Archive for the Education Category

An O-Level History Examination from 1979

Posted in Biographical, Education, History with tags , , , , on April 18, 2018 by telescoper

I have in the past posted a few examples of the O- and A-level examinations I took when I was at school. These have been mainly science and mathematics papers as those are relevant to the area of higher education in which I work, and I thought they might be of interest to students past and present.

A few people have emailed me recently to ask if I could share any other examinations, so here are the two History papers I took for O-level in June/July 1979. Can that really have been almost 40 years ago?

These were Papers 5 and 12 out of an unknown number of possible papers chosen by schools. My school taught us exclusively about British and European history from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries; you will observe that in both cases `history’ was deemed to have ended in 1914. It’s possible that some of the other papers paid more attention to the wider world.

I have no idea what modern GCSE history examinations look like, but I’d be interested in any comments from people who do about the style and content!


Fun with the Airy Equation

Posted in Education, mathematics with tags , , , , , , on April 12, 2018 by telescoper

Today being a Maynooth Thursday, it has, as usual, has been dominated by computational physics teaching. We’re currently doing methods for solving ordinary differential equations. At the last minute before this afternoon’s lab session I decided to include an exercise that involved solving the following harmless-looking equation: y'' = xy.

This is usually known as Airy’s equation and it comes up quite frequently in problems connected with optics. It was first investigated by a former Astronomer Royal George Airy, after whom the function is named; incidentally, he was born in Alnwick (Northumberland, i.e. not the Midlands).

Despite its apparent simplicity, the Airy equation describes some very interesting phenomena. Indeed it is the simplest ODE (that I know of) that has the property that there’s a point at which the behaviour of the solution turns from oscillatory to exponential. Here’s a result of a numerical integration of the equation: obtained using a simple Python script:

(I stopped the integration at x=5 as the magnitude of the solution grows very quickly beyond that value for the particular initial conditions chosen).

One of the reasons for including this example (apart from the fact that Airy was a Geordie) is that the students were so surprised by the behaviour of the solution and most of them assumed that there was some problem with the numerical stability of their results. Some integration methods do struggle with such simple equations as the simple harmonic oscillator, but just sometimes weird numerical results are not mere numerical artifacts!

Anyway, my point is not about this particular equation or even about computational physics, but a general pedagogical one: finding interesting results for yourself is much more likely to motivate you to think about what they mean than if they’re just described to you by someone else. I think that goes for numerical experiments in a computer lab just as much as it does for any other kind of practical experiment in a science laboratory.

Public House Outreach

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on April 10, 2018 by telescoper

I’m told that there are pubs in which people don’t sit around discussing antimatter and time reversal by sketching Feynman diagrams on seasickness bags, but who would want to drink in one those?

Back to work in Cardiff..

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on March 19, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am, then. Back in the offices of the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff for the first time in almost a fortnight. The four-week batch of strikes over pensions has come to an end so I have returned to work. No agreement has been reached so it seems likely there will be further industrial action, but for the time being normal services are being resumed. In fact it’s not exactly back to normal because there’s a large backlog of things to be done (including marking coursework and setting examinations), but I mean at least that lectures resume and will be delivered on the normal timetable. In my Physics of the Early Universe module I have only given four (two-hour) lectures and have missed three. I return to the fray tomorrow morning to give Lecture 8. Frustratingly, that’s the only lecture I have before the Easter break which starts on Friday and lasts for three weeks. Assuming there are no further strikes I’ll be giving lectures 9-12 (the last a revision lecture) after the holiday.

I now have to figure out how to cope with the six hours of lectures missed because of industrial action. That will be tricky, but I’ll do my level best to ensure that I cover everything needed for the examination. I spent most of this morning trying to figure out how to reorganise the remaining material, and I think I can do it as long as we don’t lose any more teaching time. At any rate I have made the decision not to give additional lectures to cover what I’ve missed. Owing to the timing of the strikes (and the fact that only work half the time here in Cardiff) I have been on strike for all the days I would have been working for three weeks. That means I will lose three full weeks pay. Even if it were logistically possible to fit in 6 hours of extra lectures after Easter, I don’t think it’s reasonable for me to do that for free.

