Archive for Maynooth University

Vaccination for Lectures?

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on August 20, 2021 by telescoper

The full guidelines on the return to on-campus teaching in September that I referred to on Monday have now been distributed to all staff, not without comment.

Basically the new advice is that in-person teaching will return in September (in fact a month from today in Maynooth) for all forms of class except lectures containing over 250 people, which will be online. Lecture halls and labs will be at full capacity, i.e. with no social distancing requirement. Students will be “asked” to wear face coverings, but we are told not to attempt to enforce this. Importantly, there will be no requirement for students to have been vaccinated in order to attend lectures.

In Ireland there is a vaccination passport system so that those who wish to dine indoors at a bar or restaurant have to show vaccination status. Perhaps someone can explain to me how it makes sense for this to be a requirement in a restaurant while it is not a requirement for a student having to sit for an hour in close proximity to up to 249 others with no social distancing and no mandatory face coverings.

This conundrum is taken to another level of absurdity when you consider that a student wishing to get lunch indoors on campus will presumably have to show their vaccine passport?

There is an article here that argues that a safe return in the presence of the delta-variant requires 90% of the student population to have been vaccinated.

A more acceptable plan would have students show their vaccination status when enrolling on the course. Those who are unvaccinated but willing to have a vaccination shot could be vaccinated there and then and be allowed to attend lectures when the vaccine takes effect. Or I should say “could have been” because the facilities required to do on-campus vaccinations have not been set up and now there probably isn’t time. Those that refuse to have a vaccine should attend lectures online on a permanent basis.

(How such a scheme would be policed is a difficult question: we don’t usually have people on the doors of lecture theatres checking student IDs or anything and there is a far greater rate of traffic at the start of a lecture than you would have at a restaurant…)

There will of course be some students who are at very high risk and should not be attending lectures anyway even if vaccinated. For them we should be providing lecture recordings. Unfortunately I don’t think we have good enough facilities to record live lectures from theatres as there has been inadequate investment in cameras etc. If we’re told we have to provide lecture recordings, for many of us that means doing the lectures twice. And so our workload increases.

On the other hand it seems increasingly likely to me that all this will be irrelevant. New case numbers are running at about 1800 per day, a level that the HSE admits to being “unsustainable”. When the first colleges return in September, a substantial surge can be expected and everything will be back online anyway.

It’s like déjà vu all over again…

New Term Ahead!

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on July 28, 2021 by telescoper

I know that there are quite a few people out there who think the summer is one long holiday for academic staff. Well, it may still be July but after my 10 days away that’s the holidays over as far as I’m concerned. Still, ten days’ summer holiday is ten days more holiday than I got last summer.

Next week the Repeat Examination period begins; it lasts from 4th August to 14th August. Once again these examinations are online and once again they have to be supervised by a member of academic staff. I have five paper scheduled and have to be at the screen for all of them. Then there’s the marking, checking, collation and uploading of the marks which must be done by 18th August. After that there’s an Examination Board before the final submission of all the repeat exams by August 23rd.

Incidentally, I was just checking over my Semester 1 repeat examinations and it seems like decades since I taught those modules last Autumn! The pandemic has played havoc with the perception of time!

After the Repeat Examinations are done, I have the unenviable task of preparing teaching for the next academic year. Although I’m stepping down as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics at the end of September I am still in that position until then so that task falls to me. Quite apart from the continuing uncertainty about what the Covid-19 situation will be like at the start of term (20th September), I have to deal with the fact that three out of our six full-time permanent lecturers are not available for next year. One is retiring this summer, one is departing for a position in Germany and another is on sabbatical.

The appointment of a temporary lecturer to provide sabbatical cover is normal, but the two other departures have not been replaced with permanent staff but by two one-year temporary lecturers. None of these new staff will be in post until 1st September but will have to teach a full complement of modules from 20th September onwards. Half our modules will therefore have to be reassigned, which means that the organization of teaching for the new academic year is not just the usual slight rearrangement of the previous year’s assignments but a major overhaul.

Losing two of our permanent staff to be replaced by temporary staff will of course have a negative impact on our research but that doesn’t seem to be important.

On top of al this the University is pressing ahead with a complete reorganization in the form of a merger of the Departments of Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics which it intends to force through by 1st October 2021…

While glad that we may at last be emerging from the pandemic I’m dreading the next two months, not only because of the huge amount that has to be done by the end of September, but also because I think that period is going to set the scene for the longer-term future. I know I’m not the only academic who fears the massively increased workload dumped on us during the pandemic is going to become, to use a hackneyed phrase, “the new normal”.

