Archive for STEM

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.

Subsidy

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).

How Labour’s Tuition Fee Proposals Should Be Implemented

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by telescoper

The big news today is Ed Milliband’s announcement that, if elected, the Labour Party would cut the maximum tuition fee payable by students in English universities from £9K to £6K. That will of course be broadly welcomed by prospective students (and indeed current ones, whose fees will be reduced from 2016 onwards). There is however considerable nervousness around the university sector about whether and how the cut of 33% in fee income will be made good. The proposal seems to be that the shortfall of around £3bn will be made up by grants from government to universities, funded by a reduction in tax relief on pension contributions made by high earners.  I have yet to see any concrete proposals on how these grants would be allocated.

I would like here to make a proposal on how this allocation should be done, in such a way that it corrects a serious anomaly in how the current funding arrangements from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) affect Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For the record, I’ll declare my interest in this: I work in a STEM area and am therefore biased.

I’ll explain my reasoning by going back a few years. Before the introduction  of the £9K tuition fees in 2012  (i.e. in the `old regime’), a University would receive income from tuition fees of up to £3375 per student and from a `unit of resource’ or `teaching grant’ that depends on the subject. As shown in the upper part of Table C below which is taken from a HEFCE document:

Budgets

In the old regime, the  maximum income per student in Physics was thus £8,269 whereas for a typical Arts/Humanities student the maximum was £5,700. That means there was a 45% difference in funding between these two types of subject. The reason for this difference is that subjects such as physics are much more expensive to teach. Not only do disciplines like physics require expensive laboratory facilities (and associated support staff), they also involve many more contact hours between students and academic staff than in, e.g. an Arts subject.  However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two difference in teaching grant between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

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.

In my School, the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise classes, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics.

Now look at what happens in the `new regime’, as displayed in the lower table in the figure. In the current system, students still pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects (£9K in most HEIs) but the teaching grant is now £1483 for Physics and nothing at all for Bands C and D. The difference in income is thus just £1,483, a percentage difference of just 16.4%. Worse than this, there’s no requirement that this extra resource be spent on the disciplines with which it is associated. In most universities, though gladly not mine, all the tuition income goes into central coffers and is dispersed to Schools and Departments according to the whims of the University Management.

Of course the higher  fee levels have led to an increase in income to Universities across all disciplines, which is welcome because it should allow institutions to improve the quality of their teaching bu purchasing better equipment, etc. But the current arrangements as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as Physics, relative to Arts & Humanities subjects such as English or History. It also rips off  staff and students in those disciplines, the students because they are given very little teaching in return for their fee, and the staff because we have to work far harder than our colleagues in other disciplines, who  fob off  most of what little teaching their supposed to do onto PhD students badged as Teaching Assistants. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such immense dedication to teaching as well as research that they’re prepared to carry on working in a University environment that is so clearly biased against STEM disciplines.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance. Here at Sussex, only about a quarter of students take courses in STEM subjects; nationally the figure is even lower, around 20%.

Now there’s a chance to reverse this bias and provide an incentive for universities to support STEM subjects. My proposal is simple: the government grants proposed to offset the loss of tuition fee income should be focussed on STEM disciplines. Income to universities from students in, especially laboratory-based subjects, could then be raised to about £12K, adequate to cover the real cost of teaching, whereas that in the less onerous Arts and Humanities could be fixed at about about £6K, again sufficient to cover the actual cost of teaching but funded by fees only.

I want to make it very clear that I am not saying that non-STEM subjects are of lower value, just that they cost less to teach.

Anyway, I thought I’d add a totally unscientific poll to see what readers of this blog make of the Labour proposals:

Tuition Fee Caps

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 27, 2013 by telescoper

I know it’s a Bank Holiday, but I’ve been thinking…

About a week ago I posted an item arguing that the current system of higher education funding is detrimental to the health of STEM disciplines (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The main reason for this is that present funding arrangements fail to address the real difference in cost of degree courses in various disciplines: the income to a University for a student doing Physics is about £10.5K whereas for a student doing, say, English it is £9K. I would  estimate the extra cost for the former corresponds to at least a factor two and probably more. That’s partly because Physics requires laboratory space and equipment (and related technical support) that English does not, but also because Physics students receive many more contact hours with academic staff.  The issue is just as much about arts students being ripped off (as they undoubtedly are being) as it is a strategic failure to protect the sciences.

