Archive for the Education Category

Easter Fatigue 

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on April 4, 2017 by telescoper

This is Week 11, which is the last week of teaching here at Cardiff University before the Easter break. In the early hours of this morning I finished marking my last set of coursework for the term and later on delivered my last (2-hour) lecture on the Physics of the Early Universe.

I’ve booked two weeks of annual leave from Friday and am really looking forward to a bit of rest, though I will have quite a few private matters to deal with while I’m away from work.

Such is the topsy-turvy world we live in that I note that this month’s meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society is  on this Friday, 7th April. This is contrary to the settled order of Nature, as these meetings are always on the second Friday of the month. This year, however, the 2nd Friday of April is Good Friday. This, after all, is Eastertide, when Christians celebrate the invention of the chocolate egg by doing arms deals with despotic middle-eastern governments. 

I’m only joking. Of course. Chocolate eggs have nothing to do with the true message of Easter, which is depicted in the following.

Anyway, it’s the fact that Easter moves about in the calendar that is the reason this term has been so long and I am tired and grumpy. I don’t like chocolate either.

On the bright side I did receive two pieces of good news today in between the other stuff. I hope to be able to pass them on tomorrow, or at any rate before I go off on my hols…

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Data-Intensive Physics and Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on March 27, 2017 by telescoper

One of the jobs I’ve got in my current position (which is divided between the School of Physics & Astronomy and the Data Innovation Research Institute) is to develop new teaching activities, focussing on interdisciplinary courses involving a Data Science component. Despite the fact that I only started work developing them in September last year the first two such courses have been formally approved and are now open for admission of new students to begin their courses in September 2017. That represents a very fast-track for such things as there are many hurdles to get over in preparing new courses. Meeting the deadlines hasn’t been easy, which is largely why I’ve been whingeing on here about workload issues, but we’re finally there!

The two new courses are both at Masters (MSc) level and are called Data-Intensive Physics and Data-Intensive Astrophysics and they are both taught jointly by staff in the School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Computer Science and Informatics in a kind of major/minor combination.

The aim of these courses is twofold.

One is to provide specialist postgraduate training for students wishing to go into academic research in a ‘data-intensive’ area of physics or astrophysics, by which I mean a field which involves the analysis and manipulation of very large or complex data sets and/or the use of high-performance computing for, e.g., simulation work. There is a shortage of postgraduates with the necessary combination of skills to being PhD programmes in such areas, and we plan to try to fill the gap with these courses.

The other aim is to cater for students who may not have made up their mind whether to go into academic research, but wish to keep their options open while pursuing a postgraduate course. The unique combination of physics/astrophysics and computer science will give those with these qualifications the option of either continuing or going into another sphere of data-intensive research in the wider world of Big Data.

We’ll be putting out some official promotional materials for these courses very soon, but I thought I’d mention them here partly because it might help with recruitment and partly because I’m so relieved that they’ve actually made it into the prospectus.

 

Science for the Citizen

Posted in Education, Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 20, 2017 by telescoper

I spent all day on Friday on business connected with my role in the Data Innovation Research Institute, attending an event to launch the new Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University. It was a fascinating day of discussions about all kinds of ethical, legal and political issues surrounding the “datafication” of society:

Our financial transactions, communications, movements, relationships, and interactions with government and corporations all increasingly generate data that are used to profile and sort groups and individuals. These processes can affect both individuals as well as entire communities that may be denied services and access to opportunities, or wrongfully targeted and exploited. In short, they impact on our ability to participate in society. The emergence of this data paradigm therefore introduces a particular set of power dynamics requiring investigation and critique.

As a scientist whose research is in an area (cosmology) which is extremely data-intensive, I have a fairly clear interpretation of the phrase “Big Data” and recognize the need for innovative methods to handle the scale and complexity of the data we use. This clarity comes largely from the fact that we are asking very well-defined questions which can be framed in quantitative terms within the framework of well-specified theoretical models. In this case, sophisticated algorithms can be constructed that extract meaningful information even when individual measurements are dominated by noise.

