Archive for Department of Theoretical Physics

Plan B for Teaching

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 21, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday’s Covid-19 figures for Ireland were a bit of a shocker, with 396 new cases (241 of them in Dublin). The latest 7-day average is 283.1 new cases per day. We haven’t seen figures like this since April. Here’s the latest log-linear graph:

Just a reminder: I keep a complete record of the daily figures here.

The surge in cases in Dublin is the the reason for the imposition of additional restrictions. Although we’re not in Dublin, many of our students travel to campus from the areas of West Dublin where the rate of infection is high (such as Tallaght) so Maynooth University has decided to ‘escalate protective measures‘. This means, among other things, that the maximum class size for in-person lectures on campus is 30.

So this morning I’ve been grappling with the implications of this for our teaching plans in the Department of Theoretical Physics. Student registrations are coming in now and though they are not complete we have a much better idea of how many students we will have in each class. The limit of 30 really just makes a difference to second year Mathematical Physics modules where the class size is around 40. We had intended to teach these all together but now they will need to be split into two groups to be taught separately. It will also impact our teaching for Engineering and Product Design, both of which have more than 30 students in class.

The remaining issue is the first year Mechanics & Special Relativity module MP110 which is a much larger class that I’d already decided to split into three groups. The problem would arise if the size of these groups exceeded the capacity constraints. First-year registration has not yet finished but it looks at the moment that we’ll be OK with Plan A. Possibly.

One of the difficulties will be communicating the arrangements to new students in time for the start of lectures on Monday 28th September, a week today. It is important that we don’t have students turning up for sessions to which they have not been assigned. There will be a lot of messages flying around about this for the rest of this week and over the weekend. Even even set up a departmental Twitter feed which you can follow here:

If the situation in Dublin (and nationally) continues to deteriorate we may well be back in the situation in which we found ourselves in March, with everything going online but that isn’t where we are at the moment. The limit of 30 on class sizes is a challenge, but it is our intention that lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead on campus starting next Monday.
How long it will take to move to Plan C is anyone’s guess.

The Year Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 6, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow sees the release of the 2020 Leaving Certificate results which this year are based on “calculated grades” rather than examination results. It seems that for about 79% of students these grades will be the same as the teacher’s assessment, about 17% will be lower than the teacher assessment and in about 4% of cases it will be higher. It remains to be seen whether the results will create the sort of stir that this year’s A-level results did.

That seems to imply that CAO points will be a bit higher on average than previous years so more students will make the grade for their first choice of course, which may have a significant impact on recruitment.

We’ll find out all about that next week when the details come in. Teaching term starts on Monday 28th September so there’s very little time to get things organised for the new cohort, especially on the Omnibus Science course on which students have a wide range of alternatives from which to pick their first-year subjects.

Next week at Maynooth University we also have our repeat Examination Board (a week later than usual). After that we will have a good idea of how many students will be returning for Years 2, 3 and 4 and how many will not progress.

So soon we will have enough information to fine-tune our teaching plans. These are challenging this year because of the reduced capacity of the rooms we use for lectures and tutorials due to physical distancing. Some rooms are affected more than others – it’s far worse for large lecture theatres than for tutorial rooms – so we have to look at each module separately.

We had a (virtual) meeting of teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics to coordinate the approaches to different modules. Among other things, that showed how very sensitive everything is to numbers of students taking. If a room can take N students then if the actual number taking the class is less than or equal to N then the class can proceed as usual but if it exceeds N, even by just one, then we have to split the class somehow.

Having detailed numbers is essential to sorting all this out but students can change modules during the first few weeks of teaching, we’re likely to be reorganising as we go along.

All this causes multiple headaches but, despite the extra complications this year, I’m looking forward to seeing the students on campus again. I haven’t given a ‘proper’ lecture since March 12th.

I was so busy last week, grappling with these and other matters, that I missed the fact that I took over as Head of Department on 1st September 2019, a year ago last Tuesday. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for…

From May to September

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2020 by telescoper

So here we are, then. The final pair of examinations online timed assessments for students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University have just started and the students’ submissions will come in later this afternoon. By a curious coincidence the last two comprise a 3rd Year module on Special Relativity and a 4th year module on General Relativity, both of which happen at the same time (in the reference frame of the students).

I don’t want to jinx this afternoon’s proceedings but the switch to online assessments has gone much more smoothly than I imagined it would. I’ve been keeping an eye on all of them and there have been very few problems, and those that did arise were sorted out relatively easily. I’m immensely relieved by this, as I think I’ve been more nervous during these examinations than most of the students!