The problem is that the Council responsible for distributing funding (HEFCE) is strapped for cash, so is unable to fund STEM disciplines at the higher level of resource that it used to.  Since the government has decided, in its  (finite) wisdom, to transfer most of the cost of higher education to the students, HEFCE can now exert very little influence on how universities plan their portfolio of courses. Since it is a lot cheaper and easier to expand capacity in Arts & Social Sciences faculties than in the more expensive STEM disciplines, this is an incentive for Universities to turn away from the Sciences. Given our economic predicament this policy is simply perverse. We need more scientists and engineers, not fewer.

This morning I read an article in the Times Higher about the present £9K tuition fee cap. Not surprisingly the Russell Group of self-styled “elite” Universities wants it lifted, presumably so its Vice-Chancellors can receive even bigger pay rises. But that’s not the point. The article made me think of a cunning (or perhaps daft) plan, which I’m floating here with the prediction that people will shoot it down through the comments box.

Now before I go on, I just want to make it clear that I’m not – and never have been – in favour of the present funding system. I don’t object to the principle that students who can afford to should contribute to the cost of higher education, but the arrangements we’re stuck with are indefensible and I don’t think they will last long into the next Parliament. It’s telling that, only a decade after introducing tuition fees, Germany is now scrapping them. I’d prefer a hybdrid system in which the taxpayer funds scholarships for STEM disciplines and other strategically important areas, while leaving universities to charge fees for other disciplines.

However, since we’ve been lumbered with a silly system, it’s worth exploring what might be achieved by working within it. There doesn’t seem to be much creative thinking going on in the coalition, and the Labour Party just says it would reduce the fee cap to £6K which would squeeze all academic disciplines equally, without doing anything about the anomalies mentioned above.

My  idea is quite simple. I propose that universities be entitled to lift their fee levels for STEM subjects by an amount X, provide that they reduce the fees for Arts and Social Sciences students by the same amount. The current fee level is £9K for all disciplines, so an example might be for STEM subjects to charge £12K while A&SS (if you pardon the abbreviation) get £6K. That would achieve the factor of two differential I mentioned above.

The advantages of this proposal are that it gives an incentive for universities to promote STEM disciplines and more properly reflects the difference in cost of the different subjects, without increasing the cost to the Treasury. In fact only about 25% of students study in STEM disciplines, at least for the moment, so the cost of fee loans will actually go down

The biggest potential flaw is  that increasing the cost to STEM students would put them off. There’s simply no data on which to base an argument as to whether this would be the case or not. I suspect however that a difference in price would be perceived by many as a difference in value.

Anyway, it’s just an idea. That’s what blogs are for. Thinking out loud as it were. Feel free to object..

The Threat to STEM from HEFCE’s Funding Policies

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2013 by telescoper

In my job here as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS)  at the University of Sussex, I’ve been been spending a lot of time recently on trying to understand the way the School’s budget works, sorting out what remains to be done for this financial year, and planning the budget for next year. In the course of doing all that it has become clear to me that the current funding arrangements from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) are extremely worrying for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Before the introduction  of the £9K tuition fees this academic year (i.e. in the `old regime’), a University would receive income from tuition fees of up to £3375 per student and from a `unit of resource’ or `teaching grant’ that depends on the subject. As shown in the upper part of Table C below which is taken from a HEFCE document:

Budgets

In the old regime, the  maximum income per student in Physics was thus £8,269 whereas for a typical Arts/Humanities student the maximum was £5,700. That means there was a 45% difference in funding between these two types of subject. The reason for this difference is that subjects such as physics are much more expensive to teach. Not only do disciplines like physics require expensive laboratory facilities (and associated support staff), they also involve many more contact hours between students and academic staff than in, e.g. an Arts subject.  However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two difference in teaching grant between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

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.

In my School, MPS, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise classes, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics.

