Archive for the Education Category

Learning Technology

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2018 by telescoper

I’m just taking a tea break in the Data Innovation Research Institute. Today has been a very day as I have to finish off a lot of things by tomorrow, for reasons that I’ll make clear in my next post…

It struck me when I was putting on the brew how much more technology we use for teaching now than when I was a student. I think many of my colleagues make far more effective use of the available technology than I do, but I do my best to overcome my Luddite tendencies. Reflecting on today’s teaching makes me feel just a little less like a dinosaur.

This morning I gave a two-hour lecture on my Cardiff module Physics of the Early Universe which, as usual, I recorded using our Panopto system. Although there was a problem with some of the University’s central file storage this morning, which made me a bit nervous about whether the lecture recording would work, it did. Predictably I couldn’t access the network drives from the PC in the lecture theatre, but I had anticipated that and took everything I needed on a memory stick.

After a short break for lunch I checked the lecture recording and made it available for registered students via the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), known to its friends as Learning Central. I use this as a sort of repository of stuff connected with the module: notes, list of textbooks, problem sets, model answers, instructions and, of course, recorded lectures. The students also submit their coursework assignment (an essay) through this system, through the plagiarism detection software Turnitin.

This afternoon the students on my Computational Physics course in Maynooth University had a lab test, the first of four such tests, this one consisting of a short coding exercise. There are two lab sessions per week for this class, one on Thursdays (when I am normally in Maynooth to help supervise) and another on Tuesdays (when I am normally in Cardiff). I have a number of exercises, which are similar in scope but different in detail (to prevent copying) and the Tuesday lab has a completely different set of exercises from the Thursday one. In each exercise the students have to write a simple Python script to plot graphs of a function and its derivative (computed numerically) using matplotlib. The students upload their script and pictures of the plot to the VLE used in Maynooth, which is called Moodle.

In the manner of a TV chef announcing `here’s one I did earlier’, this a sample output produced by my `model’ code:

I wonder if you can guess of what function this is the derivative? By the way in this context `model’ does not mean `a standard of excellence’ but `an imitation of something’ (me being an imitation of a computational physicist). Anyway, students will get marks for producing plots that look right, but also for presenting a nice (commented!) bit of code

This afternoon I’m on Cardiff time but I was able to keep an eye on the submissions coming in to Moodle in case something went wrong. It seemed to work out OK, but the main problem now is that I’ve got 20-odd bits of code to mark! That will have to wait until I’m properly on Maynooth time!

Now, back to the grind…

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`Pass-the-Harasser’ … to Turku

Posted in Education with tags , , , on February 2, 2018 by telescoper

I noticed yesterday evening that there has recently been a substantial increase in the number of people viewing my posts about Christian Ott, the former Caltech Professor who eventually left his job there after harassing and committing ‘gender-based discrimination’ against two female students there.

It wasn’t difficult to find out why there had been an upsurge in interest: Christian Ott has got a new job, at the University of Turku, in Finland. As far as I understand the situation – and please correct me if I’m wrong – he was `head-hunted’ for this position, so his appointment was not the result of an open competition and it seems the position was specifically created just for him.

UPDATE: the post was advertised here, but the gap between the deadline for applications – 10th December 2017 – and the appointment being announced is too short to be consistent with the usual processes of academic appointments. Moreover, the advertised job descriptions includes teaching duties; see below for why this is relevant.

Not surprisingly both the appointment itself and the circumstances by which it was brought about have provoked considerable reaction. A group of Finnish astronomers and astrophysicists has written a Statement on Harassment, which you can sign in support (here if you’re Finnish and/or based in Finland) and here for other concerned academics. I have signed the second one.

I have two personal comments to make. The first is that I’ve seen people say that Ott should get a `second chance’, and it would be unfair for his past transgressions to force him out of academia.

This is what I wrote in an earlier piece about this:

It remains to be seen what Christian Ott does. I am not familiar with his work but he is, by all accounts, a talented scientist so he may well find a position at another institution. If he does, I hope, for his and for his future colleagues’ sake, that he has learned his lesson.