Leaving Late Again

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 3, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday we were told that, as was the case last year, this year’s Leaving Certificate results will be delayed until September (3rd, to be precise). The first round of CAO offers will be made a few days later, on September 7th. All this is about three weeks later than the usual (pre-Covid) cycle of examinations and results. Last year the announcement of a delay was made in mid-July, but now it’s been done in early June.

I’m actually a bit baffled as to why it is going to take so long this year, given that it’s not a new situation with respect to Covid-19 and there will be fewer examinations to mark than in previous years. Universities are able to turn around marks for thousands of students in just a couple of weeks so why the heck will it take so long to get the Leaving Certificate results out? There will be fewer exams to mark than in pre-Covid era too, as some subject marks will be based on coursework.

Here at Maynooth University the start of the academic year 2021/22 is due to take place on Monday 20th September, with Welcome Week starting on 13th September.   Getting everything ready in time for teaching will be a huge challenge because we will only find out very late in the day how many students we have to accommodate in first-year lectures. It is unlikely that timetable will be possible so we face the prospect of having to scrap the orientation events that usually take place in Welcome Week, delaying the start of term, shortening the teaching semester (again) or scrapping the mid-term Study Break.

We’re not able to make many plans in advance because we don’t have much idea in what form teaching will resume because that depends on public health guidelines. Last year, most lecture rooms 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. It’s an even worse situation for laboratory subjects.

The Minister responsible is saying he expects campuses to be more-or-less fully open in September but I’m not convinced that we’re out of the woods yet. Let’s hope that I’m wrong.

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. 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!

UPDATE: We have now been informed that returning students will start as planned on 20th September, while lectures for new students will start a week later, on 27th September, with the previous week being used for some orientation events.

Marking Blues

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 21, 2021 by telescoper

“May is a pious fraud of the almanac.” – James R. Lowell

The rainy weather we’ve been having for the last few days has at least deprived me of distractions from the job at hand: the marking of examinations and other assessments. Examinations started here in Maynooth last Friday (14th May) , a week ago today, and as I write this morning another one has just started. That’s the third in the past week. Yesterday I managed to finish all the assessments for one Module, just in time for today’s batch to arrive. It’s not only examination marking of course, I’ve also had computational physics projects to assess and feedback to write. Suffice to say that it’s a busy time of year.

When I was getting this morning’s examination online timed assessment ready it suddenly struck me that some of the students taking it belong the year group that entered the University in September 2018, and are the first students I will have seen all the way through the degree as they are taking their last set of exams now and will graduate this summer.

Of course when I say “will have seen” I’m not really being honest. I’ve hardly seen any of them since last March. Although I have spoken to them via Teams I haven’t even seen them virtually, as students virtually always have their video on mute during online teaching sessions.

Because of the Covid-19 restrictions, the students on three-year programmes have had most of their teaching online since last Spring, and by the time they finish the current set of examinations half their assessment will have been online.

You’ll have to ask students whether the lack of face-to face interactions has impacted their learning, but speaking for myself as a lecturer it has made life very difficult. Lecturing to a camera is not easy, and the absence of visual cues from the audience makes it difficult to know whether what you’re saying is sinking in. I guess we’ll find out when we look at the examination grades.

Thinking about the group of students who will form the graduating class for this year, though, the saddest thing is that they will shortly finish their exams and complete their degrees. We the staff won’t have the chance to congratulate them properly, nor will they the students be able to celebrate properly with each other (as they are scattered all over the country).

Although we’ve worked very hard to do what we can over the past year and a bit, I can’t rid my mind of the feeling that this group in particular has been let down very badly. I know the circumstances are beyond our control and all that, but they just haven’t had the educational experience they expected and deserve. At least – we hope – other groups can look forward to something like normality, possibly from next year, but for this group that’s it for their third level education. It’s really not fair.

I have said so before on this blog that I think any student who wishes to should be able to repeat the last year at university free of charge in recognition that they have been severely short-changed. It seems to me that would be the right thing to do, which is why I don’t think the Government will allow it.

Now, it’s still raining so I’ll try to get some more marking done while the exam goes on.

Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on May 19, 2021 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 one calendar year starting in September 2021. I know it is a short appointment, but it seems to me that it would provide a good opportunity for an early-career academic to gain some teaching experience while carrying on their research in a lively and collegiate Department.

The deadline for applications is 23.30 on Tuesday 8th June 2021 and you should apply through the Maynooth jobs portal here.

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

Oh, and please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested!