The use of “Big Data” in civic society is much more problematic because the questions being asked are often ill-posed and there is rarely any compelling underlying theory. A naive belief exists in some quarters that harvesting more and more data necessarily leads to an increase in relevant information. Instead there is a danger that algorithms simply encode false assumptions and produce unintended consequences, often with disastrous results for individuals. We heard plenty of examples of this on Friday.

Although it is clearly the case that personal data can be – and indeed is – deliberately used for nefarious purposes, I think there’s a parallel danger that we increasingly tend to believe that just because something is based on numerical calculations it somehow must be “scientific”. In reality, any attempt to extract information from quantitative data relies on assumptions. if those assumptions are wrong, then you get garbage out no matter what you put in. Some applications of “data science” – those that don’t recognize these limitations – are in fact extremely unscientific.

I mentioned in discussions on Friday that there is a considerable push in astrophysics and cosmology for open science, by which I mean that not only are the published results openly accessible, but all the data and analysis algorithms are published too. Not all branches of science work this way, and we’re very far indeed from a society that applies such standards to the use of personal data.

Anyway, after the day’s discussion we adjourned to the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies for a set of more formal presentations. The Head of School, Professor Stuart Allan introduced this session with some quotes from a book called Science for the Citizen, written by Lancelot Hogben in 1938. I haven’t read the book, but it looks fascinating and prescient. I have just ordered it and look forward to reading it. You can get the full-text free online here.

Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

A MUCH abused writer of the nineteenth century said: up to the present philosophers have only interpreted the world, it is also necessary to change it. No statement more fittingly distinguishes the standpoint of humanistic philosophy from the scientific outlook. Science is organized workmanship. Its history is co-extensive with that of civilized living. It emerges so soon as the secret lore of the craftsman overflows the dam of oral tradition, demanding a permanent record of its own. It expands as the record becomes accessible to a widening personnel, gathering into itself and coordinating the fruits of new crafts. It languishes when the social incentive to new productive accomplishment is lacking, and when its custodians lose the will to share it with others. Its history, which is the history of the constructive achievements of mankind, is also the history of the democratization of positive knowledge. This book is written to tell the story of its growth as a record of human achievement, a story of the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, disclosing as it unfolds new horizons of human wellbeing which lie before us, if we plan our new resources intelligently.

The phrase that struck me with particular force is “the democratization of positive knowledge”. That is what I believe science should do, but the closed culture of many fields of modern science makes it difficult to argue that’s what it actually does. Instead, there is an increasing tendency for scientific knowledge in many domains to be concentrated in a small number of people with access to the literature and the expertise needed to make sense of it.

In an increasingly technologically-driven society, the gap between the few in and the many out of the know poses a grave threat to our existence as an open and inclusive democracy. The public needs to be better informed about science (as well as a great many other things). Two areas need attention.

In fields such as my own there’s a widespread culture of working very hard at outreach. This overarching term includes trying to get people interested in science and encouraging more kids to take it seriously at school and college, but also engaging directly with members of the public and institutions that represent them. Not all scientists take the same attitude, though, and we must try harder. Moves are being made to give more recognition to public engagement, but a drastic improvement is necessary if our aim is to make our society genuinely democratic.

But the biggest issue we have to confront is education. The quality of science education must improve, especially in state schools where pupils sometimes don’t have appropriately qualified teachers and so are unable to learn, e.g. physics, properly. The less wealthy are becoming systematically disenfranchised through their lack of access to the education they need to understand the complex issues relating to life in an advanced technological society.

If we improve school education, we may well get more graduates in STEM areas too although this government’s cuts to Higher Education make that unlikely. More science graduates would be good for many reasons, but I don’t think the greatest problem facing the UK is the lack of qualified scientists – it’s that too few ordinary citizens have even a vague understanding of what science is and how it works. They are therefore unable to participate in an informed way in discussions of some of the most important issues facing us in the 21st century.