I think that makes it clear that I have no desire to see Christian Ott ruined, but I don’t think that means that I think due process should be subverted to help him, as appears to be the case here. In fact I’m bound to say that if I were a Head of Department I wouldn’t under any circumstances have offered this man a position, after what he did.

Had Ott committed a different disciplinary offence (such as plagiarism or other research misconduct) he would not have found it so easy to get another job than because it was `just’ harassment. Why should these offences be treated so differently?

Once again, research esteem seems to trump everything else. That attitude is one of the most poisonous elements in modern academia. The `Great Man of Science’ is indeed a dangerous myth.

The second thing is that, as far as I understand it (and again please correct me if I’m wrong), Ott’s new position is as an `independent researcher’ and he will have no teaching duties and minimal contact with students. I suppose that is supposed to make everything alright. It doesn’t. Indeed, there are many academics who would regard a cushy research-only contract as a reward rather than a cost. It’s a slap in the face for teaching staff at Turku that funds have been found to create a bespoke position in the way that has been done here.

As always, comments clarifications and corrections are welcome through the comments box.

UPDATE: 7/2/2018. The appointment of Dr Ott has been cancelled.

The Quickening of the Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 1, 2018 by telescoper

It’s 1st February 2018, which means that today is Imbolc, a Gaelic festival marking the point halfway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox. This either happens 1st or 2nd February, and this year it is the former. In this part of the world – I’m in Ireland as I write- this day is sometimes regarded as the first day of spring, as it is roughly the time when the first spring lambs are born. It corresponds to the Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau and is also known as the `Cross Quarter Day’ or (my favourite) `The Quickening of the Year’.

So, talking of quickening, the pace of things is increasing for me now too. This morning at 9am I gave my first ever lecture in Maynooth University in a lecture theatre called Physics Hall, which is in the old (South) part of campus as opposed to the newer North Campus where the Science Building that contains my office is situated.

After that it was back to the Department for some frantic behind-the-scenes activity setting up accounts for the students for the afternoon lab session, which is in a computer room near to my office. Students attend one two-hour lab session in addition to the lecture, on either Thursday or Tuesday. The first lecture being this morning (Thursday) the first lab session was this afternoon, with the same material being covered next Tuesday.

I was far more nervous about this afternoon’s lab session than I was about this morning’s lecture as there seemed to be many things that could go wrong in getting the students up and running on our Linux cluster and getting them started on Python. Quite a few things did go wrong, in fact, but they were fewer in number and less drastic in outcome that I had feared.

So there we are, my first full day teaching in Maynooth. I think it went reasonably well and it was certainly nice to meet my first group of Maynooth students who, being physics students, are definitely la crème de la crème. I’ve got another 6 weeks like this (teaching on Tuesday in Cardiff and on Thursday in Maynooth) before the Easter break so it’s going to be a hectic period. Just for tonight, however, I’ve got time to relax with a glass or several of wine.

Incidentally, I was impressed that Physics Hall (where I did this morning’s lecture) is equipped with an electric piano:

I wonder if anyone can suggest appropriate musical numbers to perform for a class of computational physicists? Suggestions are hereby invited via the Comments Box!

Transitional Arrangements

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on January 27, 2018 by telescoper

So I’m here in Dublin airport again, waiting for a flight back to Cardiff. I woke up early this morning so decided to get the 6am Hopper Bus from Maynooth instead of the usual 7am one. There was no traffic and it took only 40 minutes so I’ve had time to have a coffee and a bacon sandwich, as well as finishing the FT prize crossword.

Anyway, teaching term starts next week in both Cardiff and Maynooth so it promises to be quite a hectic period. I’ll be teaching Physics of the Early Universe in Cardiff on Tuesdays and Computational Physics in Maynooth on Thursdays. I volunteered for the latter course primarily to brush up my Python skills, which are distinctly rusty.

