Archive for STEM

Age, Memory and Learning

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s a big day for prospective students at Irish universities. It’s the day when the Central Applications Office (CAO, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS) makes offers of places to students based the Leaving Certificate results that were announced last week. Thus begins the process by which universities find out how many students we will have for entry next month. Lectures here at Maynooth start on 24th September, with an induction week before that, so there promises to be quite a rush to get everything sorted out.

The first thing that struck me thinking ahead to this year’s new entry of students was that the majority of students starting this autumn either here in Ireland or in the UK were born in the year 2000. That means that I’ve been a Professor (at four different universities: Nottingham, Cardiff, Sussex and Maynooth) all the time they have been alive! Yikes I feel old!

The other thing that struck me among all the press coverage of the Leaving Certificate in Ireland is the significant amount of griping about how these examinations are basically just memory tests and the system encourages rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, as a number of people have pointed out in opinion pieces (e.g. here) and letters (here and here), a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right.

I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, however, they are not sufficient. You other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in such a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!


Problems with two-year degrees

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2017 by telescoper

I see that the Minister responsible for UK universities, Jo Johnson, has decided that universities should offer two-year degrees, claiming that this will somehow attract more students into higher education.

The idea seems to be that students will get the same `amount’ of teaching, but concentrated in two full calendar years rather than spread over three academic years. This fast-track degree will be offered at a lower level of fee than a normal three-year Bachelors programme.

I can just about accept that this will work in some disciplines and at some universities. The (private) University of Buckingham, for example, already offers such programmes. On the other hand, the University of Buckingham did not participate in the latest Research Excellence Framework, no doubt for the reason that teaching all-year round leaves its academic staff no time to do research or even attend conferences, which (I find) these days is only possible during the summer recess.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think an institution that does not combine teaching and research – and indeed one in which the teaching is not led by research – does not merit the name of `University’. The old polytechnics offered a range of valuable opportunities that complemented the traditional honours degree, but that capacity was basically eliminated in 1992 when all such institutions became universities.

Though my main objection to two-year degrees is their impact on research, there are problems from the teaching side too. One is that keeping up the intensity of full-time study throughout a whole year will, in my opinion, exacerbate the difficulty many students have managing their workload without stress or other mental health difficulties. Moreover, many students currently use the long summer vacation either to work, either to earn money to help offset the cost of study, or to participate in placements, internships or other activities to help make them more employable after graduation.

It would be particularly difficult to manage two-year degrees in STEM disciplines, as the teaching laboratories need maintenance and installation of new equipment, for which the proposed system allows no time. And how would project work fit into the fast-track system? On top of all that there’s the fact that the current fee level does not cover the cost of teaching in STEM disciplines, so having to do it faster and for less money is not going to be possible. Incidentally, many STEM students currently pursue undergraduate programmes that last four years, not three…

These points have no doubt been made before, but there is another point that is less widely understood. The fact is that a two-year Bachelors degree may not be a recognised qualification outside the UK. This is, in fact, already a problem with the four-year undergraduate programmes we call, e.g., MPhys, and regard as Masters level in this country: these are not regarded as Masters qualifications in many European countries. Perhaps this is part of some cunning plan to stop graduates leaving the UK after Brexit?

In the light of these difficulties it is no surprise to me that not a single undergraduate I’ve spoken to thinks that a two-year degree is a sensible option. If the government wants to make studying cheaper, said one Physics student I was chatting to, why don’t they just cut the fees for normal degree programmes?

The impression one gets from all this `thinking’ is that the Government increasingly regards universities as businesses that trade in a commodity called `education’, where the word ‘education’ is narrowly construed as `training’ in the skills needed for future employment. I believe a University education is (or should be) far more about developing critical thinking, problem-solving ability, intellectual curiosity than it is about teaching them, e.g., programming skills. Skills are important, of course, but we also need to educate students in what to use them for.