We can’t expect everyone to be a science expert, but we do need higher levels of basic scientific literacy throughout our society. Unless this happens we will be increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by the dark forces of global capitalism via the media they control. You can see it happening already.

On the Importance of School Experiments

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 27, 2017 by telescoper

Twitter drew my attention this afternoon to a series of videos produced by the Royal Society designed to give teachers in schools some additional resources to encourage their pupils to do science experiments. They star the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox, and they cover a wide range of science. You can see the whole playlist on Youtube here (although it is unfortunately back-to-front):

Although I ended up doing primarily theoretical work in my scientific career, there’s no question that ‘hands-on’ experiments played a big part in the development of my understanding of, especially, physics and chemistry. I remember vividly when I was about 12 years old doing a simple series of experiments in which we weighed out samples of chemical material of various types, then burned it somehow (usually over a bunsen burner) and weighed what was left. Commonsense based on experience with burning stuff like wood and paper is that the process reduces the amount of material so I expected the mass remaining at the end to be less than the initial mass. The first stuff that I did was a few grains of calcium. I couldn’t believe it when the residue turned out to weigh more than the stuff I started with. I was sure I was wrong and got quite upset for failing such an elementary practical exercise, but the same thing happened every time whatever the material.

Of course, the explanation is that the process going on was oxidation, and the calcium was actually combining with oxygen from the air to form an oxide. It did look as if some kind of destruction had happened, but the oxygen taken from the atmosphere had bonded to the calcium atoms and this increased the mass of the residue.

The teacher could have talked about this and explained it, but it wouldn’t have had anything like the impact on my understanding of discovering it for myself.

That’s a personal story of course, but I think it’s probably a widespread educational experience. These days few students seem to have the chance to do their own experience, either because of shortage of facilities or the dreaded ‘Health and Safety’ so I think any effort to encourage more teachers to allow their students to do more experiments is thoroughly worthwhile!

Back to the (Early) Universe

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 24, 2017 by telescoper

After what seems like ages away from the lecture theatre, today I resuming teaching duties with the first session of my module on The Physics of the Early Universe; the link there gives Enzo Pascale as being in charge of the module, but he has left BrExit Britain for his native Italy so I’ve taken his place. I actually wrote the syllabus for this module about five years ago when I worked in Cardiff previously, and was scheduled to deliver it in 2013, but I left for Sussex before it started and never actually lectured it. It’s nice to be able to teach this material at long last – at least it’s stuff that I should know something about.

This lectures are attended by students on the 4th year of the integrated Masters programme (MPhys) and also on stand-alone MSc courses in Physics or Astrophysics. I have about 25 students enrolled, which is not bad for a specialist module.

In fact Enzo recommended the book I wrote with Francesco Lucchin when he taught the module, and I’m happy to use it as the main text. I won’t cover all the material in the book – there isn’t time, and some of the book is out of date (written in 2002) – but at least almost everything I do in the lectures has a counterpart in the book.

Chapter 3 of Coles \& Lucchin has a chapter that may prove particularly popular in this era of ‘Alternative Facts’:

cosmology

I did however resist the temptation to hire a group of people to sit at the front of my first lecture cheering and clapping wildly.

I’ve asked to have my lectures timetabled in two-hour chunks. That’s partly because I only work part-time and I wanted to be able to maximize the flexibility with which I can use the rest of the time by concentrating my teaching commitments. The other reason is that I like the extended format. I don’t talk continuously for the whole time, of course. That would be unbearable for me and for the students. We have a ten-minute break in the middle. However, the two-hour block allows a wider range of activities – lecturing, discussion and worked examples – which is harder to do in the usual (50-minute) slot without being excessively rushed. When I taught postgraduates at Queen Mary we used two-hour blocks, which worked out quite well. The only problem is that I’m now a lot older, and having finished my first double-lecture I think it’s fair to say I’m more than a little knackered.