While I was on strike a group of my students emailed the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University (copying me in) to point out how much teaching they were missing and request some form of compensation. I have a lot of sympathy for their situation and in no way do I want to damage their education. I will do what I can to mitigate the effect of the strike but won’t take any action that reduces the effectiveness of the industrial action. It remains to be seen if any compensation will be offered by the University management, but I think their best policy would be pressure Universities UK to stop pratting about and find a speedy settlement of the dispute.

Anyway, today is a bank holiday in Maynooth – St Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year – and the rest of the week is `Study Week’, so there are no lectures or laboratory sessions. I’ll therefore be staying in Cardiff all week, which gives me the chance to go to a concert on Friday at St David’s Hall – the first for quite a while.

Now, time to get back to writing tomorrow’s lecture…

Other People’s Code

Posted in Education, mathematics with tags , , , on March 16, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know if this is just me being useless, but one of the things I’ve always found difficult is debugging or rewriting computer programs written by other people. This is not a complaint about people who fail to document their code sufficiently to see what’s going on, it’s that even when the code is documented it seems much more difficult to spot errors in code written by other people than it is when you’ve written the program yourself.

I’ve been thinking a lot since I’ve been teaching Computational Physics here in Maynooth University. One of the standard elements of the assessment for this module is a task wherein the students are given a Python script intended to perform a given task (e.g. a numerical integral) but which contains a number of errors and asked to identify and correct the errors. This is actually a pretty tough challenge, though it is likely to be one that a graduate might have to meet if they get a job in any environment that involves programming.

Another context in which this arises is our twice-weekly computing laboratory sessions. Twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve been asked for a bit of help by students with code that wasn’t working, only to stare at the offending script for ages and fiddling with a number of things that made no difference, without seeing what turned out to be an obvious mistake. Last week it was an incorrect indent in Python (always a hazard if you’ve been brought up on Fortran). This week it was even simpler, a sign error in a line that was just supposed to calculate the mid-point of an interval. I should have been able to spot these very quickly, but I couldn’t.

What makes this so difficult? When given a mathematical calculation to mark I can usually spot errors reasonably easily (unless the working is illegible), but with code it’s different (at least for me). If I’d been given it on a piece of paper as part of a formula, I reckon I would have spotted that minus sign almost immediately.

One possibility is just that I’m getting old. While that may well be true, it doesn’t explain why I found debugging other people’s code difficult even when I was working on software at British Gas when I was 18. In that context I quite often gave up trying to edit and correct software, and instead just deleted it all and wrote my own version from scratch. That’s fine if the task is quite small, but not practicable for large suites written by teams of programmers.

I think one problem is that other people rarely approach a programming task exactly the same way as one would oneself. I have written programs myself to do the tasks given to students in the computing lab, and I’m always conscious of the method I’ve used. That may make it harder to follow what others have tried to do. Perhaps I’d be better off not prejudicing my mind doing the exercises myself?

Anyway, I’d be interested to know if anyone else has the same with other people’s code and if they have any tips that might improve my ability to deal with it. The comments box is at your disposal…

USS Pension Proposal: Poll

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I saw the news on Twitter that negotiators on behalf of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and the employers’ organisation Universities UK (UUK) under the auspices of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) agreed a proposal to end the strike over pensions that has been going on since the end of February.

The text of the agreement can be found here (PDF). This proposal will have to be discussed and ratified formally, but the negotiators hope this can be do today and that the strike will be suspended from tomorrow.

The proposal suggests a transitional period of three years from April 2019 during which a much reduced Defined Benefit scheme will operate, but it still affirms the much disputed November 2017 valuation of the scheme which means that it is overwhelmingly likely that after three years the dispute will be back on.

