaching spaces on site.

For further information check here!

Universities must do more to stop violence

Posted in Education, Uncategorized with tags , on August 15, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve thought very hard over the last couple of days about whether to comment on the shocking case reported by the Independent last week of a (male) senior lecturer (Dr Lee Salter) at Sussex University who beat up a (female) student with whom he had been having an affair. In the end I decided that I had to comment, as the case raises some very important questions.

I didn’t know anything about this until last week so I have nothing to add to the account of the events and subsequent criminal conviction given in the newspaper and suggest you read the details there. I will restrict my comments to the wider issues.

On Friday 12th August, shortly after the news broke of Lee Salter’s conviction, the University released a statement which I thought raised more questions than it answered. It  subsequently updated the statement to say that Dr Salter was no longer an employee of the University. Whether that means he was dismissed or that he resigned is not clear.

Among the statements made by the University in its press release is the following:

The University does not tolerate violence of any kind. However, in cases involving criminal charges, it is important that such matters are dealt with by the police and the courts, which take precedence over employment procedures. Pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings, the University kept the situation under review and monitored and assessed any risk to its students.

In my role as a Head of School at Sussex (a job I left just a couple of weeks ago), I had to deal with some disciplinary matters  so I’m very familiar with the content of the relevant procedures. In fact I did more of these than you’d probably imagine, though I can’t write about the details because they are bound by confidentiality.

It is indeed the case that if a disciplinary case involves criminal elements then the established practice is to let the courts decide first before continuing with the disciplinary investigation. For one thing, a conviction in a criminal case usually makes the subsequent internal investigation simpler.

Acquittal in a criminal case does not mean dropping the disciplinary, however, as the standard of proof in a criminal case (“beyond reasonable doubt”) is stronger than that of an internal investigation which is that of a civil court (“on the balance of the evidence”). It is quite possible for the latter standard to be met when the former is not. So it was reasonable for the University to wait for the outcome of the criminal trial before proceeding.

However, the University of Sussex’s own disciplinary procedure also states:

“The University will take disciplinary action in accordance with its procedures against anyone who behaves in a violent manner including, should it be necessary, the immediate exclusion of the perpetrator from the campus.

Based on the account given in the Independent I find it difficult to understand why the University did not take this course of action in this case.

Of course a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, but suspension (paid) and exclusion from campus would not, in my view, have been unnecessarily prejudicial given the seriousness of the charges. Salter would not have been able to do teaching, but could have carried on research from home. The University’s failure to take this step is extremely worrying as in my view it gives inadequate consideration to the effect on the victim of the continued presence of the perpetrator.

For the record I should state that I have very good reasons for having zero tolerance to any form of violence, whether committed by staff or students or political protestors or security guards. You can read why here.

I’ve blogged before about the difficulties surrounding confidentiality and other issues disciplinary procedures in the context of sexual harassment. In that piece – which was actually about science departments – I tried to stress the importance of sticking to proper procedure, but I also explained that dealing with such matters after the fact is never going to provide a fully satisfactory remedy. What is needed is to change campus culture to ensure that abusive harassing and violent behaviour doesn’t happen in the first place. But applying procedures properly would at least be a start…

 

 

 

 

The Rising Stars of Sussex Physics

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on July 28, 2016 by telescoper

This is my penultimate day in the office in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, and a bit of news has arrived that seems a nice way to round off my stint as Head of School.

It seems that Physics & Astronomy research at the University of Sussex has been ranked as 13th in western Europe and 7th in the UK by leading academic publishers, Nature Research, and has been profiled as one of its top-25 “rising stars” worldwide.

I was tempted to describe this rise as ‘meteoric’ but in my experience meteors generally fall down rather than rise up.

Anyway, as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m generally very sceptical of the value of league tables and there’s no reason to treat this one as qualitatively any different. Here is an explanation of the (rather curious) methodology from the University of Sussex news item:

The Nature Index 2016 Rising Stars supplement identifies the countries and institutions showing the most significant growth in high-quality research publications, using the Nature Index, which tracks the research of more than 8,000 global institutions – described as “players to watch”.

