Archive for Maynooth University

Getting Back to Work

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , , on July 7, 2020 by telescoper

It’s Consultation Day here in Maynooth, which is when students can get some feedback on the exam results released last week and also discuss what they may need to do in terms of repeating assessments next month.

A few minutes ago I took a short break from dealing with such things to make a cup of coffee and I thought I’d provide an update on the processes going on to allow people to return to work. Signs went up on the outside doors to the Science Building last week.

The furniture in the Foyer area has been rearranged to facilitate social distancing…

The Department of Theoretical Physics will be operating a two-way system, with people sticking to the left of the corridors. People came to yesterday to stick the signs on the floor.

Fortunately the corridors in the Department are just about wide enough to maintain social distancing. If people pass each other coming in different directions their encounter will only be transient anyway, which is of low risk.

The computer room (not shown) will have a one-way system so students and staff will enter through one door and leave through the other. We will also have to take half the machines out of use for social distancing purposes, but that should be manageable.

Elsewhere in the Science building in order to avoid people passing each other on the (rather narrow) stairs there is one set for up and another for down.

Social distancing is being enforced in the other facilities too…

That’ll do for now. Time to get back to work.

Temporary Lectureship in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on June 28, 2020 by telescoper

While I remember I should announce that we have fixed term ten-month full-time teaching position available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University.

The appointment is to provide sabbatical cover for Dr Jiri Vala.

The advert only went up last week but the deadline is just a fortnight away, on Sunday 12th July, which is pretty soon. This is because we need the person in post by September! Interviews are likely to be held in early August.

You can find the ad here or here or at the Maynooth University website here (which is also where you should apply).

Please feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested!

Maynooth University Open Day is here!

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 27, 2020 by telescoper

So here I am at home answering questions online from visitors at our virtual Open Day. It’s actually pouring with rain which might have dampened the enthusiasm of visitors to a traditional Open Day but it’s been quite busy so far. Here is a video tour of the Maynooth University campus, filmed in better weather than today!

You will see that it includes an artist’s impression of the new building on the North Campus which isn’t actually finished yet.

And here is a gratuitous picture of our star attraction:

Another Open Day Preview – General Science at Maynooth

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 26, 2020 by telescoper

I thought I’d put up another post following on from yesterday’s post about Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 27th June which, owing to Covid-19 restrictions still being in place,  is once again a virtual event. It will take place between 10am and 2pm and be online for that period to answer queries about Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University. You can sign up for the event here.

Yesterday’s post was about our denominated degree programme in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, but I also recorded a separate video for students interested in studying Mathematical Physics  (or Theoretical Physics – we use the terms interchangeably) through our General Science programme, MH201, so here’s a little presentation about how to study Mathematical physics at Maynooth that way:

Currently, most students doing Science subjects here in Maynooth enter on the General Science programme (codename)  a four-year Omnibus science course that involves doing four subjects in the first year, but becoming increasingly specialised thereafter. That’s not unlike the Natural Sciences course I did at Cambridge, except that students at Maynooth can do both Mathematical Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics in the first year as separate choices. Other possibilities include Chemistry, Computer Science, Biology, etc.

In Year 1 students do four subjects (one of which has to be Mathematics). That is narrowed down to three in Year 2 and two in Year 3. In their final year, students can stick with two subjects for a Joint Honours (Double Major) degree, or specialise in one, for Single Honours.

I like this programme very much because it does not force the students to choose a specialism before they have had a taste of the subject, and that it is flexible enough to accommodate Joint Honours qualifications in, e.g., Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. It also allows us to enrol students onto Physics degrees who have not done Physics or Applied Mathematics as part of the Leaving Certificate.

I think Mathematical Physics has a particular value in the first year of this course, even for students who do now wish to continue with beyond that level. The material we present in the first year focusses on Mechanics, which is perfect for students to learn how to apply concepts from the Mathematics courses in calculus and linear algebra (especially vectors). It obviously complements Experimental Physics and I would recommend all students who want to do Experimental Physics to do Mathematical Physics too, but  basic mechanics comes up in a wide range of contexts in science, including Biology and Chemistry, so it is relevant for students taking a wide range of pathways through this very flexible programme.