After this afternoon we will have to knuckle down and get these assessments marked in time for the round of Exam Board meetings. We have been allowed an extra week to do this because grading will be a slower process than usual, especially for the kind of mathematical work we do in the Department of Theoretical Physics. We’ll have to see how it goes but I’m confident we can get the results ready by 18th June, which is the date of our (virtual) Exam Board.

After the Exam Boards we would normally be thinking of relaxing a bit for the summer, and doing a bit of research, but there’s no sign of that being possible this year.

Among the urgent things to deal with are managing the `return to work’ of staff during the various phases of the Irish Government’s Roadmap. This document does not give much detail and there are serious issues to be solved before we can even start Phase 2 (due to commence June 8th) never mind finish Phase 5 and return to some semblance of normal working.

Iontas Lecture Theatre, Maynooth University

Slightly further off, but no less urgent is the matter of how to deal with the start of the next academic year, assuming the progress of the pandemic allows this to happen at all. One of the big uncertainties is how many potential students will defer their university study until next year, which makes it difficult to predict how many students we will have to cater for.

I have to say I’m very annoyed by recent reporting of this issue in the Irish Times, which includes this:

The fact that most lectures will take place online, along with changed economic conditions facing families and inability of students to secure summer work, may make it less attractive for many students to go to college in the coming year.

The second word fact (my emphasis) is the problem, as it describes something that is not a fact at all. A lot can happen between May and September, but we are currently planning on the basis that most of our lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead pretty much as normal. That may in the end turn out to be impossible, e.g. if there is a second wave of infection, but at the moment it is a reasonable scenario. And even if we do have to move some or all lectures online we will still have face-to-face teaching in the form of tutorials, exercise classes and computer laboratories.

A slightly less misleading article can be found in the same newspaper here.

A couple of weeks ago, Cambridge University announced that there would be no face-to-face lectures at all next academic year. I was amused to hear a representative of that institution on the radio sounding as if he was saying that “at Cambridge, lectures have very little to do with teaching”. I think what he meant was that tutorials and other teaching sessions would still go ahead so the loss of in-person lectures was not as important as it sounded. That may very well be true of Arts and Humanities subjects, but I was an undergraduate in Natural Sciences at Cambridge (many years ago) and I can tell you the vast majority of my tuition there was in the lecture theatre.

Neither is it the case that Oxford and Cambridge are the only UK universities to have tutorials or small group tuition, but I digress…

My point is that, while I can’t promise that it will be business as usual from September 2020, it’s quite wrong to give potential students the impression that it would be a waste of their time starting this academic year. I can assure any students reading this of the fact that we’re doing everything we can to give them as good an experience as possible.

You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers!

One down, Thirteen to go..

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on May 17, 2020 by telescoper

As I mentioned in a recent post, Saturday saw the first of our new-fangled examinations online timed assessments in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. Despite all the planning I was quite nervous as the time for that test approached and it wasn’t even one of my examinations on that occasion!

Happily the event went ahead without any significant technical hitches and all students who took the paper managed to upload answers.

The type of mathematical problems we set in the Department of Theoretical Physics means that students will work out their answers by hand on paper which then requires scanning and converting to a PDF. That’s not very hard to do but it’s not as easy as writing an essay on a laptop then uploading a document file which is what some subjects involve.

In this sense, I think we ask a bit more of our students than many other Departments, and I very much appreciate the effort they have made to master an unfamiliar system. That goes for the staff too – this is all new for all of us!

I thought that anything significant was going to go wrong it would do so in the first one, so the fact that nothing broke not only brings relief but also builds confidence for the thirteen further examinations we have over the next two weeks.

A Head Again!

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on July 4, 2019 by telescoper

Today is Independence Day – on which all joint probabilities P(A,B) can be expressed in the form P(A)P(B) – and by coincidence I received a letter that I’ve been expecting from the President. No, not Michael D. Higgins (nor Donald Trump for that matter) but the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan.

Despite it being marked Strictly Private and Confidential I have actually read it, and it says that I have been appointed as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, with effect from 1st September 2019.

The appointment is for three years in the first instance, with the possibility of renewal for another two years `subject to satisfactory performance’. So just the three years then.

The current Head of Department is taking a sabbatical next semester (from September to January) and just this morning we have been interviewing candidates for a temporary to provide teaching cover for his absence. Now we officially begin the handover (including, I suppose, moving offices…).

