Archive for the Maynooth Category

Physics Lectureship in Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , , , , on June 18, 2019 by telescoper

Every now and then I have the opportunity to use the medium of this blog to draw the attention of my vast readership (both of them) to employment opportunities. Today is another such occasion, so I am happy to point out that my colleagues in the Department of Experimental Physics are advertising a lectureship. For full details, see here, but I draw your attention in particular to this paragraph:

The Department of Experimental Physics is seeking candidates with the potential to build on the research strengths of the Department in the areas of either terahertz optics or atmospheric physics. The Department is especially interested in candidates with research experience that could broaden the scope of current research activity. This could include for example terahertz applications in space, imaging, remote sensing and communications or applications of atmospheric physics related to monitoring and modelling climate change. It would be an advantage if the candidate’s research involved international collaboration with the potential for interdisciplinary initiatives with other University institutes and departments.

The deadline for applications is Sunday 28 July 2019 at 11.30pm.

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Boards and Consultations

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 10, 2019 by telescoper

Back from Helsinki, I’m now in the midst of Examination Board business. That’s two Boards for me, one for the Department of Theoretical Physics and the other for the Department of Engineering (as I’ve been teaching Engineering Mathematics).  We’ve already Preliminary meetings for both and this afternoon had the `Final’ Board for Engineering in the presence of the external examiners. The Final ‘Board’ for Theoretical Physics with the external is on Thursday. But that’s not the end of it – there is an overall University Examination Board that covers all courses in the University to formally bring an end to the examination process.

That’s quite a lot of Boards.

It is not until after all the Boards have done their business that the students get their marks and not long after that we have a Consultation Day, where

Staff will be available in all Departments to discuss results with students. Students are entitled to see their examination scripts if they wish, these will be generally available on this day or at another mutually convenient time.

When I was Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University I tried to introduce such a system there, but it was met with some resistance from staff who thought this would not only cause a big increase in workload and but also lead to  difficulties with students demanding their marks be increased. That has never been my experience elsewhere: only a handful take up the opportunity and those that do are told quite clearly that the mark cannot be changed.  Last year I had only one student who asked to go through their script. I was happy to oblige and we had a friendly and (I think) productive meeting.

If I had my way we would actually give all students their marked examination scripts back as a matter of routine. The fact that we don’t is no doubt one reason for relatively poor performance in student satisfaction surveys about assessment and feedback. Obviously examination scripts have to go through a pretty strict quality assurance process involving the whole paraphernalia of examination boards (including external examiners), so the scripts can’t be given back immediately but once that process is complete there doesn’t seem to me any reason why we shouldn’t give their work, together with any feedback written on it,  back to the students in its entirety.

I have heard some people argue that under the provisions of the Data Protection Act students have a legal right to see what’s written on the scripts – as that constitutes part of their student record – but that’s not my point here. My point is purely educational, based on the benefit to the student’s learning experience.

Anyway, I don’t know how widespread the practice is of giving examination scripts back to students so let me conduct a totally unscientific poll. Obviously most of my readers are in physics and astronomy, but I invite anyone in any academic discipline to vote:

And, of course, if you have any further comments to make please feel free to make them through the box below!

Notes from Euclid 2019

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 4, 2019 by telescoper

I’ve just had my breakfast so I thought I’d do a quick post before the start of play on of the 2019 Euclid Consortium Meeting in Helsinki. Previous Euclid Consortium meetings were held in: Bologna (2011); Copenhagen (2012); Leiden (2013); Marseille (2014); Lausanne (2015); Lisbon (2016); London (2017); and Bonn (2018). I’ve only attended the last two: I was non-Euclidean before that.

Finlandia Hall

The venue is the Finlandia Hall, which looks splendid from the outside. I passed it during my stroll yesterday afternoon just so I could be sure where it is. It’s easy to find as it is very central and on the edge of a lake next to a major thoroughfare (Mannerheimintie). . I arrived yesterday to beautiful sunny weather but that has changed – it is pouring down as I write this, with thunder and lightning to boot. I don’t have to leave the Hotel for an hour or so, however, so perhaps it will have passed. There’s no sign of that just yet but I brought a brolly, and it’s only 15 minutes away from the Hotel on foot.

According to the web page there are 408 participants at the last count. I expect there’ll be quite a few people I know here but I haven’t met any yet. The Euclid Consortium has well over a thousand members, but obviously they’re not all here this week. I seem still to be the only representative of Ireland.

There’s a nice webpage showing all the institutions around the world who belong to the consortium behind the European Space Agency’s Euclid Mission. Here’s a screen grab that shows all the logos of all the institutions involved in this very large Consortium:

There are so many that it’s hard to see them all, but if you look very closely about half way down, among the Ms, you will see Maynooth University among them. Ireland is a member state of the European Space Agency, by the way.

Top tips for participants include not to tip:

Here is the latest timeline for the Euclid mission: launch around June 2022 followed by six years of operations.

If you want to follow on Twitter the relevant hashtag is #Euclid2019.