 

 

Maynooth Open Day Preview

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 25, 2020 by telescoper

No sooner has the examination period finished when we have to start thinking about admissions again. There is an Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 27th June. Covid-19 restrictions still being in place this is once again a virtual event that will take place between 10am and 2pm. I will be online for that period to answer queries about Theoretical and Mathematical Physics at Maynooth University. You can sign up for the event here.

In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here is a little video introduction I recorded for the Open Dday for our Double Major BSc programme in Theoretical Physics & Mathematics (codename: MH206)

 

 

Challenges Past and Future

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

Yesterday afternoon we held our Departmental Examination Board in Theoretical Physics (via Microsoft Teams*) which all went remarkably well in the circumstances.

The most challenging thing to happen yesterday afternoon was that a bloke came to cut back the bushes outside my office with a very large and noisy hedge trimmer. I thought I was going to have to contend with that all afternoon but it seems he had done most of it the day before and only came back yesterday to finish off. He left before the Exam Board started.

The next stage of our Exams process is for all the Departmental results to be collated for those students on joint programmes before the final University Board takes place about ten days from now. After that students will get their results.

That doesn’t quite finish examination matters for 2019/20 however because some students will need to take repeat examinations in August. These will be a week later than usual as a knock-on effect of the extra week we were given to mark and correct the May exams. We anticipate that at least some of the repeats will be the traditional `in person’ on campus style, but some may be online timed assessments like the ones we held in May. That depends a bit on how the Covid-19 pandemic pans out in Ireland over the next few weeks (and of course how many students actually take repeats, as social distancing generates a capacity issue for the examination halls).

At the moment we are optimistic because the number of new cases of Covid-19 is low and stable. That coulld change, of course, if the virus starts to spread again so we have to have contingency plans.

Even more uncertain is what will happen in September, although I have been very annoyed by some reports in the media that seem to have been actively trying to put students off coming to University next academic year on the grounds that there won’t be any lectures. We certainly plan to offer as much face-to-face teaching as possible and I think other third-level institutions in Ireland will do likewise. There will of course have to be a backup if there is another lockdown, which may mean switching back to remote teaching at relatively short notice, but at least we’ve done that once already so know much better now what works and what doesn’t. Nevertheless I would encourage all potential students not to believe everything they read in the media nor be deterred from attending university by rumours from sources who don’t know what they are talking about.

Earlier this week I was starting to think about how we might build the required flexibility into our teaching for next year and two main things struck me.

The first is that while we have more-or-less been forced into making various kinds of video material available to students, this is something that I feel we should have been doing already. I’ve long felt that the more types of teaching we incorporate and the wider range of learning materials we provide the better the chance that students find something that works for them. Even if we do have a full programme of lectures next year, it is my intention to continue to provide, e.g., recorded video explainers as well because they might augment the battery of resources available to the student.

Some time ago I had to make some policies about `reasonable adjustments’ for some disabled students learning physics. In the course of providing extra resources for this small group I suddenly thought that it would be far better, and far more inclusive, simply to make these resources available to everyone. Likewise, we’ve been forced to adjust to providing material remotely but we should be thinking about how to keep the best things about what we’ve done over the last few months and embedding them in the curriculum for the (hopefully Coronavirus-free) future and not regard them all as temporary special measures.

The other thing that struck me is in the same vein, but a little more speculative. Over the last many years I have noticed that students use printed textbooks less and less for learning. Part of that may be because we in a digital age and they prefer to use online resources. The switch to remote learning has however revealed that there are some students who are disadvantaged by not having a good internet connection. I just wonder whether this might lead to a resurgence in the use of textbooks. I’ll certainly be making a strong recommendation to the new first-year students in Theoretical Physics that they should get hold of the recommended text, which I have previously regarded as an optional extra.

*At one point I got muddled up between Teams and Zoom and called it Tombs. It was a grave error, but it can only be a matter of time before Microsoft Tombs actually arrives…

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.

Leaving Off

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 9, 2020 by telescoper

So yesterday the Government of Ireland announced that this year’s Leaving Certificate examinations will be cancelled. That decision seems to have surprised quite a few people but to me it looked inevitable once the Covid-19 Roadmap was published last Friday. If you recall these examinations would normally take place in June but this year had been initially been postponed to happen in late July and into August. Now they’re cancelled altogether.

