Category Archives: Teaching

End of semester

This week is one of my favourites in the college timetable. The teaching semester finished last Friday and the hapless students are now starting their Christmas exams. It’s time to empty out the teaching briefcase and catch up on research…

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Examtime in college

I recently compiled a list of this semseter’s research and outreach and was pleasantly surprised – three conference presentations, two academic papers and eight public lectures , not to mention a couple of science articles and book reviews in The Irish Times (see here for presentations and here for articles).

All of this is on top of an 18-hour teaching week, which adds up to a lot of late nights. I’ve been arguing for years that the workload in the Institutes of Technology should be more flexible; it’s very difficult to do any meaningful research if you’re teaching 18 hours a week. Another challenge is that most lecturers in the IoT sector are 3-4 to an office, with consequent staff interactions, phone calls and students coming to the door. As a result, a great many lecturers simply stop doing research, which is a terrible waste and hardly ideal for a college that teaches to degree level and beyond. I often think that, far from enhancing ‘productivity’, work practices in the IoT sector mitigate strongly against good teaching and research at third level.

In my case, I stay in college most evenings until 9 pm. That said, I enjoy the research – as I say to my students, if you find a job you truly like, you’ll never work a day in your life!

I’m particularly pleased with my recent paper on the discovery of the expanding universe. It’s my first foray into the history of cosmology, and it has already got quite a bit of attention,  thanks to a very nice conference in Arizona. I very nearly didn’t go to this conference because of teaching commitments; now I’m glad I did as it was a lot of fun and the paper has opened quite a few doors. These days, I turn down far more opportunities than I accept, it may finally be time to consider an academic move.

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Slipher’s telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona

Update

Meanwhile, rumours continue to circulate in the media concerning the prospect of our college being turned into a technological university. This would certainly be a welcome development, especially if it meant reduced teaching for those engaged in research, but I’d be quite surprised. WIT has been very successful at attracting research funding in certain areas, but research activity per academic is quite low in our college in comparison with the university sector. I don’t see how we could qualify as a university without bringing in quite a lot of new research-active staff , a buy-in for which there is no money whatsoever; hopefully I’m wrong on this.

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Frontiers of Physics 2012 at Trinity College Dublin

I spent last weekend at the Frontiers of Physics conference at Trinity College Dublin. This is an annual meeting hosted by the Institute of Physics in Ireland; the aim is to establish links with secondary schools all over the country and to present the latest developments in physics and physics teaching. This year it was Trinity’s turn to host the conference and it was excellent, not least due to the superb organisation of IoP teaching coordinators Paul Nugent and David Keenahan.

Saturday morning featured some great lectures in the historic Schrödinger lecture theatre, located in the Fitzgerald building of Trinity’s School of Physics. Visiting this building always feels like coming home for me, as I did my PhD in one of the labs downstairs and gave tutorials in the Schrödinger theatre as a postgrad. The library on the second floor of the Fitzgerald building is becoming a notable science museum, with exhibits for many great scientists associated with Trinity such as Preston, Joly, Fitzgerald and Walton. (Schrödinger himself was a Professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, not Trinity, but the theatre is named after the famous ‘What is Life? ‘ series of public lectures he gave there there).

The Schrödinger lecture theatre on the top floor of the Fitzgerald building

The Fitzgerald building, home to the physics department at TCD. The bubbles are a mockup of a sculpture that will honour the department’s Nobel laureate Ernest Walton

I won’t describe the lectures in detail, but three stood out for me:  ‘Tuning in the radio sun’, a description of solar astronomy at Birr Castle by Prof Peter Gallagher, head of the solar physics group at Trinity: ‘Tiny but mighty’ , a superb introductory lecture on nanotechnology by Prof Jonathan Coleman, head of the low-dimensional nanostructures group at Trinity: and ‘CERN, the LHC and the Higgs boson’  by Steve Myers, director of accelerators and technology at CERN.

Yes, that Steve Myers, the Belfast-born director of accelerators at CERN. Steve gives great talks on the nuts-and-bolts of the Large Hadron Collider and this was the main reason I was at the meeting. I’m scheduled to give yet another talk on the Higgs boson next month, so it’s important to catch lectures like this whenever I can. There’s nothing like hearing details of the experiment from the horse’s mouth and Steve certainly didn’t disappoint.