At least I won’t have the problem that I had in Nottingham when I was teaching two modules in the same Semester, Cosmology and Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics, both for 3rd year students (so mostly the same students) and both timetabled in the same room. I remember one day turning up and starting a lecture on weak nuclear interactions only to realise I was meant to be doing something about the propagation of photons in an expanding universe.

The midweek to and fro between Wales and Ireland will continue until March where there is a divergence of arrangements for the Easter break. My calculations indicate that happens after 7 lectures  and therefore 7 midweek flights. Should be fun. At least I’m racking up the Avios…

 

 

 

University Pension Differences

Posted in Education, Finance, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2018 by telescoper

Following a ballot of members of the University and College Union (UCU), the UK university sector is gearing up for strike action over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. Unless the dispute is resolved in the meantime (which I think is highly unlikely) the first strike lasting two days will place on 22nd and 23rd February. Thereafter strikes will escalate to cover three days, four days and five days in subsequent weeks.  I’ll actually be in Maynooth for the first 48 hour block so won’t have to worry about crossing a picket line initially, but will have to later if it drags on. It looks set to be a bitter dispute which will not be easily resolved.

When I joined USS (in 1988) it was a simple `Final Salary Scheme’. Both employer and employee contributed and the benefits accrued were an index-linked pension of 1/80 of the final salary for each year of contributions and a (tax-free) lump sum of 3/80 for each year of contributions. I joined at age 25 so I expected to accrue 40 years of pension if I retired at 65, namely a pension of half my final year’s salary and a lump sum of three-halves. It looked a good deal and was a significant factor mitigating the relatively low starting salary for academics in those days.

Over the years it became apparent that this scheme is actuarially unsound because (a) people are living longer, increasing the scheme’s liability and (b) investment growth achieved by the USS fund managers has decreased, with a negative impact on asset growth. Moreover, the USS fund is not underwritten by the government, so if it collapses completely members could be left with no benefits at all.

The USS Final Salary scheme was closed to new entrants some years ago and replaced by a less generous defined benefit scheme. A couple of years ago it was closed to existing members too, though the benefits accrued are retained; I will now only be able to get 28/80 of my final salary from that scheme when I actually retire. The scheme was replaced by a hybrid of an even less generous defined benefit scheme and a defined contribution scheme (where the pension benefit is dependent on the fund valuation at retirement, as most private pensions). Now the proposal is to remove the defined benefit component entirely. The loss of pension benefits will be substantial.

I don’t see any easy settlement of this dispute so I’m glad that it won’t affect me very much. I’ll be leaving the UK Higher Education system this summer and relocating to Ireland. Quite a few people have asked me how the pension scheme works here so I thought I’d point out the differences.

The first thing to say is as a professor in the National University of Ireland at Maynooth I am treated as a public servant so my future pension benefits here are covered by the Single Public Service Pension scheme. This resembles the final salary scheme that USS used to be, but with the important difference is that it is integrated with the State Pension to which everyone is entitled if they pay social insurance contributions. This – called the SPC – is similar to the old State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme (SERPS). Since public employees benefit from this as well as the public service pension scheme, the accrual rate in the latter is lower than the old USS scheme – just 0.58% per year – on salaries up to €45,000. For salaries above this figure the amount above the  limit generates an accrual rate 0f 1/80, just as the USS version. There is also a lump sum which accrues at 3.75% per annum, the same as the USS scheme.

In summary, then, the big difference is that in Ireland the public service pension is integrated with the state pension, whereas in the UK the latter is entirely separate. It’s also the case that in Ireland the pension is guaranteed by the government (which, of course, can change the rules…)

In my opinion the pension scheme for University staff in Ireland is significantly better value than the diminishing returns provided by the USS scheme, yet another reason why I made the decision to move here.