Budget: 1000 New PhD STEM Studentships

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on March 9, 2017 by telescoper

I was out of the office all day yesterday at a very interesting meeting at the Institute of Physics, so I wasn’t able to listen to the 2017 Budget speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. On the way home by train, however, I caught up with some of the content and reaction via Twitter and various news outlets.

One thing of particular relevance to those of us who work in STEM subjects was the following announcement (from the BBC website):

  • £300m to support 1,000 new PhD places and fellowships in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects

There’s a bit more detail about this here:

He also confirmed that the Industrial Strategy Fund will be managed by Innovate UK in its first year of existence, and will be administered by UK Research and Innovation from 2018-19.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is part of the National Productivity Investment Fund. As trailed earlier in the week, a further £90m from the NPIF will be spent on an additional 1,000 PhD places in areas aligned with the government’s industrial strategy. Around 85 per cent of these places will be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, and 40 per cent will focus on strengthening industry-academia collaboration.

Also under the NPIF, a total of £160m will be spent on new fellowships for early and mid-career researchers in areas aligned with the industrial strategy.

The NPIF will also include spending of £50m over the next four years on fellowship programmes to attract researchers from overseas.

So these studentships will be funded from the “extra money” for science and research announced in the Autumn Statement last year and it looks like they will be focussed on industrial applications rather than “pure” science.

The number 1000 seems a lot, but it has to be seen in perspective. Each year the Science and Technology Facilities Council funds about 100 PhD studentships in Astronomy, and a similar number in Particle Physics. Far more Physics PhDs are funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which looks after the rest of physics as well as engineering and the rest of the physical sciences. Then there are the life sciences, medical research and all the other disciplines which are larger still. In 2014 the total number of students starting a PhD in STEM disciplines in England alone was about 6600. Not all these were funded by the UK research councils, of course, but that gives you some idea of the scale. The extra places this year are a significant boost, but don’t represent a huge increase across the board. They may have a real impact in specific areas, of course, depending on where they are targetted. Note also that the recent large growth in PhD places in the UK has largely been driven by access to EU funding programmes, which we are determined to throw away.

I don’t know how these studentships will be allocated, though I suspect they will be administered through the existing Research Council channels. However, if they are to be filled from October 2017 this will have to be decided quickly, as this year’s recruitment cycle is well under way.

On the other hand, rumours of extra money for PhD students in STEM subjects have been circulating for some time so I think this has been known about behind the scenes long enough to make preparations. I suspect it has all been under wraps until yesterday for political reasons, i.e. to allow the Chancellor to include it in his speech. I imagine things will now move pretty quickly and we’ll know quite soon where the studentships will be allocated.

It’s also worth noting that the money for studentships will be spread over 4 years, which means that this increase is effectively just for one cohort of students (a PhD typically taking 3-4 years to complete). We don’t know whether this level will be maintained in future to compensate for loss of EU funds.

Extra investment in STEM subjects is to be welcomed, but I do wonder about the wisdom of increasing PhD student numbers still further. As I have stated before, I think we already produce far too many PhDs. I think this money might be better spent increasing the number of Masters graduates or improving funding for STEM undergraduate programmes.


Wakeham Review of STEM Degree Provision Graduate Employability and

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , on May 20, 2016 by telescoper

About to embark on a weekend of examination marking, a desperate search for displacement activities reminded me of this important report by Sir William Wakeham (who happens to be the Chair of SEPNet, the South-East Physics Network, of which the University of Sussex is a member, so I get to call him Bill).

Apparently Bill’s report has been ready for some time but has been stuck on a shelf in Whitehall somewhere waiting to be released. Arcane rules about publishing government reports in the run-up to elections meant that it had to wait until after May 5th for publication.

