I spent a bit of time yesterday poring over the CAO offers supplement in the Weekend edition of the Irish Times. The extensive listings, of which the above picture shows just part, show the minimum number of points needed for first round offers at Ireland’s third-level institutions. Students who have met the requirements for a course they applied to have until 16th September to decide whether to accept. There is then another round of offers starting a week later on 23rd September and closing on 25th September.

Much has been made of the increase in points needed for many courses since last year. That is indeed borne out by the table, though many of the increases are relatively small.

The denominated programme in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics at Maynooth University, for example, is up 22 points on 510 from last year’s 488 but that’s not an exceptionally high figure in historical terms.

On the other hand, offers for both Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Trinity College are both down on last year (to 531 from 566 and from 565 to 543, respectively).

There are other courses here and there that have gone down too. I suspect part of the reason for this is that some courses have been allocated extra places and have had to drop their points to recruit the additional students.

Finally I noticed that the first-round points for Equine Business at Maynooth University are unchanged on last year at 357. That may not be the final offer, though. There is probably quite a lot of horse-trading in store…

This morning I came across a very interesting blogpost by Philip Moriarty which is mainly about teaching quantum mechanics but also includes some discussion of his ideas of how he plans to conduct teaching for the forthcoming semester at the University of Nottingham.

We are in a rather different situation here at Maynooth University with Covid-19 different rules, different numbers of students and different levels of resource in terms of teaching software and equipment, but I think the primary constraints are similar.

Here is is graphic Philip uses to outline the major elements of teaching he plans to adopt (copied without permission):

I think the University of Nottingham has, in common with many other UK universities, moved all its large lecture classes online. Here in Maynooth we’re restricted by physical distancing to have an absolutely maximum of 50 people in any lecture theatre at one time, so effectively the big classes will be online too. However, many of our smaller classes and tutorials will be on campus `face-to-face’ sessions. Since Theoretical Physics is a relatively small Department many of our modules will run pretty much as normal.

This are a bit different for the first year Mathematical Physics module which I teach (MP110) where the class last year was about 90 students. This class will have to be split, but I am still planning to deliver face-to-face lectures for all students in some form. There are three lectures a week in this class and I’ll probably have to have about one third of the students in each session: the other sessions will be streamed and recorded – assuming our newly-installed Panopto system works (!) – and made available to students not at the class. In addition students will get a tutorial per week, also in person.

I have thought a lot about this over the last few months and I’ve decided that the main `lectures’ (which will be with fewer than 30 students) will not be lectures but more like `workshops’ where I illustrate the main results that I would have given in a “normal” lecture using examples as well as getting students to work on problems in class.

Like Philip I plan to record videos of the “primary content” offline, probably in my office, so the students can view them at their leisure. I decided to record these primarily because I think the production quality of such lectures would be better. I’ve used Panopto before and it’s OK, but it has its limitations. I don’t have access to all the equipment Philip talks about, but at least in my office I can re-take and edit the video whenever I mess up (which will be quite frequently, I’m sure). These won’t be 50-minute lectures as I find that not having the interaction with the audience, going back over things when it’s clear they haven’t understood, giving them problems to try in class, etc, the time taken to cover the material in a video is far shorter.

Making these `asynchronous’ is, I think, extremely important. Timetabling teaching sessions looks likely to be extremely complicated for the forthcoming semester so I think it’s far better to make the content available for students to study wherever and whenever they want.

So my plan is that students will get each week:

A set of pre-recorded videos covering the material for that week

One interactive workshop on campus

Access to recordings of two other workshops

A full set of lecture notes

Coursework examples (assessed)

One tutorial on campus

A virtual office hour with the lecturer (me) for Q&A

It’s not the same “as normal” but I think it provides the best blend of learning approaches possible under the constraints we will have to operate. Note also that some students may be “at very high risk” for health reasons and consequently unable to come onto campus. The approach I have outlined here means that such students will miss as little as possible.

