Archive for Cardiff University

Notes from Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 6, 2018 by telescoper

A few people have asked me to comment a little bit on difference between Higher Education Institutes in the United Kingdom and here in Ireland from the point of view of teaching and learning. I can’t do that systematically of course because I’ve only ever been at one University in Ireland, Maynooth, and that for only a year. I have however held positions that involved teaching in several UK universities (Queen Mary, Nottingham, Cardiff and Sussex) so perhaps some comments based on my own experiences might be useful. And of course I’m just talking about Theoretical Physics here, so I won’t discuss labs. It’s a very big selling point for our Theoretical Physics courses here that students don’t have to do labs (apart from Computational Physics labs, of course).

To start with something rather trivial, the `load’ for a student in most UK universities is usually 120 credits while here in Ireland it is 60. The actual workload expected of a student is the same so this just means there’s an exchange rate of 2:1 between the UK and Ireland. In the UK the load is usually split into two equal semesters with examinations in January and May after each. In the UK the 60 credits of each semester is usually split into modules. In my experience in physics these can be either 10 or 20 credits (e.g. Cardiff) or 15 credits (e.g. Sussex). The standard size here in Maynooth is 5 credits (equivalent to 10 in the UK), so most comparisons will be with a standard 10-credit module based on the Cardiff model (which I think is more common than the Sussex model).

What goes into these standard modules differs slightly. Here in Maynooth there are twelve teaching weeks per semester plus a `Study Week’ half way through, so each is 13 weeks long. For a 5-credit module there are usually two lectures per week (so 24 in total, as there are no lectures in Study Week). On top of this there are weekly tutorials (usually done by PhD students). In Cardiff there are also 2 lectures a week for the directly comparable 10 credit module, though not all modules have tutorials associated with them. There is no mid-term Study Week in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff and teaching term is only 11 weeks, so students typically have 22 lectures in a `standard’ module.

Continually-assessed coursework at Maynooth typically counts for 20% of a module mark (as it does in Cardiff), with 80% on an examination. In both Cardiff and Maynooth a `standard’ module has a two-hour examination at the end, but there’s a big difference in style: most of the papers in Maynooth require students to answer all the questions for full marks, whereas in Cardiff it’s two out of three or three out of four (usually). The Maynooth style makes it much harder for students to question-spot.

In summary, then, the amount of contact time for a student in Maynooth is greater than in Cardiff. The student-staff ratio in the Department of Theoretical Physics in Maynooth is about 15, which is a little higher than most UK physics departments (see Table here). There are only 7 full-time academic staff with full curriculum to deliver, means that teaching loads here are quite heavy compared to the UK.
Four modules per year is typical.

That might seem a lot to some people, but I actually enjoy teaching so don’t mind at all. In fact, with the mountain of administrative stuff I had to do at Sussex, it was only the fact that I taught a full module (on Theoretical Physics) that kept me (partially) sane. This year I shall be teaching, in the Autumn Semester, a 4th-year module on Astrophysics & Cosmology and a 2nd-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series and, in the Spring Semest, 3rd-year Computational Physics 1 (again) and Engineering Mathematics (for First-year engineers). I’m not sure what to expect of that last one, but I’m not going to think about it until the New Year.

Most of our students do a four-year Bachelors programme in Science (as discussed briefly here) with a very general first year. Some, however, come directly into a programme called Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (TP&M, for short) which is three-year fast-track degree. It’s harder to get into TP&M than the `Omnibus’ Science course, but it does attract some very capable students.

I should mention that the really big difference between Ireland and the UK is that the system of teaching and learning here is much less centralized and much less rigid that UK universities. The small size of the Department means that it is possible to know all the students by name and students with difficulties can always find someone to talk to. That is increasingly not the case in UK universities, which are rapidly turning into teaching factories and are subject to the pressure to do well in league tables (often with a negative impact on teaching quality).

Subject to some conditions, first-time full-time undergraduate students in `Third-level’ education in Ireland do not pay tuition fees as such, and neither do students from other EU or EEA countries. There is however an annual ‘student contribution’ of €3000 which all students pay (unless they have a grant that covers it). As far as I can see, that is effectively a fee, though it is supposed to cover student services (e.g. libraries) and examinations rather than tuition. Students taking repeat examinations generally have to pay extra for them. If you consider the `student contribution’ to be a fee (which is effectively what it is) then the Irish funding system is similar to the pre-2012 UK system, i.e. before the introduction of the current £9K fee.

Finally, one of the most striking differences between Ireland and the UK is that here a much higher proportion of students live at home with their parents while studying and commute into campus daily (some of them from quite a distance). That is quite unusual in the UK, but is fairly typical in other EU countries (e.g. Italy). The cost of accommodation is undoubtedly a factor, but I think it’s also a more general cultural thing. I’ve also noticed something here that I’ve never seen in the UK, which is that some student accommodation is let on a Monday-Friday basis, the tenant being expected to go back to the parental home at the weekends. On Fridays in term-time, you can see quite a lot of students with their bags waiting for coaches or trains to take them away for the weekend…

In a future post I might comment on non-academic differences between Ireland and the UK (e.g. tax, public services, cost of living, etc) but I think that will do for now.