Steve Myers in action at the conference

On the teaching of physics, Dr Karen Bultitude of University College London gave an interesting lecture on ‘Gender Aware Teaching Practice’. As everyone in the discipline knows, a marked gender imbalance persists amongst students choosing physics; Karen’s main point was that all of the research done in this area indicates that making physics more ‘girly’ simply does not work, and she had some important tips for making physics more approachable for both genders. (Once more, it raises the question how a certain video at the European Comission ever saw the light of day, but let’s not go there).

After the lectures, we were treated to lunch in Trinity Dining Hall;  I think those who had not visited the college before were blown away by the Hall and by the walk across Front Square. Maybe I notice this sort of thing more after another trip to the US (see previous post), but the best was yet to come..

The Dining Hall at Trinity

Front Square at Trinity College

After lunch, we were treated to an exhibition of Walton memorabilia by  Dr Eric Finch. (Ernest Walton, a former Head of Physics at Trinity, won a Nobel prize for splitting the atomic nucleus with Cockroft in 1932). Eric had many fascinating things to show us, not least the famous letter where the brilliant young scientist describes his ‘red-letter day’ to his fiancee. Best of all, the exhibition is currently situated in Trinity’s Long Room, one of the most famous libraries in the world and a sight well worth seeing in it’s own right.

Dr Eric Finch at the Walton exhibit in the Long Room

The Long Room at TCD – it really is like this

Finally, we all trooped back to the physics department to see the Monck observatory. Since my time at the college, an observatory has been installed on the roof of the Fitzgerald building, consisting of an Atmospheric and Space Weather Monitor (outside radio antenna) and a Schmitt reflecting telescope (inside the dome, see below). Brian Espey, Professor of astrophysics at TCD,  described the operation of the telescope and we each had a peep. The observatory must be one of the most centrally located telescopes anywhere in the world- however, apparently the light pollution is not as bad as you might expect because the college is a quiet island in the centre of the city at night. I’m told the main problem is the use of floodlights for rugby practice!

The new dome on top of the Fitzgerald building

The Schmitt reflector inside the dome

The radio antenna for atmospheric measurements

All in all, a great meeting in a superb setting. The Frontiers conference takes place in a different venue each year, but it’s hard to compete with 400 years of history…

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Filed under History and philosophy of science, Institute of Physics, Teaching

You must be on your holidays now

You must be on your holidays now? I’m confronted with this question/accusation every time I go shopping in my village these days. Almost everyone I know assumes that lecturers merely teach and the summer holidays are ours to enjoy at our leisure.

I never know how to correct this misapprehension. Usually, I just nod amiably – after all, the main thing is that I have a job I really enjoy doing. However, it worries me that there is such widespread misunderstanding of academia. Occasionally, I try to explain that ‘holiday-time’ is in fact the only time I get to do any research. However, I usually get the feeling the questioner either doesn’t believe me or thinks I’m a fool for not putting our generous holidays to good use.

And the official holidays are generous, there’s no question. In the Institutes of Technology, staff do not have to report formally for work from June 20th to September 1st. It sounds great, doesn’t it? But for those engaged in research at any level (and it’s very difficult to get a job teaching to degree or master’s level if you are not engaged in some sort of research), this is the only time such work gets done.

In my case, I used to head back to my alma mater Trinity College as soon as term ended, doing experimental work in the magnetic resonance lab. These days, I’m more involved in writing science. This summer, I’m working on a book on cosmology, aimed at a popular audience. I started it last summer at Harvard and have been tipping away whenever I can during a very busy semester. Now I have a good opportunity to finish. I don’t think of this as a chore; like most academics, I see this sort of work as an important part of my job and it’s very satisfying. I really like working in the college over the summer months, it’s a very nice environment of quiet academic activity.