Unlike Philip, I don’t hate Moodle, so this will be where all the course materials will be made available. It will also be the principal channel of communication with the class.

Like Philip, though, I am in favour of putting all the primary content on Youtube so that anyone who wants to access it can do so. I have suggested this before and it received mixed reactions, but for me it’s more a point of principle. As my teaching is funded by the public purse, it seems reasonable to me that what I produce should all be in the public domain wherever possible. That obviously excludes some teaching activities (e.g. labs and tutorials) but I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it with lectures or other video content. I won’t make the workshop videos public, because they may accidentally identify students who do not wish to appear on a video.

I know many of my colleagues disagree with this, so here’s the unscientific poll I’ve been running to see what people think. Not that the voting will change my mind….

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…

Today the University wrote to all students outlining the general approach we are taking at Maynooth, but the details vary enormously from subject to subject. That is because the capacity of lecture theatres and laboratories and seminar rooms is reduced considerably to maintain the proper distancing between students. Classes will inevitably be smaller but we haven’t got any more rooms, so the number of face-to-face sessions will have to decrease. This affects every subject but hits very large courses much harder than smaller ones.

I will be in at the deep end on September 28th as I am teaching our first-year Mathematical Physics module, MP110. That is in Physical Hall, which has a normal capacity of 90 reduced to 27 by physical distancing requirements. Last year I had about 85 students in the class so it was full every time. This term I can fit only about one-third of that number in any session. There are three lectures per week in that module which means that if I have up to 81 students then each will be able to attend one lecture. Those unable to attend a lecture will be able to view recordings. Over the summer the University has been installing Panopto, a lecture-capture system we used to have when I was in Cardiff, so recordings of each session can be made. I also intend to record offline supplementary material for the class.

In addition to lectures each student on MP110 previously had a weekly tutorial. For the tutorials the students were split into 4 groups, but this year the reduced room capacities will probably require us to have more, smaller groups or to move to bi-weekly tutorials.

All of this is very sensitive to numbers, and we won’t know those until very close to the start of term. If we get more students than last year we will to revise the plans. The start of term is likely require quite a lot of last-minute adjustment.

For returning students on more specialist modules the classes are smaller and the impact less severe. I will also be teaching a second-year module MP201 Vector Calculus and Fourier Series next term. Not everyone who does Mathematical Physics in Year 1 continues with it to the second year so we expect roughly 50 on MP201. With that number we may be able to run lectures as normal (which means two a week) but may have to switch to bi-weekly tutorials. We expect third and fourth year classes to run quite close to normal. At least we will know the numbers of returning students fairly soon and can lock those plans in, leaving the 1st year to be dealt with last.

On top of all this we do have to have contingency plans in case the local or national Covid-19 situation deteriorates so far that we have to close the campus again. We will be in a better position to deal with that than we were back in March, as we have learned a lot very quickly and now have better equipment.

This afternoon the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan, sent a message to all students that included the following:

Most of the large modules will use streaming of lectures so that you will receive some of the lectures on-line, and will be invited to attend less frequently than usual. Tutorials and practicals will also have reduced capacity, and in some cases the frequency will be reduced. The content of each module will remain largely unchanged, so you will be introduced to the same ideas, concepts and challenges. What will change is the format of delivery, and you will learn through a combination of live classes and on-screen material. We will publish more information, and details of the contact time in sample modules on the COVID page of the university website.

This reduced time on campus will mean that you will need to take more responsibility for your own learning, and ensure that you keep up with both the on-campus and on-line teaching.

Some of you are wondering if you need to attend at all, and whether you could complete your studies remotely. We are not a distance teaching university, and most of our courses are designed for on-campus delivery. So there will be times when you need to be on campus, and you will need to make sure that you can get to the campus when you need to.

