Saturday, 26 March 2016

More thoughts on using a planetarium (UKPSF A1 A2 A3 A4 K4 K5 V1)

This last semester I taught a course called the "Quantum Universe". This module was one of the new Plymouth Plus immersive modules, where the students take a 20 credit module, which last year would have been taught over a year, is  now taught in a single month. The students only take this module in the month. So it is essentially a bootcamp for quantum mechanics and astronomy.

An important part of the content of the module is Astronomy.  As part of the practical sessions in the module we used the Immersive Vision Theatre on campus. I was in charge of this part of the course. It was a bit of strain to develop new material for the two sessions every week.  One important issue is how to make the sessions interactive, so that the students actually do something, rather than just passively watch.

Dr. Helen Goodall from Marjon reviewed one of the teaching sessions in the planetarium.

1)    Further use of questioning and other activities to encourage more participation and engagement.
  2)    Further use of questioning to enable you to gauge students’ level of knowledge and understanding (to inform your future inputs).

One possible system to give questions to the students is to use a system such as socrative.
This allows students to use smart phones or tablets to answer multiple choice questions. One
important issue is that not everyone will have a smart phone, so the system should allow students with no phone to contribute. This is an important diversity issue, because not everyone will be able to afford a smart phone, or they may not like them. Socrative allows tests to be downloaded. See the example below, which I created.

I have just read an old paper on using clickers
in Astronomy Education Review, 2006. 
There is also a book called Cosmic Perspective Clickers, which I will order.  The system allows me
to see the answers submitted by the class.
Interestingly, people claim that attendance improves with the use of clickers.
What is less clear is how to use peer instruction in the planetarium environment. The dark environment and somewhat strange acoustics may make student discussions difficult. 

The course is assessed via 40% online quizzes and 60% a group presentation. In the last class the questions used in the planetarium were not very relevant to the online questions, which were
based on the problems covered in the lectures.  We are planning in making the online quizzes a bit harder next year, so we could build in some of the questions covered in the planetarium.

I did do a literature search on using a planetarium for teaching, but I didn't really find anything useful.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Women in engineering (or the lack of) (UKPSF V1 V2)

I teach physics on a foundation course. The course feeds into various engineering degrees. When I look out to the audience I don't see many women students. it could be that there are less than 10% female students. I am not sure what I can do to improve this. I try to be careful to not use any sexist language, or use any examples that depend on gender. (This is not too hard when we study electrons and atoms).

It looks like there are professional societies, whose main purpose is encourage girls to study engineering. See for example: The Women's Engineering Society.

Reviewing a lecture by a senior member of the school. (UKPSF K2 K3 K5 A5)

It is departmental policy in the School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics at Plymouth University, that every staff member review another person's teaching, and their teaching is also reviewed. Typically, people watch other people's lectures.

This year I reviewed a lecture by a senior member of the school.  As I said in the discussion part of the PGCAP course at Marjon, I find it difficult to give advice to senior members of the school. Of course, it is useful to see the teaching styles of other staff members:

Below is what I wrote. The most useful thing for me, is that I should make
it clear to the students how to use the material in the course. This is
particularly important in the course I teach in the foundation year.

What aspects of practice were identified through the peer review
process and the subsequent discussion that may be of interest /
relevance to colleagues in the School?

It was useful to see a very interactive lecture, made possible by the
existence of a booklet of notes. There were a lot of questions from
the students. I liked the way the lecturer told the students how to write notes and get the
most out of the lectures. 

What developmental or enhancement needs were identified through the
peer review process?

There were some slight problems with the presentation systems at the
beginning of the lecture (mostly caused by me.) It would be better if
this didn't happen. It is not a big deal, but it would make the  lecture look more professional.

Any other comments / points raised that you wish to capture please
note these in the section below:

Although it was a great lecture -- it was essentially revision of
material taught at a school. Perhaps it would be helpful to the students to make use of
the revision and support material from the mathcentre.

