Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Undergraduate research (UKPSF: A5, K6)

My research area is lattice QCD, a sub-field of theoretical particle physics. The University is keen for students to be involved in research.  However, the background to my research requires an understanding of quantum field theory and Lie group theory, as well as expertise in high performance computing. We don't teach these subjects at Plymouth, so the students don't have the background knowledge.

The professional bodies for mathematics has a document describing what mathematics undergraduates should learn on a degree. Actually it is the quality assurance body in the UK. The document is actually very vague to what knowledge and skills is expected to be learned by the students. The statement about the level of knowledge is interesting.

An important further source of diversity is, in many cases, the influence of the
research and professional interests of academic staff. While undergraduate programmes in mathematics, statistics and operational research are not generally expected to reach the
frontiers of knowledge, it is a stimulating experience for a learner to be taught a subject by someone who is an active researcher or professional in the field. The choice of material presented in mathematics, statistics and operational research programmes, while mainly determined by its educational value, is nevertheless often influenced in detail by the research and professional interests of the academic staff.
When I was talking to a colleague about this, he told me that no one really believes that undergraduate students can not do research into mathematics, but what we can do is research informed teaching.  
This is consistent with the above quote from the subject benchmark. 

This post concerns A5 and K6 from the UKPSF.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Slides versus booklets (UKPSF: A1, A2, K2, K4)

At the staff student committee for one of the courses I teach, the students  asked about the booklet for the course. In the earlier course, they are given written notes, like a mini text book for the course. I do put my slides on Moodle. And now I have started taping the course with the new lecture capture system, which has been installed in some of the lecture rooms, here at Plymouth University.
In this post, I discuss some of the issues, with this feedback from  the students.

I was an undergraduate student in the middle 80s and a graduate student in the early 90s. The lecturer would write on the board and we would copy that down. I can only remember one person who used computer made slides. He claimed he had some kind of shoulder problem, so he couldn't write on the board. I really enjoyed his lectures, but that was because they were on group theory. Essentially us students would copy from the board the notes.

When I first presented some lectures at Liverpool, I was given some notes with a bit of theory in them and some examples. I would write them on the board and the students would copy them down. I did some small experiments with latex slides for a couple of weeks, but it was too much work to prepare. When I was a tutor at Glasgow for the second year physics students, I noticed that most lecturers were putting slides on Moodle.

However, at Plymouth, for the first course,  I was given a booklet of notes. It wasn't very clear what I was meant to do with it. The students would get the notes and then I would write them on the board as well. Now that I watched a couple of staff lecture, it is clearer what is happening. The lecturer, presents some examples and a bit of theory, in a similar manner to what is in the notes. But the notes are the definitive copy of the material. There is always some interactive part of the class, where a basic problem is set.

Last year, I talked to teaching staff at Liverpool and Edinburgh. They are still presenting material in the traditional write on the board model.I was told, that some of the staff in the Mathematical Sciences Department at Liverpool, were told by students, that they prefer the black board methods over powerpoint.

What I don't like about the use of the notes, is the presentation material is not always logically presented. The lectures have always been engaging, but in one I watched, the entire class had problems solving a very basic question.

The course I am teaching has never had a course booklet, so I don't have time to write a book.
I will try and write something based on the basic equations needed in the course.

This post deals with A1, A2, K2 and K4 from the UKPSF

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Using a planetarium (UKPSF: A1, A4, K4)

I am one of a team of people, who are teaching an immersive module called the Quantum Universe. We are using a planetarium on campus for the lab sessions. Actually, it is called the Immersive Vision Theater. See the picture below:

This is the first time. This course has been run, so we have no experience with using the planetarium for teaching. I did a quick literature search and found this paper:
The Effect of Planetariums on Teaching Specific Astronomy Concepts

The paper uses a multiple choice test on groups of students, who did and did not, have access to the planetarium. They found that there was a statistical improvement in 3D thinking for the students who had access to a planetarium compared to those who were taught in a classroom.

On reflection I will use some of the multiple choice questions coupled with the demonstrations in the planetarium.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Notes from a physics education meeting (UKPSF: K1, K2, K5)

Just before Christmas, I attended a meeting in London about Physics
Education Research (PER). The meeting was organized by the PhysicsEducation group of the IOP.  The meeting was really about people
trying to start to do research into Physics education, rather than to
disseminate the results for people trying to teach.  Do I intend to do
Physics Education research at the moment? Well no, but I still enjoyed
the meeting. Part of the reason I am not interested is that I need to
do more background reading on research methods.

During the questions and the few lectures, there were some discussions
about traditional physics research versus physics education research.
There was very little jargon from the PGCAP / HEA communities. I don't
think I remember anyone talking too much about "reflection" and peer
learning, and the other silver bullets loved by the HEA people.

The starting talk was a discussion of what PER is? The first thing
suggested was to write a question. The example given was whether there are
gender differences in problems solving. However, there was some
discussion about whether the first thing would be to write down
the motivation for the question.

There was a lot of discussion about trying to understand what the
students were thinking There was some discussion of research methodologies. Do we need to use
techniques from social sciences? 

In a comment, someone noted that Nottingham Universities once had a
time with no exams in the 4th year. One guy claimed the students were
much better as PhD students.

Many people have used open book exams. There was a feeling that the
students found them harder than normal exams.

There was an idea called triangulation. 
This is where more than one technique is used to assess a method.

Also Ross mentioned a technique where students articulated what they
did. Someone noted that this may actually change what may be measured.

One person noted that, in the past when students worked on
Fermi problems, the students would actually try to do the
back of the envelope calculations. However, students will
now try to estimate problems, such as "how many piano tuners
are needed in Sydney?", by firing up google. (Actually this is what
I do as well). As one person pointed out, this is actually a
legitimate technique. A textbook was recommended
College Physics by Eugena Ethina. However, this turned out to be very
expensive at 160 pounds.

Some PER journals:

European Journal Of Physics
American Journal of Physics
Physical Review Special edition

There will be a new journal for physics education. The journal is
revived  from an old HEA journal.  New directions will be
restarted. It will be a positive experience, where the referees help
the authors improve the paper, rather than just reject.

What I learned from the meeting was that there are social sciences techniques for evaluating teaching techniques. I have purchased a couple of books, so I can learn about them.