 

Cosmology: The Professor’s Old Clothes

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on January 19, 2018 by telescoper

After spending  a big chunk of yesterday afternoon chatting the cosmic microwave background, yesterday evening I remembered a time when I was trying to explain some of the related concepts to an audience of undergraduate students. As a lecturer you find from time to time that various analogies come to mind that you think will help students understand the physical concepts underpinning what’s going on, and that you hope will complement the way they are developed in a more mathematical language. Sometimes these seem to work well during the lecture, but only afterwards do you find out they didn’t really serve their intended purpose. Sadly it also  sometimes turns out that they can also confuse rather than enlighten…

For instance, the two key ideas behind the production of the cosmic microwave background are recombination and the consequent decoupling of matter and radiation. In the early stages of the Big Bang there was a hot plasma consisting mainly of protons and electrons in an intense radiation field. Since it  was extremely hot back then  the plasma was more-or-less  fully ionized, which is to say that the equilibrium for the formation of neutral hydrogen atoms via

p+e^{-} \rightarrow H+ \gamma

lay firmly to the left hand side. The free electrons scatter radiation very efficiently via Compton  scattering

\gamma +e^{-} \rightarrow \gamma + e^{-}

thus establishing thermal equilibrium between the matter and the radiation field. In effect, the plasma is opaque so that the radiation field acquires an accurate black-body spectrum (as observed). As long as the rate of collisions between electrons and photons remains large the radiation temperature adjusts to that of the matter and equilibrium is preserved because matter and radiation are in good thermal contact.

 

Image credit: James N. Imamura of University of Oregon.

Eventually, however, the temperature falls to a point at which electrons begin to bind with protons to form hydrogen atoms. When this happens the efficiency of scattering falls dramatically and as a consequence the matter and radiation temperatures are no longer coupled together, i.e. decoupling occurs; collisions can longer keep everything in thermal equilibrium. The matter in the Universe then becomes transparent, and the radiation field propagates freely as a kind of relic of the time that it was last in thermal equilibrium. We see that radiation now, heavily redshifted, as the cosmic microwave background.

So far, so good, but I’ve always thought that everyday analogies are useful to explain physics like this so I thought of the following.

When people are young and energetic, they interact very extensively with everyone around them and that process allows them to keep in touch with all the latest trends in clothing, music, books, and so on. As you get older you don’t get about so much , and may even get married (which is just like recombination, not only that it involves the joining together of previously independent entities, but also in the sense that it dramatically  reduces their cross-section for interaction with the outside world).  As time goes on changing trends begin to pass you buy and eventually you become a relic, surrounded by records and books you acquired in the past when you were less introverted, and wearing clothes that went out of fashion years ago.

I’ve used this analogy in the past and students generally find it quite amusing even if it has modest explanatory value. I wasn’t best pleased, however, when a few years ago I set an examination question which asked the students to explain the processes of recombination and decoupling. One answer said

Decoupling explains the state of Prof. Coles’s clothes.

Anyhow, I’m sure there’s more than one reader out there who has had a similar experience with an analogy that wasn’t perhaps as instructive as hoped or which came back to bite you. Feel free to share through the comments box…

Why I’m moving to Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by telescoper

Over the past few weeks quite a number of people have asked me why I decided to move to Ireland, so thought I’d write a post about it in case anyone out there is interested.

The simple answer that I was offered a full-time permanent and rather well paid job at Maynooth University. I’m currently on a part-time fixed term contract at Cardiff University.  The salary wasn’t the main factor, but the low value of the £ relative to the € means that I will do quite well financially out of the move. On top of that I will be joining a final salary pension scheme which has far more favourable terms that the scheme that applies to UK academic staff. Oh, and there’s neither a Research Excellence Framework nor a Teaching Excellence Framework nor a Knowledge Exchange Framework nor punitive levels of student tuition fees nor any of the many other  idiocies that have been inflicted on UK universities in recent years. It will be a relief to be able to teach and do research in environment which, at least for the time being, regards these as things of value in themselves rather than as means of serving the empty cycle of production and consumption that defines the modern neoliberal state. Above all, it’s a good old-fashioned professorship. You know, teaching and research?

That’s the simple answer, but there’s a bit more to it than that. I left Sussex in 2016 with the intention of taking early retirement as soon as I could do so. My short exposure to  a role in senior management, as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, convinced me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life  in a system that I felt had lost all sight of what universities are and what they are for. I was (and still am) deeply grateful to Cardiff University for throwing me a lifeline that enabled me to escape from what I increasingly saw as a dead-end job, and giving me an interesting job to do to tide me over until next year, when I am 55 and therefore eligible for early retirement.