Suddenly the End of Term

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 1, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday I finished the last of my marking duties, and put away the exam scripts and other assessments. I had to rush to get them all done in time for this weekend because I will not be here for most of next week. That’s been quite difficult because of all the other things going on and has led to quite a few late nights!

The marks will of course need to be validated and uploaded to a database in advance of the meetings of the Examination Boards which take place the week after next in the presence of the External Examiner. It will be some time, therefore, before everything is finalised and the students get their marks. (In case you didn’t realise, that was a hint to any students reading this not to pester us for their marks…)

The last examinations took place this week and all of a sudden the campus is deserted. Most of the students at Maynooth University don’t actually live here so many of them depart as soon as their last examination is over. The effect is dramatic. There’s been a particularly noticeable change in the vicinity of the Library, which was crammed full of students during the examination period but yesterday morning was deserted. Our friendly feline celebrity will have a lot less company for the next few months but I’m sure he’ll still be well looked after..

Not everyone has disappeared for the summer, of course. The postgraduate will still be around, and we have quite a few students in Theoretical Physics staying for (paid) internships: I have two working with me and I’m looking forward to starting them off on their projects.

This is actually a Bank Holiday Weekend, so everyone will be off on Monday and the campus is closed, which makes  for a nice end-of-term break for some of us. Not all staff had exams early enough to finish in time like I did, however, and no doubt some will have to spend the weekend marking scripts. The June Bank Holiday (Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh) in Ireland is actually the equivalent of last week’s late May Bank Holiday in the UK, in that both have their origin in the old festival of Whitsuntide (or Pentecost) which falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter. Because the date of Easter moves around in the calendar so does Whit Sunday, but it is usually in late May or early June. Here in Ireland the Bank Holiday is always on the first Monday in June whereas on the other side of the Irish Sea it is on the last Monday in May.

Finally I noticed last night that the season of concerts from the National Concert Hall in Dublin is now over. The new season will start in September. I’ve been too busy this term to get to many of these but I’ll try to plan things a bit better for the new season.

The Week Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth, Opera, The Universe and Stuff on May 20, 2019 by telescoper

Well, my little jaunt back to Wales is almost over and I’ll soon be heading back to Maynooth for a very busy rest of the week.

The two examinations I’ve set this term are tomorrow (Engineering Maths) and Wednesday (Computational Physics). I’ll try to make a start on the marking as soon as I get my hands on the scripts, but on Thursday and Friday there is the annual Irish Quantum Foundations meeting, which this year is being hosted by Trinity College Dublin. I gave a talk at the same event last year, but this time I’m just in the audience.

Some time on Friday I have to cast my vote in the elections to the Local Council and European Parliament being held in Ireland. There is also a referendum to do with changing the law on divorce.

And after all that, on Friday evening, I’ll be paying my first ever visit to the famous Gaiety Theatre in Dublin for my first ever experience of Irish National Opera.

Marking the End of Term

Posted in Maynooth with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are, then. The term is finally over. Lectures officially finished yesterday, and there’s now another week or so before examinations start (next Friday, 17th May). The examinations for my two modules take place on Tuesday 21st and Wednesday 22nd May, and after that I’ll be busy with marking for a while. In fact, I’ll probably be getting much busier in general pretty soon, but more of that in due course…

 

Marking doesn’t just mean written examinations. I have been teaching a module on Computational Physics to 3rd Year students here in Maynooth, and 40% of the assessment for that is a mini-project (usually done in groups of two or three). Early on the term, I put up a list of a dozen or so projects and ask them to pick first second and third choices so I can form groups in such a way that most students get to work on a project they like the look of. This year I made up a new set of projects, but I feel a bit sorry for one of them (`Scattering in a Spherical Potential’), which didn’t appear anywhere \at all on any student’s list of preferences. That’s a shame as I thought it was a well-rounded project, with lots of potential. Hopefully it will prove more popular next year…

Anyway, the deadline for projects to be handed in came yesterday so I’ve got a stack of those to mark which, you will realise, why I am indulging in a displacement activity by writing this blog post. My plan is to mark these next week so that they’re done before the written examinations come in.

Before I get on with what I should be doing I’ll just mention another thing that happened yesterday: the President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann), Michael D. Higgins visited Maynooth University yesterday:

That’s him at the front, on the right, of course. The reason for his visit was to attend a memorial service.

Is there a role for rote learning?

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on May 7, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are, then, back to work here in Maynooth for the last week of teaching. Or, to be precise, the last four days – yesterday was a Bank Holiday. With university and school examinations looming, it is no surprise to find an article griping about the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations and the fact that teachers seem to encourage students to approach them by by rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen – especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular 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 memorizing 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 because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right. I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text. I’m sure this applies to many other subjects. No doubt a good memory is a great benefit to a budding lawyer, for example,  but the ability to reason logically must surely be necessary too.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in  a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

But while rote learning has a role, it should not be all there is and my worry is that the teaching-to-the-test approach is diminishing the ability of educators to develop other aspects of intelligence. There has to be a better way to encourage the development of the creative imagination, especially in the context of problem-solving. Future generations are going to have to face many extremely serious problems in the very near future, and they won’t be able to solve them simply by remembering the past.