Another innovation is the use of Cardiff’s new lecture-capture system (called Panopto), which allows the lecturer to record everything – powerpoint, data visualizer, whiteboard and live action – for posterity. I recorded this morning’s lecture in toto and at some point when I get a moment I’ll do a quick edit and put it on Learning Central for the students to view at their leisure. I’m not sure how useful my ramblings will prove to be, but it’s fun to try these things. It’s a significantly more sophisticated and flexible system than the one we used when I was at Sussex, and I’m also lucky to be in a nice, clean and recently refurbished lecture theatre…

Anyway, this gives me the excuse to refloat an old opinion poll about lecture capture. Such facilities are 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 recorded lecture 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 the available evidence 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.

I like the idea of lecture capture a lot and am very happy to do it with my own lectures. It does seem to be the case however that some university staff are wary of this innovation, but opinion may be changing. Please let me know what you think via the poll:

If you don’t like the idea I’d welcome a comment explaining why. I’d also be interested in comments from colleagues in other institutions as to the extent to which lecture capture technology is used elsewhere..

 

Why Universities should ignore League Tables

Posted in Bad Statistics, Education with tags , , , , , on January 12, 2017 by telescoper

Very busy day today but I couldn’t resist a quick post to draw attention to a new report by an independent think tank called the Higher Education Policy Institute  (PDF available here; high-level summary there). It says a lot of things that I’ve discussed on this blog already and I agree strongly with most of the conclusions. The report is focused on the international league tables, but much of what it says (in terms of methodological criticism) also applies to the national tables. Unfortunately, I doubt if this will make much difference to the behaviour of the bean-counters who have now taken control of higher education, for whom strategies intended to ‘game’ position in these, largely bogus, tables seem to be the main focus of their policy rather than the pursuit of teaching and scholarship, which is what should universities actually be for.

Here is the introduction to high-level summary:

Rankings of global universities, such as the THE World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities claim to identify the ‘best’ universities in the world and then list them in rank order. They are enormously influential, as universities and even governments alter their policies to improve their position.

The new research shows the league tables are based almost exclusively on research-related criteria and the data they use are unreliable and sometimes worse. As a result, it is unwise and undesirable to give the league tables so much weight.

Later on we find some recommendations:

The report considers the inputs for the various international league tables and discusses their overall weaknesses before considering some improvements that could be made. These include:

  • ranking bodies should audit and validate data provided by universities;
  • league table criteria should move beyond research-related measures;
  • surveys of reputation should be dropped, given their methodological flaws;
  • league table results should be published in more complex ways than simple numerical rankings; and
  • universities and governments should not exaggerate the importance of rankings when determining priorities.

No doubt the purveyors of these ranking – I’ll refrain from calling them “rankers” – will mount a spirited defence of their business, but I agree with the view expressed in this report that as they stand these league tables are at best meaningless and at worst damaging.

Still Thinking of Applying for a PhD Place in Physics or Astronomy?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2017 by telescoper

Last term I gave a short talk to interested students within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University about postgraduate research in which I aimed to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. Since the time is rapidly approaching when applications need to be sent in, I thought I’d repeat here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £14296 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable. There is a fee (currently £4121) payable for a PhD course, but that only comes into play if you are planning to fund yourself. If you receive a studentship it will normally cover the fee as an additional component. What I mean by that is you don’t need to pay it out of the stipend, it is separate. In top of that, research council funding also supplies a Research Training Grant which covers, e.g., travel and small items of equipment so you don’t need to pay for those out of your stipend either.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

Don’t be shy! There’s nothing at all wrong with being pro-active about this process. Contact academic staff at other universities by email and ask them about research, PhD opportunities. That will make a good impression. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Although we’re all keen to recruit good PhD students for our own departments, we academics are  conscious that it is also our job to give impartial advice. Ask your tutor’s opinion.

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following September/October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…