I’ve seen some of the draft plans for other departments and it seems that the Department of Theoretical Physics is probably going to be one of the departments whose students will spend the most time on campus, with about 50% of the normal contact time. That’s primarily because we are small(ish) so can be a little more flexible. I also think that mathematical physics is a subject that needs students to take responsibility for their own learning anyway because much of it is problem-based. You can do physics problems at home or on the bus just as well as sitting in a room on campus.

I know some students are questioning the need to come on campus at all if they have so few contact hours and material is made available via recordings anyway. I can only speak for my own Department when I say that we think there is a huge value attached to in-person teaching, which is why we are trying so hard to maximize the on-campus experience for our students. It won’t quite be business as usual but will be the very best we can do under the constraints we have imposed on us. We’re doing the best we can but we do need students to play their part too!

I won’t deny that I was caught on the hop by Friday’s sudden announcement of a partial lockdown in an area that includes Maynooth but at least we’ve had a couple of working days to activate Plan B and get all the online assessments ready to replace the repeat examinations that were due to start on campus tomorrow.

Happily all the necessary supports were provided quickly over the weekend and I think we’re now ready to go, with the first paper(s) starting tomorrow morning at 9.30am. There will be several of these per day for the next week or so so it’s going to be a busy period supervising them (remotely) and then marking the scripts when they’re finished. At least we have now got some experience of these tests, having done these before (in May). There are also fewer candidates for the repeats than first time round so it should all be manageable.

When the repeat exams are all marked and the Exam Board finished, we should have a firm idea how many students are progressing to the next academic year so we can draw up plans for lectures and tutorials in September.

Apart that is for the first year, where we won’t know the numbers until September. That will cause a bit of a rush but I’m sure we’ll manage.

All of this assumes that we are doing on-campus teaching in September, which would require the local lockdown to have been lifted. If not we’ll have to do everything online, including tutorials. A ray of hope is that the number of new cases is just 35 today, down from 174 on Saturday, but we’ll have to have nany more days like that to feel secure. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The time of Covid-19 was already an “interesting” time to be an academic in Ireland but yesterday it got more interesting still, as news emerged that this year’s (estimated) Leaving Certificate results will not be published until 7th September, which is three weeks later than usual. The first round of CAO offers will be made on 11th September. All this is about three weeks later than the usual cycle of examinations and results.

Here at Maynooth University the start of the academic year has been delayed by one week to September 28th, so the three week delay in Leaving Cert means we have to speed the processes up of getting everything in place for new students to start by two weeks. That is going to be a challenge, and even if we manage it we will only find out very late in the day how many students we have to accommodate in first-year lectures.

The current plan for teaching next semester at Maynooth University is that all modules will be allocated the same timetable slots and rooms as last year. However, most lecture rooms have had their capacity reduced by more than half. Lecturers need to know how many students they have in order to decide how to use the available lecture slots and how to strike a balance between live and online delivery.

To give an example, I had about 90 students in my first-year module last year for which I had three lectures per week in Physics Hall, which has a normal capacity of 90. Next year the capacity of this room is likely to be around 30 with social distancing so. if I have the same numbers as last year, I will have to split the class into three groups and have one weekly session with each group. The material not covered live will be put online. I’m planning on that basis now, but if I find we have more students in Year 1 than last year I’ll have to have a Plan B. I won’t know that until just before teaching starts.

And then there is the possibility that teaching will actually start later for first-year students, requiring the lecture content to be revised. That’s not the current plan at Maynooth University, but a lot can happen between now and September…

We do indeed live in interesting times.

Of course I’m not the only one to be facing such challenges. Mine is a relatively small class by first-year standards and other bigger courses will experience far more serious difficulties.

If any prospective student is getting worried reading this, I can promise you that we will be doing the best we can to provide the best education we can in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in this September. Please bear in mind that workloads on academic staff (including Heads of Department!) are going to be very heavy after a summer in which very few will have been able to take any holidays at all. So please bear with us. We didn’t want any of this any more than you did, but we just have to make the best of it.

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…

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!

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:

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.

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