Not many details are available about the scheme proposed to replace the examinations but it will be based on an assessment made by schoolteachers based on previous performance moderated in some way by the Department for Education & Skills, which has oversight of the process.

Most of the reaction I’ve seen on social media from students is that they’re delighted they won’t have to sit the examinations. Questions arise however about how fair the new system will be, especially given that it is being assembled at such short notice.

I note that the Government press release states that

Students will also retain the right to the sit the 2020 Leaving Certificate examinations at a date in the future when it is deemed safe for state examinations to be held.

The Leaving Certificate isn’t just about entry into Third Level Education but it does raise specific issues for that sector. One is how many students who would potentially enter Higher Education in September will defer until they can take the Leaving Certificate proper. If many do that then the implications for University finances in the short term are significant.

Another issue is that Universities have been planning on the basis that because of the delayed Leaving Certificate, newly enrolled students would not be arriving until November. Now it looks like they will come in September along with the returning students, so we now need a Plan B.

On the face of it, it seems good news that we will no longer have the staggered academic year required in Plan B to contend with. On the other hand, if institutions have to operate with strict social distancing measures in place when they reopen, as is likely, the increased number of students in September will make this even more difficult – especially since first-year classes are the usually larger ones. I can’t see any way of coping unless a significant part of our teaching is done remotely. Recorded lectures and virtual tutorials look set to be part of the “new normal” for some time.

The decision to cancel the Leaving Certificate raises other questions but I don’t want to get into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of that decision (in which it seems Ireland’s universities had very little influence) . All I will say – and I’m sure that I speak for all my colleagues at Maynooth University – is that we will do our utmost to operate the new admissions system in a way that is as fair as possible to potential students, and to deliver the best education we can with the resources available within whatever constraints we are under in September. Whatever we do won’t be perfect, but we’ll do our best.

Until then there is no need for students or staff to get even more stressed than we are already, so I hereby invoke the calming influence of Maynooth University Library Cat.

The Riddle of the Leaving Certificate

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 3, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve been studying the ‘Roadmap‘ outlining the gradual relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions that, all being well. will begin on May 18th. There are five phases of this process, each lasting three weeks. At any point the process can be stopped or reversed if the data suggest things are going wrong.

It’s quite consistent with how I imagined it might work when I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago:

As a physicist I see the change being rather like an adiabatic process, carried out in quasi-static fashion, in a series of reversible steps…

Some measure of social distancing will remain even after the completion of all five phases, and will probably stay in place until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available.

I first noted this in Phase 1:

Which suggests that some staff may be allowed onto campus. At my University (Maynooth), however, teaching will have finished by May 8th. By May 18th the exam period will have started but it is not obvious that the above can be interpreted as allowing staff into their offices to mark examinations and project assessments. Speaking for myself I would find that useful. I suppose we will find out fairly soon what it means.

On the whole the Roadmap seems to me quite reasonable. It is rather broadbrush in character, which is understandable, though that does mean many details need to be worked out. There is however one very surprising omission which leads to a serious contradiction and is causing considerable confusion.

According to the Roadmap, Irish schools will not reopen until Phase Five, which commences on August 10th, just in time for the start of the 2020/2021 academic year.

On the other hand it has already been announced that the School Leaving Certificate examinations (which start in June in a normal year) would commence on July 29th. Moreover the Education Minister has previously indicated that these examinations would only happen after two weeks of classroom teaching for students who have been having only remote teaching during the Lockdown.

If schools are not to reopen until August 10th then it is not possible for the Leaving Certificate to start on July 29th. Even if the classroom teaching bit is scrapped there won’t be anywhere for students to sit the examinations!

There’s no mention of the Leaving Certificate in the Roadmap which suggests that the Government hasn’t thought it through yet. It seems to me virtually certain that a u-turn is coming up and the Leaving Certificate is going to be cancelled after all. Students will probably welcome this outcome but I’m not sure what it would mean for this year’s University admissions!

On the other hand I am informed by a reliable source that the Government is adamant that the Leaving Certificate will go ahead on 29th July as planned. The question is how?