Now look at what happens in the `new regime’, as displayed in the lower table in the figure. In the current system, students still pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects (£9K in most HEIs) but the teaching grant is now £1483 for Physics and nothing at all for Bands C and D. The difference in income is thus just £1,483 or in percentage terms, a difference of just 16.4. Worse than this, there’s no requirement that this extra resource be spent on the disciplines with which it is associated anyway. In most universities, all the tuition income goes into central coffers and is dispersed to Schools and Departments according to the whims of the University Management.

Of course the new fee levels have led to an increase in income to Universities across all disciplines, which is welcome because it should allow institutions to improve the quality of their teaching bu purchasing better equipment, etc. But the current arrangements as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as Physics, relative to Arts & Humanities subjects such as English or History. It also rips off  staff and students in those disciplines, the students because they are given very little teaching in return for their fee, and the staff because we have to work far harder than our colleagues in other disciplines, who  fob off  most of what little teaching their supposed to do onto PhD students badged as Teaching Assistants. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such immense dedication to teaching as well as research that they’re prepared to carry on working in a University environment that is so clearly biased against STEM disciplines.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance. Here at Sussex, only about a quarter of students take courses in STEM subjects; nationally the figure is even lower, around 20%…

I don’t see anything on the horizon that will alter this ridiculous situation. STEM subjects will continue to be stifled as universities  follow the incentive to invest in cheaper subjects and will continue to overproduce graduates in other areas. The present Chief Executive of HEFCE is stepping down. Will whoever takes over from him have the guts to do anything about this anti-STEM bias?

I doubt the free-market ideologues in Westminster would even think of intervening either, because the only two possible changes are: (i) to increase the fee for STEM subjects relative to others; and (ii) to increase the teaching grant. Option (i) would lead to a collapse in demand for the very subjects it was intended to save and option (ii) would involve increasing public expenditure, which is anathema to the government even if it is an investment in the UK’s future. Or maybe it’s making a complete botch of the situation deliberately, as part of a cunning plan to encourage universities to go private?

(Lack of) Diversity in STEM Subjects

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 10, 2013 by telescoper

Among the things I learnt over the last few days was some interesting information about the diversity (or, rather, lack of diversity) of undergraduates taking undergraduate degrees in STEM subjects in the UK universities. For those of you not up on the lingo, `STEM’ is short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Last year the Institute of Physics produced a report that contains a wealth of statistical information about the demographics of the undergraduate population, from which the following numbers are only a small component.

Physics

Maths

Chemistry

Engineering

Female

21%

41%

44%

12%

BME

11%

24%

20%

30%

Socio-Economic

37%

42%

43%

51%

Non-EU

5%

12%

7%

32%

For completeness I should point out that these numbers refer to first-year undergraduates in 2010-11; I have no particular reason to suppose there has been a qualitative change since then. “BME” stands for “Black and Minority Ethnic”, and “Socio-Economic” refers to students whose with parents not employed in managerial or professional positions.

Overall, the figures here at the University of Sussex are roughly in line with, but slightly better than, these national statistics; the proportion of female students in our Physics intake for 2010/11, for example, was 27%.

There are some interesting (and rather disappointing) things to remark. First is that the proportion of Physics students who are female remains low; Physics scores very badly on ethnic diversity too. Mathematics on the other hand seems a much more attractive subject for female students.  Notice also how Physics and Chemistry attract a very small proportion of overseas students compared to Engineering.

In summary, therefore, we can see that Physics is a subject largely studied by white  middle-class European males. What are we doing wrong?

Despite considerable efforts to promote Physics to a more diverse constituency,  the proportion of, e.g., female physics students seems to have been bumping along at around 20% for ages.  Interestingly, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that those women who do Physics at University do disproportionately well, in the sense that female students constitute a  much larger fraction of First-class graduates than 20%. This strongly suggests that the problem lies at school level; some additional IOP information and discussion on this can be found here.

I’m just passing these figures on for information, as I’m quite often asked about them during, e.g., admissions-related activities. I don’t have any really compelling suggestions, but I would like to invite the blogosphere to comment and/or make suggestions as to promote diversity in STEM disciplines.