It’s about three years now since I stepped down as Head of School at the University of Sussex at which point I didn’t imagine I would be stepping up to be Head of Anything again, but to be honest this position has a smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities than the one I used to hold so I’m actually quite looking forward to it.

But first I’m going to take tomorrow off.

Summer Open Day

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on June 22, 2019 by telescoper


This morning I made my way onto campus to  represent the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University’s Summer Open Day which took place today. Naturally I encountered Maynooth Library Cat on the way. I’ve never seen him in that location amid the shrubs before, and when I saw him heading for that place I thought he might be about to do a poo in the mulch (which looks a bit like a litter tray). Instead of that he just flopped into the position shown in the photo. It was quite sunny early on today and I think he was happy to have found a spot in the shade.

Despite the good weather, the Open Day wasn’t as busy as the last couple I’ve been involved with, probably because this year’s Leaving Certificate examinations haven’t quite finished. Nevertheless we had a reasonable number of prospective students visit the stall in Iontas, shown here with Rebekah (a current student in the Department on a summer research project):

Later on I gave a talk. The audience was fairly small but quite a few people took the opportunity to ask questions at the end, so I think it was useful for those who attended.

At least today the weather was nice, even if the occurrence of the solstice yesterday means that the nights are now drawing in…

I find these occasions always bring a bit of a flashback to Sussex days, actually, when I used to have to do this sort of thing quite regularly on Saturdays throughout the year. It’s almost three years since I left there. Can it really be so long already?

 

 

Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on April 30, 2019 by telescoper

Just a short post passing on the information that we have a fixed-term job available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. You can find the details here.

The position is for 5 months, starting in September 2019, and it to basically to provide teaching cover for Dr Jonivar Skullerud who will be on sabbatical for a Semester. I know it is a short appointment, but it seems to me that it would provide a good opportunity for an early-career academic, perhaps someone straight out of a PhD, to gain some teaching experience.

The deadline for applications is 23.30 on Sunday May 26th, i.e. about 4 weeks away, and you should apply through the jobs portal here.

If you’d like to know any more please feel free to contact me privately.

Oh, and please feel free to pass this on to anyone who may be interested!

Self Assessments

Posted in Biographical, Education, Finance, Maynooth with tags , , on January 17, 2019 by telescoper

My first batch of examination marking having been completed satisfactorily and my next paper not taking place until the weekend (Saturday morning, to be precise), I naively hoped that I could devote myself to research for a few days this week as I am behind schedule in completing a couple of papers. Unfortunately this has not been as straightforward as I’d hoped. I’ve spent all of today doing various administrative things (expenses claims, examination reports, and a part of the Department’s Quality Review Self-Assessment document which is due in near the end of the month.

In case you are unfamiliar with such things, a Quality Review is an exercise that takes place from time to time for every Department or Administrative Unit in the University (and indeed for every university in Ireland). For the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, the last one took place in 2009). The process begins with the aforementioned Self-Assessment document which basically lays out what the Department is trying to do, the processes by which it uses to do it, reflects on the effectiveness of those processes, and outlines ideas for how they can be improved. All the staff in the Department have been engaged in writing bits of this document, which is now gradually coming into shape.I’ve had a relatively light involvement in this because I haven’t been here for very long, but it has consumed quite a lot of staff effort.

When complete, the Self Assessment report is sent to a range of people both inside and outside the University and there is then a visitation during which the panel talks to staff and students and has a look around the Department. We’re expecting our `inspection’ to take place in March. After that the panel gives feedback to the Department in a report. The panel’s comments are made publicly available, as is appropriate for a publicly-funded body. The report emerging from the last Quality Review of the Department of Mathematical Physics (as it was then called ) can be found here (pdf). It’s all quite a lot of work – the latest Departmental meeting devoted to this yesterday lasted three and a half hours, and we’ve had several meetings like that! fortunately, it  will all be finished by next week. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.

 

Talking of Self Assessment, I realized last night with a panic that I hadn’t yet done my UK income tax return for 2017/18, also due in by the end of January. I spent this lunchtime getting all the bits of paper in order, and completed the task online fairly quickly as I’ve done it many times before. It turns out that yet again HMRC owes me a substantial refund. They haven’t handled my income tax properly since I left Sussex in 2016 as a matter of fact. Despite repeated attempts to get them to apply the rules correctly they have basically taxed all my income at source at the higher rate (40%) only to pay it back when I submitted my return. Fortunately, I am now domiciled in Ireland so won’t have to deal with HMRC much again.

Anyway, I should complete most of the outstanding administrative stuff this evening and if I do that I can clear a day for research, or at least writing up papers…