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Long and Short Goodbyes

Posted in Biographical with tags , on August 2, 2018 by telescoper

This morning I discovered that my email account at Cardiff University has been disabled. Obviously the IT Services folk there don’t hang about when somebody leaves! I did get a couple of warnings that this was going to happen, but didn’t expect it quite so soon.

The withdrawal of access to IT services at Cardiff seems a bit abrupt, but I suppose that’s just the policy these days. My employment there has terminated so I don’t think it’s unreasonable that they shut down my email.I guess they just don’t go in for long goodbyes!

Anyway, I know I haven’t always been very good at replying to email recently, but if you email me at Cardiff from now on then I really can’t reply. I can’t even read your message!

This also reminds me that it’s been two years since I left my job as Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University. I’ve only been back to Brighton once since I left that position. I thought I might have a bit more time to visit there after moving onto a part-time contract at Cardiff, but that didn’t happen.

I was very tearful on my last day at Sussex, and can remember vividly how I felt walking down the steps from the Pevensey building for the last time. Still, it’s not a good idea to look back too often.The old School is in good hands, and I’m sure is going from strength to strength.

One great thing that has happened since I left Sussex is that the University has become an official partner of Brighton & Hove Pride, which is taking place this weekend. Best wishes to everyone taking part in the parade and associated festivities!

The two years since then have not turned out at all the way I planned when I left MPS: I had a three-year part-time contract at Cardiff, after which I planned to retire (in Cardiff). Now, two years on, I’m not retired nor am I in Cardiff, but living and working in another country.

Life is weird.

After Graduation

Posted in Biographical with tags , on July 20, 2018 by telescoper

I didn’t get time to blog yesterday as I was involved with various festivities to with the graduation of students from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University who, for some reason, shared a ceremony with students from the School of History, Archaeology and Religion. The ceremony was more-or-less my last official duty here at Cardiff. This morning I backed up my computer, returned my keys and removed my boxes of books and other stuff from the office of the Data Innovation Research Institute back to my house. This afternoon I gather there’ll be a small event to celebrate my departure, after which there’s a staff trip to see the cricket at Sophia Gardens (Glamorgan versus Somerset in the Vitality Blast).

Yesterday’s ceremony started at 12 noon and, as usual, was in St David’s Hall in Cardiff. When it was over we adjourned to the Main Building for a reception at which we were informed there would be `unlimited Prosecco’. This turned out to be untrue, as the Prosecco ran out by about 5pm, at which point we moved to a local pub and thence for a late-night curry. It was all a bit excessive and I had a not inconsiderable hangover this morning. I suspect that was the case for many of the graduands too!

It was a very hot with all the graduation clobber, which is no doubt why such a large volume of liquid refreshment was consumed. The drinks were dispensed in a marquee which was sweltering inside. Anyway, here’s a pic of some of those students who received their degrees yesterday. I was actually there, but just out of shot to the right.

Graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they even seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way. I love graduation ceremonies, actually. As the graduands go across the stage you realize that every one of them has a unique story to tell and a whole universe of possibilities in front of them. How their lives will unfold no-one can tell, but it’s a privilege to be there for one important milestone on their journey.

I always find graduation a bittersweet occasion. There’s joy and celebration, of course, but tempered by the realisation that many of the young people who you’ve seen around for three or for years, and whose faces you have grown accustomed to, will disappear into the big wide world never to be seen again.

Graduation of course isn’t just about dressing up. Nor is it only about recognising academic achievement. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. It always seems that as a lecturer you are only just getting to know students by the time they graduate, but that’s enough to miss them when they go.

Anyway, all this is a roundabout way of saying congratulations once more to everyone who graduated yesterday, and I wish you all the very best for the future!

International LGBT+ in STEM Day

Posted in Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , on June 27, 2018 by telescoper

Tired by the heat and by watching Glamorgan losing at cricket, and despite being on annual leave, I popped in to the relative cool of the office of the Data Innovation Research Institute at Cardiff University to tidy up a few things. I noticed the above poster on the main entrance to the School of Physics & Astronomy, which reminded me to post a quick plug for the first ever LGBTSTEM Day, which takes place next Thursday (5th July). I agreed some time ago to give a short talk at the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University about this and am looking forward to returning from Maynooth next week to do so.

Many universities and other organizations (including the Royal Astronomical Society) are involved in supporting events on 5th July. If you want to keep up with what’s happening try having a look a the twitter hashtag #LGBTSTEMDay.

It’s not too late to put your own event together either! You can find a handy toolkit to help you do it here.

Revisionist (Thermal) History of the Universe

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 10, 2018 by telescoper

Well, today saw my last teaching session on my Cardiff University module Physics of the Early Universe. It was actually an optional revision lecture, during which I went through questions on last year’s examination paper, some matters arising therefrom and some general tips on `examination technique’. The latter included advice that seems obvious – such as `read the question carefully’ and `check your numerical answers’ – but that surprisingly many students seem not to have heard before or, if they have, choose not to follow!