Remote Exam Time Again

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 14, 2021 by telescoper

It’s Friday 14th May 2021 which means that it’s the first day of the Summer examination period here in Maynooth, so let me begin by sending my best wishes to everyone taking examinations today and over the next few weeks, wherever you are. It’s a lovely morning in Maynooth. It seems to be a law of Nature that examinations always take place when the weather outside is nice.

For readers elsewhere in the world, full-time undergraduate students at Maynooth what is called 60 “credits” in a year, usually split into two semesters of thirty credits each. This is usually split into 5-credit modules with an examination in each module at the end of each semester. Projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical student will have at least 5 written examination papers in January and at least another 5 in May.  This is very similar to the system in most UK universities that I am aware of except that a full year’s work over there is 120 credits so there’s a conversion factor of 2:1. A 5-credit module in Ireland would be a 10-credit module in the United Kingdom, for example, but otherwise the system is similar.

Each examination is usually of two hours’ duration. We’ve kept that length after moving examinations online, although students are given extra time to scan and upload their answers. The question papers themselves have been slightly adapted online use by having much less “bookwork”. Generally these assessments are unsupervised and students are allowed to consult notes and textbooks so there is little point in asking them to copy out standard derivations and formulae. That means we can concentrate on the problem-solving aspects of theoretical physics, which are the most interesting bits (and perhaps the most challenging).

One big difference between our examinations in Theoretical Physics in Maynooth and those at other institutions I’ve taught at in the UK is that most of the papers here offer no choice of questions to be answered. Elsewhere  it is quite common to find a choice of two or three questions from four or five on the paper.

One  advantage of our system is that it makes it much harder for students to question-spot in the hope that they can get a good grade by only revising a fraction of the syllabus. If they’re well designed, two long questions can cover quite a lot of the syllabus for a module, which they have to in order to test all the learning outcomes. To accomplish this, questions can be split into parts that may be linked to each other to a greater or lesser extent to explore the connections between different ideas, but also sufficiently separate that a student who can’t do one part can still have a go at others. With such a paper, however, it is a  dangerous strategy for a student to focus only on selected parts of the material in order to pass.

As an examiner, the Maynooth style of examination also has the advantage that you don’t have to worry too much if one question turns out to be harder than the others. That can matter if different students attempt different questions, but not if everyone has to do everything.

But it’s not just the number of questions that’s important, it’s the duration. I’ve never felt that it was even remotely sensible for undergraduate physics examinations to be a speed test, which was often the case when I was a student. Why the need for time pressure? It’s better to be correct than to be fast, I think. I always try to set examination questions that could be done inside two hours by a student who knew the material, including plenty of time for checking so that even a student who made a mistake would have time to correct it and get the right answer. If a student does poorly in this style of examination it will be because they haven’t prepared well enough rather than because they weren’t fast enough.

My first examination is this afternoon. The subject is (3rd Year) Computational Physics. This is an unusual module as a majority of the marks (60%) come from continuous assessment in the form of four class tests (20% altogether) and a mini-project (40%). The exam is a theory paper concerned with such topics as accuracy and stability. There are two questions on the paper, both of them compulsory. Next week there is my (4th year) Advanced Electromagnetism paper with four questions, again all compulsory. Obviously I’ll have to wait to see how the students do.

In the meantime here are some tips for students

  1. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the examination!
  2. Be ready well before the start and try to ensure you won’t be disturbed for the duration.
  3. If you’re doing an unsupervised examination, download the paper and any supplementary material needed  at the start to avoid problems if you get disconnected.
  4. Read the entire paper before starting to answer any questions. In particular, make sure you are aware of any supplementary information, formulae, etc, given in the rubric or at the end.
  5. Start off by tackling the question you are most confident about answering, even if it’s not Question 1. This will help settle any nerves.
  6. Don’t rush! Students often lose marks by making careless errors. Check all your numerical results on your calculator at least twice and remember to put the units!
  7. Show your working! Especially in an unsupervised examination you need to convince the examiner that you actually did the problem rather than looking up the answer on the net somewhere.
  8. Don’t panic! You’re not expected to answer everything perfectly. A first-class mark is anything over 70%, so don’t worry if there are bits you can’t do. If you get stuck on a part of a question, don’t waste too much time on it (especially if it’s just a few marks). Just leave it and move on. You can always come back to it later.
  9. Try to finish the paper at the assigned time, i.e. use the upload time for uploading rather than doing more work. There is always the chance that you might run out of time for upload if you’re rushing right at the end.
  10. If you’re scanning and uploading answers, check that you have submitted everything you intended to. I have had several examples of missing pages over the last year…

Anyway, once again, good luck and best wishes!