Anyway, it was published this week (May 16th to be precise) and I encourage you all to read it. You can find the report and various annexes here. It has clearly been a complex task to make sense of some of the datasets used because they are incomplete and/or confusing, so inevitably some important questions remain unanswered. There are nevertheless clearly worrying signs for certain disciplines, as described in the Executive Summary:

Based on the accumulated evidence we have arrived at a list of degree disciplines where the graduate employment outcomes are sufficiently concerning for us to recommend additional targeted work. The STEM disciplines that the review has identified as being of particular concern are:
•Biological Sciences
•Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences
•Agriculture, Animal Sciences and Food Sciences

I’m a little surprised that Biological Sciences appears in that list, because that is usually perceived as a burgeoning area, but it’s clear that some graduates in that area do find it more difficult to find employment than in other STEM areas. However, if you read the report in more detail you will see that there are many sub-disciplines involved in Biological Sciences and the picture isn’t the same for all of them. It does seem, however, that in some of the Biological Sciences, graduates do not have sufficient training in quantitative methods to suit the demands of potential employers.

There you go. Give it a read. Any comments?

Out in STEM at the Royal Society

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , on February 10, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I attended a very enjoyable meeting at the Royal Society in London called Out in STEM. In the 356 years that the Royal Society has been in existence this is the first event that has been devoted to a discussion of LGBT+ matters, so I feel honoured not only to have been present but to have been one of the panellists invited to start off the evening by talking about the question:

“Choosing to be out in the workplace or when studying – what influences that choice?”

In my five-minute answer to this I talked about my own personal decision to be open about my sexuality when I started as a research student at the University of Sussex way back in 1985. In fact, three of the nine panellists as well as a number of other participants did their doctorates at the University of Sussex, an institution has clearly been a kind of incubator of LGBT scientists and engineers! My decision was heavily influenced by the events of the time, chiefly the ongoing AIDS crisis and the infamous Section 28. I felt at the time that it was necessary to stand up and be counted in the face of so much prejudice, a decision which I have never regretted.

Having never really been “in” for my whole research career, coming out wasn’t really an issue for me and I have been openly at every insitution I have worked in – Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff. Although I have encounted some isolated examples of unpleasantness, I can’t say that my career has suffered any adverse consequences.

Getting back to the question, I think what influences the choice is a combination of personal factors and the environment of the institution in question. For early career researchers, the choice – and it should always be a choice – can be affected by the perception that one’s career depends on the patronage of persons higher up the hierarchy, be that PhD supervisor, research group leader or departmental head. The less hierarchical the department is, the less likely one is to feel suffocated by the need to conform. It also helps if senior managers make it clear that any bullying or harassment associated with sexual identity or other personal characteristics will not be tolerated. I have tried hard to create such an environment in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, of which I am now the Head. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether or not I have succeeded.

In fact none of the nine panellists described any major adverse consequences of the decision to come out either, but stressed how positive it can be to feel liberated by being open about who you are.

After the nine short answers to the above question, we split up into small groups and discussed other questions. I enjoyed this part very much because the discussion was relaxed and wide-ranging. One theme that ran through many of the responses when groups were asked to feed back a summary of their deliberations was what a big difference it can make to have an LGBT staff network. I am proud to have played a role in the creation of such a network at the University of Sussex, although I am still saddened that it has taken so long for this institution to create one. I am also glad to say that the Institute of Physics is setting up an LGBT network of its own, with a particular emphasis on early career researchers, for whom the sense of isolation that is often involved in working on short-term contracts in highly competitive field can be exacerbated by the perceived need to conceal important aspect of their private life.

Once the discussion session was over we adjourned for wine and canapés, and informal chats. That was extremely pleasant, although I did perhaps have a bit too much wine before I dashed off to catch the train back to Brighton.

It was particularly nice to meet in person some of the people I’d previously known only through social media. I also met an old friend from my previous incarnation at Sussex, Tom Welton, who is now Dean for Natural Sciences at Imperial College. I haven’t seen Tom for over 20 years, actually. I hope we’ll be able to meet up again before too long.

Anyway, I’d like to thank the Royal Society for putting on this event, and especially to Lena Cumberbatch who did a lot of the organizing as well as trying to keep the panellists to time. I enjoyed it greatly and look forward to working with them again. I hope it’s not another 356 years until the next Out in STEM event!