I think I have done everything that was asked of me in my current position at Cardiff, on a half-time salary but often up against very short timescales. The two MSc courses I was brought in to set up are both now running and looking to expand. On top of that we also managed to secure funding for a Centre for Doctoral Training. I only played a small part in doing that, but I think it has put the Data Innovation Research Institute on the map.  When both of these successes had been secured earlier this year, I felt that there was no way that leaving now would have a negative effect either on the Data Innovation Institute or the School of Physics & Astronomy. By about April this year I had firmly decided to retire completely from academia in mid-2018.

The problem with this plan had been apparent since 2016: Brexit.  I think it’s still quite possible that the Brexit project will fail under the weight of its own contradictions, but that no longer matters. The damage has already been done. The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

So, having spent most of my working life in the UK higher education system and decided that my heart was no longer in that, I then had to face that my heart was no longer in this country at all. Could I face years of retirement in mean-spirited down-market Brexit Britain? What was I to do?

I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how lucky I have been that opportunities have come along at exactly the right time. In May, a friend pointed out the advertisement for a job in Maynooth with an application deadline just a few days away. Cosmology was specifically mentioned as one of the possible areas. I felt that they would probably be looking for someone younger, and my research output over the last few years has been patchy given my other commitments, but at the last minute I sent off an application.

Ireland has a particularly strong attraction for me because I have Irish ancestry through which I am eligible for citizenship without having to go through the naturalisation process (which takes 5 years, still less than many EU countries). Together with an Irish EU passport comes a continuation of the rights – especially freedom of movement – that UK citizens will shortly lose. It seemed like outrageously good luck that this post came up just at the right time, but the end of July came and went without any news. I assumed I hadn’t been shortlisted, so forgot about the idea.

Then, in September I received a letter inviting me for interview just a couple of weeks later. I’m not sure why the process was  so delayed, but was overjoyed to find out there was still a chance. The date clashed with a prior commitment, so I had to do the interview via Skype (over a flaky internet connection from a hotel room) rather than in person.  I thought it went very badly, but I ended up being offered the job. I visited Maynooth University shortly after being informed of this, to discuss terms.

The people at Maynooth were keen to have me start there as soon as possible, but given the lateness of the interview date I had already committed to teaching in Cardiff this forthcoming Semester and I wasn’t going to leave my current colleagues and students in the lurch. There was an obvious solution, however. I am employed here at 50% FTE so I could start in Maynooth at up to 50% without having to resign. We quickly agreed this transitional arrangement was workable, and I started there on 1st December.  The period from February to April will be very busy, as I will be working either side of the Irish Sea, but it’s only for a relatively short time. Next summer I plan to relocate completely to Ireland.

You probably think I’m a bit old to be starting a new life in another country, even one that’s relatively nearby, but I reckon I have time for this one last adventure before I retire. In the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, `It is not too late to seek a newer world’.  I have worked in British universities since 1988. That’s almost 30 years. I reckon I can still contribute something in the last 10 I have before I pull down the shutters for good. Who knows, maybe I’ll even experience the joy of living in a United Ireland before long?

The press have covered a number of stories of EU nationals who have been living in Britain and who have decided to leave because of Brexit. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to those, like myself, who are also EU nationals but who happen have been born in Britain. I know more than a few academics who are weighing up their options, as well as those born abroad I know who have already departed.  The Brexodus has already begun and its pace seems likely to accelerate very quickly indeed. Other have personal situations that are more complicated than mine, such as partners and children, so not everyone will find it easy to follow a similar path to the one I’ve chosen, but I those that can get out will do so.

Because I’ve lived here all my life I thought I would find it difficult to leave Britain. I was quite traumatised by the Brexit referendum, as one would be by the death of a close relative, but it made me reexamine my life. There is a time when you have to move on, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m done here.