I also have two conferences in August and next month I’m giving a public talk on Irish astronomy and the big bang. So it’ll be a busy summer, which doesn’t bother me in the slightest as long as I get away for the odd weekend. As for travel, I’m coming round to the view that most countries are simply too hot for me in the summer and I like the variability of Irish weather. I’ll take a few weekends in the west coast of Ireland, playing tunes in the pubs at night and surfing during the day, that’ll do nicely…

It’s a tough life – Ed

Update

This blog has been nominated for an award, the Three Quarks Daily 2012 Awards. If you like the blog, why not throw in a vote here.  That said, there are some great blogs on the nominee page, I’m having fun browsing them all

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Exam corrections

I’ve just finished correcting the last exam script of summer 2012.  No more corrections until August, yipee. That said, I don’t really mind correcting the semester exams, unlike most of my colleagues. One reason is that I see it as a form of feedback, if pretty shocking sometimes!

Oh joy

It’s probably true that correcting maths or physics exams is somewhat easier than fighting your way through hundreds of poorly-written essays. (I suspect it’s also less depressing – I often think the standard of literacy amongst our students is more worrying than their lack of mathematical ability). By the time I have corrected the first ten physics scripts of any course, I have usually committed every possible answer to memory, so the job goes quite quickly. Also,  I like a task that has a definite beginning, middle and end with room for targets and treats along the way…

In our college, exam scripts are corrected by name and the students sometimes campaign for anonymous marking. Little do they know that from a teacher’s perspective, it’s much harder to fail a person than a number, particularly if you know that student made a decent effort during the semester. Indeed, a great deal of correction time goes into trying to trying to find a few extra marks for the borderliners; if anything, I would expect pass marks to drop if anonymous marking was introduced.

The main downside of examinations is the administration. Combining exam results with attendance and continuous assessment marks, and getting the totals to the department in time for the course board meetings is no trivial task if one is teaching several different courses . Worse, there are always one or two students who seem to have appeared out of nowhere, with an ensuing search for their educational record and assessment results.

By the end of this week, the innumerable departmental meetings will be over, and we will be ready to meet the externs next week. After all that, the results become official and I will finally, finally get back to research…


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A letter to the Minister for Education

On Friday evening, I gave a public talk on the big bang at Blackrock Castle in Cork. I always enjoy giving public science talks, but this one was special (slides here). The venue was a beautiful castle overlooking the sea and I was enormously impressed with the science outreach work being done there by Dr Niall Smith, director of research at Cork Institute of Technology. I was equally impressed with the new observatory at the castle and the astronomy program of Niall and his postgraduate students. Superb work in a fantastic location, surely an inspiration for generations of young students.

Blackrock Castle in Cork: the white dome above the tower is the observatory

I left Cork early on Saturday morning in order to travel to Dublin to catch the High Flyers conference of the Institute of Physics (this is what physicists get up to on bank holiday weekends!). On my way to the meeting, I heard the Irish Minister for Education interviewed on RTE Radio One (Marian Finucane show, May 5th). The Minister had many interesting things to say on subjects such as RTE, the Catholic Church, a recent libel case in Ireland and the near-paralysis of political process in the United States (the latter is a most unusual topic for a politician over here). However, I was taken aback to hear him refer to “problems of productivity in the third level sector, particularly in the Institutes of Technology”, and disappointed that the interviewer didn’t seek some clarification on the comment.

I would very much like to know what the Minister meant by this comment. What do we understand by ‘productivity’ in the context of the third level education? How is it measured? Is it the number of students taught? Number of Noble prizes for research?  Perhaps some Soviet-style quota of engineers graduated? Like all Institute lecturers, I have a heavy teaching load; we produce legions of exactly the sort of science, computing and engineering graduates that Ireland so desperately needs. I must say I grow weary of generalizations like this about third level academics from journalists and politicians, and such a comment from the top man in education is pretty serious. Not a scintilla of evidence was offered by the Minister in support of his remark, just a casually delivered public insult to my colleagues and I.

Here’s the thing, Minister Quinn: like almost all lecturers in the Institutes of Technology (IoTs), I teach between four and five different courses per semester to degree level, a larger teaching load than any third level college in the world as far as I know; add research and outreach activity to this and it is no surprise I am in the office until 9 pm at least four days a week. In terms of prep, each semester typically presents at least one new module to teach, involving months of preparation over the summer, where I would hope to be concentrating on research, finishing my book and attending conferences. (I teach diverse courses in mathematics and physics to students in the departments of computing, engineering and science, not to mention more specialized modules in quantum physics, cosmology and particle physics – how many Harvard professors can boast such a wide teaching portfolio?).