I shall be leaving the USS scheme in July 2018 as I’m moving full-time to Ireland where I will be joining a Defined Benefit scheme so the changes outlined in the document will not affect me. Moreover, though I have supported the strike I am not a member of UCU. If I were I would not be in favour of accepting this deal because it seems to me that it amounts to an abject surrender on all the main issues. But given my personal situation I don’t think my opinion should carry much weight. The few friends I have discussed this with feel the same as I do, but I’m interested to know what the general opinion is. If you feel like filling in the poll below please feel free to do so. I’ve divided the responses between UCU members and non-UCU members to see if there’s a difference.

On one matter however I am less equivocal. The document calls on staff to `prioritise the rescheduling of teaching’ (lost during the strike). I have a one-word response to that: NO. Not only will it be logistically impossible to reschedule so many teaching sessions, but I am also not going to do extra teaching for free when my pay is being deducted for days on strike.

As usual, I invite your comments through the box below.

UPDATE: Here is a Google Document showing how UCU branches are responding to the proposal: at the time of posting, it is solidly `reject’..

UPDATE: Following on from the above, the UCU has now formally rejected the proposal. The strikes continue.

Why I’m taking part in the UCU Strike Action

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2018 by telescoper

In case you weren’t aware, from tomorrow (22nd February) the University and College Union (UCU) is taking industrial action over proposed drastic cuts to staff pensions funded by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). You can find some background to the pensions dispute here (and in related articles). A clear explanation of why the employers’ justification for these cuts is little more than fraudulent is given here and here you can find an example of the effect of the proposed changes on a real person’s pension (ie a cut of almost 50%). I also blogged about this a few weeks ago. There’s no doubt whose side the Financial Times is on, either.

I am not a member of UCU – I left its forerunner organisation the Association of University Teachers (AUT) as a result of its behaviour when I was at the University of Nottingham – but I will be participating in the industrial action, which takes place over four weeks as follows:

  • Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)
  • Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
  • Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)
  • Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

This is a bit complicated for me because I only work half-time at Cardiff University (usually Mondays, Tuesdays and half of Wednesdays) and at Maynooth University the rest of the time. The USS only covers UK universities, and the dispute does not apply in the Republic of Ireland (though it does affect higher education institutions in Northern Ireland) so I won’t be on strike when I’m working for Maynooth University, which includes the first two strike days (tomorrow and Friday). I will be participating in industrial action next week, however, and have today sent an announcement to my students they hear from me that the strike has been called off there will be no lectures on 27th February, 6th March or 13th March.

All staff will be docked pay for days not worked owing to strike action, of course, but that will be far less than the amount to be lost in these pension cuts. In my case I will be docked the equivalent of three weeks’ pay as 2.5 days a week I work are all strike days in Weeks 2-4. Moreover, I shall be leaving the UK for Ireland this summer and the pension cuts will not affect my pension anyway – any changes will not be made until after I’ve left the USS scheme. Nevertheless, this is an important issue and I feel it is right to take a stand.

One final comment. Last week Cardiff University sent an email to staff including a link to a website that stated:

If staff refuse to cross a picket line and they are not a member of UCU they will be in breach of their contract of employment with the University.

In fact, any strike action (even by a union member) is a breach of contract. The law however prevents employers dismissing staff who participate in industrial action, provided that it is lawful (i.e. following a ballot, and with due notice given to the employer, etc). The government website makes it clear that non-union members have exactly the same protection as union members in this regard. The Cardiff website has now been changed, but I’m very unhappy that this extremely misleading communication was sent out in the first place.

I sincerely hope that there is a negotiated settlement to this issue. Nobody wants to go on strike, especially when it has the potential to damage students’ learning. But there comes a point where you have to draw a line in the sand, and we have reached that point. I hope I’m proved wrong, but I think this could be a very prolonged and very unpleasant dispute.