Anyway, I hope the students who came today found it useful and I hope that they (and indeed everyone else taking examinations over the next few weeks) do themselves proper justice and get the results they need for whatever comes next in their plans.

The Physics of the Early Universe paper is a couple of weeks ago so no doubt I’ll get a few more queries to deal with before then.

I thought I’d give an idea of the stuff I’ve been teaching here by including one of the questions from last year’s paper. I thought this was quite an easy one, actually, but the students seemed to find it tricky while they mostly coped well with the other questions, which I thought were harder. One of the challenges of teaching is that it’s often hard to see what other people find difficult! See what you think. You don’t really need to know much cosmology to do this:

Anyway, today was not only the last teaching session for this particular module – it’s also the last teaching session I’ll ever conduct in the UK university system. Best wishes to whoever it is that teaches this module next year when I’m in Ireland.

In Praise of Research Software Engineers

Posted in Cardiff with tags , , , on May 1, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday in the Data Innovation Research Institute we held a special event, our first ever Conference for Research Software Engineers. Sadly I was too busy yesterday to attend in person, but I did turn up at the end for the drinks reception at the end.

In case you weren’t aware, the term Research Software Engineer (RSE) is applied to the growing number of people in universities and other research organisations who combine expertise in programming with an intricate understanding of research. Although this combination of skills is extremely valuable, these people lack a formal place in the academic system. Without a name, it is difficult for people to rally around a cause, hence the creation of the term Research Software Engineer and the Research Software Engineer Association.

We have quite a few RSEs associated with the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff – as you can see here. These are quite different from system administrators or other computing support staff as they are involved directly in research, working in teams alongside academics and other specialists.

One of the biggest problems facing RSEs in the UK university system is there isn’t a well-established promotions route for them. For researchers in an academic environment, performance is usually judged through publications, PhD students supervised, grants awarded and so so. Although RSEs play a vital role, especially (but not exclusively) in large collaborations, they do not usually end up as lead authors on papers and generally do not apply for grants in their own name. That means that if they are judged by these criteria they struggle to get promotion and often leave academia to work for higher pay and better terms and conditions elsewhere.

In my opinion, one of the important things that must be done to improve the lot of Research Software Engineers is to construct a career structure in parallel with the academic route  and other grades (such as laboratory technician) but judged by more appropriate criteria tailored to the reality of the job. Writing the necessary grade profiles and getting them agreed by the relevant university committees will take some time, but I think it will pay dividends in terms of better retention and job satisfaction for these highly talented people.

I hope Cardiff can take some sort of a lead in defining the role of an RSE, but this is really a national need. There are pretty uniform grade descriptions for academic and research staff across the United Kingdom so I don’t see any reason why this can’t be the case for Research Software Engineers. They are vital to many research fields already, and their importance can only grow in the future.

 

Ariel to Fly

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 23, 2018 by telescoper

All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
To answer thy best pleasure. Be ‘t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curled clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality.

The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2.

It’s nice to be able to pass on a bit of good news for the good folk of the Astronomy Instrumentation Group here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

The ARIEL mission has been given the green light by the European Space Agency and will launch sometime around 2028. It will produce the first ever large-scale survey of the atmospheric chemistry of planets outside our solar system. Ariel will extract the chemical fingerprints of the gases in the atmospheres of over 1000 exoplanets, as well as capturing information about the temperatures and pressures in their atmospheres and the presence of clouds.

Whenever I read of exciting news from the field of exoplanet research – which happens quite frequently nowadays – it reminds me that when I started my graduate studies (in 1985) the field didn’t really exist. Now it’s one of the biggest and most active areas of astronomy! Another thing that makes me feel a bit of a dinosaur is that when Ariel actually launches I’ll be 65…

As with all such missions, a large international collaboration will be involved in Ariel, and much of the detail of who will do what is yet to be worked out, but Cardiff scientists will be providing detailed computer simulations of the Ariel satellite and its instruments, ensuring that the scientific observations can be carefully planned and the resulting data can be analysed correctly. The team will also be involved in the ground segment after launch, interpreting the data from the observations to characterise the atmospheres of the exoplanets. The Principal Investigator of the whole mission is Professor Giovanna Tinetti of University College, London, who I see regularly at dinner with the RAS Club.

Head Irishman of the School, Matt Griffin, who will himself is quoted in the news item as saying

The decision to select the Ariel mission demonstrates the scientific vision and ambition of ESA, and it’s the start of a great adventure for everyone involved. This is a mission that will hugely advance our understanding of the nature of planets and of our place in the Universe, and at Cardiff we are very much looking forward to our participation in the project.

The launch date of 2028 is some way off but space missions are exceedingly complicated things and there’s a lot to do in the next decade or so until Ariel finally flies. Hopefully neither swimming, nor diving into fire nor riding on the curled clouds will be involved, but the scientific quality is something of which we can be very confident.

Congratulations to everyone involved in getting this mission selected and best wishes to all those involved in Cardiff and elsewhere!