The top 100 most improved institutions in the index between 2012 and 2015 are ranked by the increase in their contribution to 68 high-quality journals. From this top 100, the supplement profiles 25 rising stars – one of which is Sussex – that are already making their mark, and have the potential to shine in coming decades.

The institutions and countries examined have increased their contribution to a selection of top natural science journals — a metric known as weighted fractional count (WFC) — from 2012 to 2015.

Mainly thanks to a quadrupling of its physical sciences score, Sussex reached 351 in the Global 500 in 2015. That represents an 83.9% rise in its contribution to index papers since 2012 — the biggest jump of any UK research organisation in the top 100 most improved institutions.

It’s certainly a strange choice of metric, as it only involves publications in “high quality” journals, presumably selected by Journal Impact Factor or some other arbitrary statistical abominatio,  then taking the difference in this measure between 2012 and 2015  and expressing the change as a percentage. I noticed one institution in the list has improved by over 4600%, which makes Sussex’s change of 83.9% seem rather insignificant…

But at least this table provides some sort of evidence that the investment made in Physics & Astronomy over the last few years has made a significant (and positive) difference. The number of research faculty in Physics & Astronomy has increased by more than 60%  since 2012 so one would have been surprised not to have seen an increase in publication output over the same period. On the other hand, it seems likely that many of the high-impact papers published since 2012 were written by researchers who arrived well before then because Physics research is often a slow burner. The full impact of the most recent investments has probably not yet been felt. I’m therefore confident that Physics at Sussex has a very exciting future in store as its rising stars look set to rise still further! It’s nice to be going out on a high note!

 

 

Private Eye on Physics Graduation

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 19, 2016 by telescoper

Given the occasion I thought I’d just post this rather excellent cartoon I saw last year  Private Eye

Physics Graduation

To Cambridge Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on June 13, 2016 by telescoper

The annual cycle of academic life brings me once again to my duties as External Examiner for Physics at the famous Midlands University called Cambridge, so I’m getting ready to take the train there. Here’s a picture of the Cavendish laboratory where I’ll be working for the next three days:

bragg_building_110309

It hasn’t changed much since I was an undergraduate there (I graduated 31 years ago), but the area around it has certainly been heavily developed in the intervening years.

Anyway, I’d better be going. Toodle-pip!

Examination Time Yet Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2016 by telescoper

Once again the return of glorious weather heralds the return of the  examination season 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 19th 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.

Balls, Sunshine and Teaching

Posted in Biographical, Education on May 7, 2016 by telescoper

Apparently today is World Naked Gardening Day but, although it reminded me for some reason that “Orchid” is derived from the Greek word for testicle, that’s not the reason for the title of this post.

Teaching at Sussex University officially finished yesterday, and by sheer coincidence, last night saw the annual Physics Ball which, was as usual, a very enjoyable occasion.

On my way to the Holiday Inn for the do I saw this group of 4th year students being photographed on the seafront.

image

They’re going to be graduating this summer so for many of them – apart from those staying on to do PhDs etc – this will be their last Physics Ball, which  no doubt explains why they seemed so determined to have a good time despite the fact that exams start next week.

It’s amazing how the weather always turns fine for examination season. Yesterday it was beautiful. Brighton beach was busy during the day and the seafront still crowded even as I walked home at around 1am.

Anyway, at the Ball, I was seated with a group of mainly 2nd year students, some of whom are taking my Theoretical Physics module. They not only said very nice things about my lecturing but even bought me a very nice cigar which I smoked after dinner outside the hotel in the balmy evening. I couldn’t say whether all this had anything to do with the fact that I will shortly be marking their examinations.

I don’t mind admitting that I have found this year an incredible strain. I have done my best to hide it from staff and students, but my job involves a huge workload and far too many ridiculous bureaucratic frustrations. I have little time for life outside work and at times I wonder what the point is. Then I get to give a lecture to a group of bright and enthusiastic students about the amazing and beautiful thing called physics and I remember what it’s supposed to be all about.