Theorists and Experimentalists in Physics

Posted in Education, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 22, 2021 by telescoper

Regular readers of his blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers) will know that here at Maynooth University there are two Physics departments, one the Department of Theoretical Physics (of which I am a Faculty member) and the other the Department of Experimental Physics. These two units are in the same building but have so far have been largely separate in terms of teaching and research; Experimental Physics (EP) is somewhat larger in terms of staff and student numbers than Theoretical Physics (TP).

For instance, when students enter on our General Science degree programme they have to choose four subjects in the first year, including Mathematics (much as I did when I did my Natural Sciences degree at Cambridge back in the day). Picking `double physics’ (i.e. Experimental Physics and Theoretical Physics) uses up two of those choices, whereas Physics was a single choice in the first year of my degree. In the second year of this programme students do three subjects so can continue with both Theoretical and Experimental Physics (and another) , as they can in Year 3 where they do two subjects, and in Year 4 where they can do a single Major in either TP or EP or a double Major doing a bit of both.

To confuse matters still further, the Department of Theoretical Physics only changed its name from the Department of Mathematical Physics relatively recently and some of our documentation still carries that title. Quite often I get asked what’s the difference between Theoretical Physics and Mathematical Physics? As far as Maynooth is concerned we basically use those terms interchangeably and, although it might appear a little confusing at first, having both terms scattered around our webpages means that Google searches for both `Mathematical Physics’ and `Theoretical Physics’ will find us.

The Wikipedia page for Theoretical Physics begins

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.

This is what Wikipedia says about Experimental Physics:

Experimental physics is the category of disciplines and sub-disciplines in the field of physics that are concerned with the observation of physical phenomena and experiments. Methods vary from discipline to discipline, from simple experiments and observations, such as the Cavendish experiment, to more complicated ones, such as the Large Hadron Collider.

I count myself as a theoretical physicist (that’s what I did in Part II at Cambridge, anyway) though I do work a lot with data and many of the researchers in my discipline (cosmology) actually work at the interface between theory and experiment, so the distinction between theorists and experimentalists is perhaps not a very useful one.

As a matter of fact I think there’s a good case for theoretical physicists to have at least some experience of practical experimental work. There are two reasons for this:

  1. to understand about errors in measurement and how to treat them properly using statistical methods;
  2. to learn how easy it is to break expensive laboratory equipment.

In the past during Open Days I have asked the audience of prospective physics students if they could name a famous physicist. Most popular among the responses were the names you would have guessed: Einstein, Hawking, Feynman, Dirac, Newton, Schrodinger, and some perhaps less familiar names such as Leonard Susskind and Brian Greene. Every single one of these is (or was) a theorist of some kind. This is confirmed by the fact that many potential students mention similar names in the personal statements they write in support of their university applications. For better or worse, it seems that to some potential students at least Physics largely means Theoretical (or Mathematical) Physics.

Although it is probably good for our recruitment that there are so many high-profile theoretical physicists, it probably says more about how little the general public knows about what physics actually is and how it really works. No doubt there are many prospective students who are primarily drawn to laboratory work just as there are many drawn to theoretical calculations. But there are probably others whose interests encompass both. For me the important thing is the interplay between theory and experiment (or observation), as it is in that aspect where the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.

Anyway, this year we’ve been thinking very hard about bringing about closer cooperation between the two Physics Departments at Maynooth. It remains to be seen precisely what form that closer cooperation will take but I think it’s a good idea in principle. In fact in the Open Day at Maynooth coming up on Saturday 24th April there will, for the first time ever, be a joint talk by the Departments of Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes!

A Year of Closure

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Mental Health with tags , on March 12, 2021 by telescoper

Today is 12th March 2021, which means it is exactly one year since Maynooth University campus closed because of Covid-19. Last year 12th March was on a Thursday and I remember doing my Computational Physics lecture in the morning and a computer lab in the afternoon and then hearing we couldn’t go back to teaching the following day. After that, as it is this year, it was the Study Week break (which includes the St Patrick’s Day holiday). Last year we all trued to use the opportunity to move all our teaching online.

I certainly didn’t imagine that a full year later we would still be working from home. Although the current lockdown isn’t as strict as that of last Spring we’re still told not to come on campus unless it is strictly necessary, and all teaching remains online.

When the campus closed last year I was living in a small flat with no internet connection, so the only way I could do my teaching was using my mobile phone data. It wasn’t great but I did the best I could.

At least I was able to use the semi-unlocking of the lockdown in late summer to complete the purchase of a house. I’ve been much more comfortable doing teaching from here for the last six months or so, although not leaving the house except to do shopping has led to an extreme sense of isolation which is not all ameliorated by endless online meetings via Zoom and Teams. That, together with the heavy workload, is all very wearying. It further annoys me how many people think “working from home” means not “working very much” or not “working at all”. What it does mean is never getting away from your work, except when you’re asleep.