Jazz, STEM and the Creative Process

Posted in Art, Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 23, 2016 by telescoper

The Times Higher has given me yet  another reason to be disgruntled this week, in the form of an article that talks about the possible effect of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) on “creative” subjects. What bothers me about this piece is not that it criticises the TEF – I think that’s an unworkable idea that will cause untold damage to the University system if, as seems likely, it is railroaded through for political reasons – but that the author (Nigel Carrington, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Arts London), like so many others, lazily implies that STEM disciplines are not creative. I think some of the most intensively creative people in the world are to be found in science and engineering and creativity is something we try very hard to nurture in students at Sussex University regardless of discipline.

Anyway, while feeling grumpy about this article, I remembered this video of an interview with the great jazz pianist, Bill Evans. Jazz is undoubtedly an intensely creative form, not only because it requires spontaneous real-time conversion of ideas into sounds. Evans talks with great passion and insight about creativity in music-making, but the striking thing about what he says at the  very beginning about the need to analyse your subject at a very elementary level before proceeding in order to create something that’s “real” applies equally well to, e.g. theoretical physics as it does to jazz.

In the following section he reiterates this point, but also stresses the discipline imposed by a particular form and why this does not limit creativity but makes it stronger.

It’s better to do something simple that is real. It’s something you can build on. because you know what you’re doing. Whereas, if you try to approximate something very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t build on it.

No matter how far I might diverge or find freedom in this format, it only is free insofar that it has reference to the strictness of the original form. That’s what gives it its strength.

In much the same way, theoretical physics is not made less creative because it has to obey the strict rules of mathematics but more so. This is true also in the fine arts: the more limited the canvas the more creative the artist must be, but it also applies to, e.g. engineering design. Self-teaching is important in STEM subjects too: the only really effective way of learning, e.g. physics, is by devoting time to working through ideas in your own mind, not by sitting passively in lectures.

All subjects require technical skill, but there is more to being a great jazz musician than mastery of the instrument just as there’s more to being a research scientist than doing textbook problems. So here’s to creativity wherever it is found, and let’s have a bit more appreciation for the creative aspects of science and engineering!




How Arts Students Subsidise Science

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , on March 26, 2015 by telescoper

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about the madness of the current fee regime in UK higher education. Here is a quote from that piece:

To give an example, I was talking recently to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, the latter  usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. That meagre level of contact is by no means unusual, and some universities offer even less tuition than that. A recent report states that the real cost of teaching for Law and Sociology is less than £6000 per student, consistent with the level of funding under the “old” fee regime; teaching in STEM disciplines on the other hand actually costs over £11k. What this means, in effect, is that Arts and Humanities students are cross-subsidising STEM students. That’s neither fair nor transparent.

Now here’s a nice graphic from the Times Higher that demonstrates the extent to which Science students are getting a much better deal than those in the Arts and Humanities.


The problem with charging fees relating to the real cost of studying the subject concerned is that it will deter students from doing STEM disciplines and cause even greater numbers to flock into cheaper subjects (which where much of the growth in the HE sector over the last decade has actually taken place in any case). However, the diagram shows how absurd the current system (of equal fee regardless of subject really is), and it’s actually quite amazing that more Arts students haven’t twigged what is going on. The point is that they are (unwittingly) subsidising their colleagues in STEM subjects. I think it would be much fairer if that subsidy were provided directly from the taxpayer via HEFCE otherwise there’s a clear incentive for universities to rake in cash from students on courses that are cheap to teach, rather than to provide a proper range of courses across the entire curriculum. Where’s the incentive to bother teaching, e.g., Physics at all in the current system?

I re-iterate my argument from a few weeks ago that the Labour Party’s pledge to reduce fees to £6K across all disciplines would result in a much fairer and justifiable system, as long as there was a direct subsidy from the government to make good the shortfall (of around £6K per annum per student in Physics, for example).