‘Yes, but what about other IoT lecturers?’, the Minister will ask. I imagine I have a more accurate view of the work of my colleagues than the Minister’s advisors and I have no complaints. Indeed, the limited time I have for research arises because other lecturers take on the bulk of student administration (the large number of classes in the IoTs necessitates a great deal of admin; Year Tutors and Course Leaders spend a great deal of time keeping track of attendance, assessments, lab performance  and exam results). There are no easy lecturing jobs.

I love my job and stopped counting the overtime years ago. However, it is frustrating to hear the work of lecturers in the institutes and the universities denigrated by politicians who know nothing of what we do. The tragedy is, I suspect the binary system of universities and institutes has served Ireland very well, although few in charge of education seem to realize it. As they consider the future of the third level sector, I hope politicians and their advisors will make an effort to understand the current system, rather than indulge in unsupported generalizations.

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Filed under Astronomy, Teaching, Third level

Last day of semester

Today was the last day of lectures in the first semester, hurrah. There’s something very satisfying about emptying out the teaching briefcase and filing the notes and overheads back on the bookcase until next year. (Yes, we have computers and data projectors in Waterford, but I still use overheads quite a bit). The students now have a study week followed by exams but for lecturers, it’s an ideal time to get back to research.

I’m frequently asked if WIT is a let down after Harvard, but I must say I enjoyed this semester no end. I taught maths (to 1st science), physics (to 1st engineering) and my ‘concepts in cosmology’ course to our physics students. I’m writing a book based on the latter so it was fun summarizing a chapter each week and presenting it in class as bullet points. After each lecture, I found myself rushing back to the office to rewrite a paragraph or re-jig an explanation – very satisfying!

Motivated students

Then there was the neutrino experiment; a superb opportunity for public lectures on relativity. Like almost all physicists, I expect this result is an anomaly because neutrinos are known to have a finite rest mass. I really enjoy explaining this in outreach lectures so long may the anomaly survive! The Trinity lecture was very satisfying, we got a great crowd including some very eminent physicists.

Now I have four weeks to work quietly on the book, uninterrupted by classes – what a job!

Update

Meanwhile, rumours continue to circulate in the media about a possible sighting of the Higgs boson. I haven’t heard anything in physics circles so I’m betting it’s a false alarm based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of next week’s roundup meeting at CERN (see here for more on the rumours). Still, I’ll be keeping an eye on the news on Tuesday!

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Back to school in Ireland

I finally left Harvard in the last week of August, having had a wonderful summer working quietly on The Book during the day and sailing on the Charles in the long summer evenings.

It’s nice to be back home too – no more going around in silly shorts, suncream and shades. Back at Waterford Institute of Technology in the southeast of Ireland, we are already in the second week of teaching term. The bad news is that thanks to the recession, teaching loads have been increased (increased productivity!) leaving almost no time at all for frivolous activities such as research. On the other hand, there is much discussion of the college being upgraded to full university status, mainly because the government thinks that an upgrade ay help attract industry to a region badly hit by the recession. So after all the valiant efforts of WIT researchers, it seems an upgrade may occur for political reasons…

How does the college seem after Harvard? Colleagues keep asking me this. Yes, I miss the beautiful Harvard campus, the incredible libraries and the superb seminars. However, the main day-to-day difference is one of organization. There seems to be a problem of chaotic timetabling in WIT for the first few weeks of every semester, at least in my department. It’s very stressful and leaves no time over for prep or research. I’ve never understood why this happens every year, as our staff and courses change relatively little. One reason might be that lecturers are left to decide who teaches what amongst themselves, pitting Alice against Bob. Give me a didactic Head of Department any day…

Waterford Institute of Technology

On the other hand, it’s great to be in a job with an influx of Hopeful Young People every year. I always think that academics are v lucky in this regard, it doesn’t really matter which college you are in. Another change is that I am moving to a smaller, quieter office yipee. There is a special place in hell reserved for managers who believe that academics work well in large open-plan offices. With students coming to the door and phones continually ringing, it’s impossible to get any work done between classes. Hopefully I’ll have some quiet evenings in my nice new office….

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