I’ve noticed over the last few months that the agoraphobia from which I’ve suffered sporadically over the years has very definitely returned. Agoraphobia can be defined as:

…an anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms of anxiety in situations where the person perceives their environment to be unsafe with no easy way to escape. These situations can include open spaces, public transit, shopping centers, or simply being outside their home.

My long-term agoraphobia has been about the threat of physical violence caused by a traumatic event in the past, but now it is more general. I see too many people not taking proper precautions (face masks, social distancing, etc) that it gets me very anxious for a new reason. Supermarkets are bad enough, but it’s more general. I’m now starting to realize that I’m going to find it difficult ever to return to a “normal” life of crowded lecture theatres and campus buildings after this pandemic ends, whenever that happens.

This morning I did a tutorial (via Teams) which was my last teaching session before the mid-term break. I was exhausted even before term started so it has been a very difficult six weeks. It’s not just the teaching, it’s also the relentless stream of demands from upstairs for other things to be done. There seems very little understanding from that direction of what life is like on the front line, to be honest.

My appointment as Head of Department for Theoretical Physics was nominally three years. I am now about halfway through that term and can’t wait for it to end.

Unfortunately there isn’t much light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. Case numbers in Ireland remain high, and are falling slowly at best; they have actually been increasing for the last few days. Vaccination rollout is also very slow, thanks to supply issues (chiefly with AstraZeneca).

I am now fairly confident that teaching at least for the Autumn Semester of 2021/22 will again be online, as there is little chance of staff being vaccinated by the end of the summer. I know colleagues in other Irish universities who are planning for this eventuality too.

Reminder: What is Quantum Technology? – A Public Lecture by Prof. Sir Peter Knight

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 10, 2021 by telescoper

I thought I’d post a quick reminder that tomorrow, Thursday March 11th (at 7pm), the Maynooth University Faculty of Science and Engineering will present its first ever Dean’s Lecture.of the Faculty of Science and Engineering. This is a public event, consisting of a talk followed by a Q&A session. I’m told that over 350 people have signed up for this talk but there’s still room for a few more.

The topic of the talk is quantum technology and it is presented by Prof. Sir Peter Knight who is Senior Research Investigator at Imperial College London. He retired in 2010 as Deputy Rector (Research) at Imperial. He was knighted in 2005 for his work in optical physics. Knight was the 2004 President of the Optical Society of America and 2011-2013 President of the Institute of Physics. He is Editor of Contemporary Physics, Chair of the UK National Quantum Technology Programme Strategy Advisory Board, chairs the Quantum Metrology Institute at the National Physical Laboratory, was until 2010 chair of the UK Defence Scientific Advisory Council and remains a UK Government science advisor. His research centres on quantum optics and quantum technology. He has won the Thomas Young Medal and the Glazebrook Medal of the Institute of Physics, the Ives Medal and the Walther Medal and Prize of the OSA, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and the Faraday Prize of the IET.

Here is a description of the talk:

We already live in a quantum-enabled world with devices powered by quantum mechanics affecting our everyday world (lasers, telecoms semiconductor chips, and much more). But we are now poised to exploit a hitherto largely unexplored technology capability enabled by some of the stranger aspects of quantum physics: quantum coherence and entanglement. These new capabilities include novel sensing, timing, imaging, and of course computing. I will describe these new quantum coherence capabilities and plans to develop the next generation of quantum technologies. Quantum Information Science is advancing our understanding of the physical world in remarkable ways. But it is also driving novel and disruptive technologies. I will describe plans for ensuring the advanced quantum science and demonstrator platforms in imaging, sensing, communications, and computing developed over the past five years or so will drive the formation of the quantum technology sector and embed quantum technology in a broad range of industries.

The event is free but you will need to register here.

P.S. I will have a small part in this event – welcoming people to it and generally directing traffic.

Reminder: Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on March 7, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve got a very busy week in front of me as we head towards the St Patrick’s Week Study Break so I thought I’d take the time to remind you all while I remember that we have a fixed-term job available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, the deadline for which is a week from today. You can find the details here.

The position is for 10 months, starting in September 2021, and is to provide teaching cover for Professor Jiri Vala who will be on sabbatical next year. He originally intended to take his sabbatical this academic year, starting in September 2020, hence the previous advertisement of this post, but it was postponed for reasons of Covid-19 and the previous position was not filled.

I know it is a relatively 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 March 14th, 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!