Political Correlation

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics with tags , , , , on August 28, 2010 by telescoper

I was just thinking that it’s been a while since I posted anything in my bad statistics category when a particularly egregious example jumped up out of this week’s Times Higher and slapped me in the face. This one goes wrong before it even gets to the statistical analysis, so I’ll only give it short shrift here, but it serves to remind us all how feeble is many academic’s grasp of the scientific method, and particularly the role of statistics within it. The perpetrator in this case is Paul Whiteley, who is Professor of Politics at the University of Essex. I’m tempted to suggest he should go and stand in the corner wearing a dunce’s cap.

Professor Whiteley argues that he has found evidence that refutes the case that increased provision of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates are -in the words of Lord Mandelson – “crucial to in securing future prosperity”. His evidence is based on data relating to 30 OECD countries: on the one hand, their average economic growth for the period 2000-8 and, on the other, the percentage of graduates in STEM subjects for each country over the same period. He finds no statistically significant correlation between these variates. The data are plotted here:

This lack of correlation is asserted to be evidence that STEM graduates are not necessary for economic growth, but in an additional comment (for which no supporting numbers are given), it is stated that growth correlates with the total number of graduates in all subjects in each country. Hence the conclusion that higher education is good, whether or not it’s in STEM areas.

So what’s wrong with this analysis? A number of things, in fact, but I’ll start with what seems to me the most important conceptual one. In order to test a hypothesis, you have to look for a measurable effect that would be expected if the hypothesis were true, measure the effect, and then decide whether the effect is there or not. If it isn’t, you have falsified the hypothesis.

Now, would anyone really expect the % of students graduating in STEM subjects  to correlate with the growth rate in the economy over the same period? Does anyone really think that newly qualified STEM graduates have an immediate impact on economic growth? I’m sure even the most dedicated pro-science lobbyist would answer “no” to that question. Even the quote from Lord Mandelson included the crucial word “future”! Investment in these areas is expected to have a long-term benefit that would probably only show after many years. I would have been amazed had there been a correlation between measures relating to such a short period, so  absence of one says nothing whatsoever about the economic benefits of education in STEM areas.

And another thing. Why is the “percentage of graduates” chosen as a variate for this study? Surely a large % of STEM graduates is irrelevant if the total number is very small? I would have thought the fraction of the population with a STEM degree might be a better choice. Better still, since it is claimed that the overall number of graduates correlates with economic growth, why not show how this correlation with the total number of graduates breaks down by subject area?

I’m a bit suspicious about the reliability of the data too. Which country is it that produces less than 3% of its graduates in science subjects (the point at the bottom left of the plot). Surely different countries also have different types of economy wherein the role of science and technology varies considerably. It’s tempting, in fact, to see two parallel lines in the above graph – I’m not the only one to have noticed this – which may either be an artefact of small numbers chosen or might indicate that some other parameter is playing a role.

This poorly framed hypothesis test, dubious choice of variables, and highly questionable conclusions strongly suggest that Professor Whiteley had made his mind up what result he wanted and simply dressed it up in a bit of flimsy statistics. Unfortunately, such pseudoscientific flummery is all that’s needed to convince a great many out there in the big wide world, especially journalists. It’s a pity that this shoddy piece of statistical gibberish was given such prominence in the Times Higher, supported by a predictably vacuous editorial, especially when the same issue features an article about the declining standards of science journalism. Perhaps we need more STEM graduates to teach the others how to do statistical tests properly.

However, before everyone accuses me of being blind to the benefits of anything other than STEM subjects, I’ll just make it clear that, while I do think that science is very important for a large number of reasons, I do accept that higher education generally is a good thing in itself , regardless of whether it’s in physics or mediaeval latin, though I’m not sure about certain other subjects.  Universities should not be judged solely by the effect they may or may not have on short-term economic growth.

Which brings me to a final point about the difference between correlation and causation. People with more disposal income probably spend more money on, e.g., books than people with less money. Buying books doesn’t make you rich, at least not in the short-term, but it’s a good thing to do for its own sake. We shouldn’t think of higher education exclusively on the cost side of the economic equation, as politicians and bureaucrats seem increasingly to be doing,  it’s also one of the benefits.


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