Some thoughts on giving feedback to students. (UKPSF: A3 A4)

This last semester I have been teaching in a computer lab with a lecturer and another person. The students are given problems to do in either the computer algebra package called Maple, or the numerical package: Matlab. If the students have problems I go over and help them. I believe that this is giving feedback to the students. However, it is not clear that the classification scheme used by the PGCAP people would regard my activities as formative assessment, or providing feedback.

The lecturer collected, from students  who wanted to, some of their programs. He promised to give them feedback on them.  It is nor clear how effective  this type of feedback is. He could only  check that the format of the programs accords to his style guide. For example, he could check that the program has enough comments.

I sometimes get students to email me programs, when I can't debug them in front of them

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Itunes Univerity (UKPSF: A1,A4,K4)

In the School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics we give each a student an Ipad mini, to help with their learning. The Itunes University is one way to deliver content to the students in format that is suited to the ipad mini.  Last week, Dr Nick Outram presented a tutorial on using the ItunesU course manager.     to create courses.

It looked like a convenient way to deliver notes to the students. I don't like the way pdf documents are displayed on the Ipad. It looked like a good way to combine video and text in a more coherent way than the Moodle system we use to store all of our teaching material.

There was a way to input mathematics into the Ibooks system using standard latex format. Looking online afterwards, it is not clear how complete  the coverage of latex syntax is. Also there is a lot of material in latex format. It looks difficult to convert a big latex document to Itunes format. I believe that the students could annotate the documents.

Nick had used the Itunes course manager for a number of courses. It had been popular with the students.

I think I might use this course in the new mathematical programming module, which I am teaching next year. One of my tutorial students told me he was disappointed that the Ipads were not used more.

Do styles of learning exist? (UKPSF: K3,K5)

I recently attended an interesting  talk  by one of the third year student's at Plymouth. The talk was based on her experiences on a placement teaching in a school.
She used some ideas of "styles of learning" in her teaching. This was impressive, because I don't believe that there is any theory taught in that module.

I have a book called "Martial Arts Instruction" by Lawrence Kane. He uses the Myers-Briggs MBTI indicators to classify students. I am a bit doubtful about this, because the underlying basic idea came from psychoanalysis such as Jung. In the first chapter he breaks learners into auditory, kinesthetic and visual learners. However, he doesn't provide any references, but just assumes that this classification is true.

For example , a kinesthetic learner prefers to learn by touching. It might be clear how to teach elementary mathematics by a tactile method. For example a student could count out objects when they are learning about addition. It is less clear how to learn about more abstract topics, such as complex numbers and partial differential equations. In the book "Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom," by Daniel T. Willingham, he points out that given  that the idea is
for the student to convert a concept into an internal cognitive schema,  then the learning style may have little influence on learning of abstract concepts.

There is paper called:  should we be using learning styles  which reviews the evidence for learning styles. It is a long paper, but seems to be a comprehensive review. It is also very readable. The key points I got out of it were:

  • If students do learn with different learning styles, then because Plymouth University is  committed  to teaching a diverse range of students, then this should be taken into account.
  • There are a wide range of different theories about learning styles to choose from. It is not clear which theory is best, or even if a theory is correct.
  • There are no good empirical studies which test the different learning style models.
  • One way to determine your learning style is to take a questionnaire. There are commercial companies, which create these questionnaire. There is a lot of money to be made. Particularly, if these methods  are used to hire people.
  • It can be a problem, if student is "diagnosed" as one type of learning. For example, if they decide they are a kinesthetic learner, then they may just assume that they will learn nothing from a set of lectures.
  • Even if a teacher finds out that a class of students has many different learning styles then somehow the teacher should teach the same material in many different ways to appeal to the spectrum of the classes learning styles.
  • Rather than focusing on what learning style a student has, it is probably much better to get the student to think about the way they learn -- to try and optimize the process. 

My conclusion is that there needs to be much better studies of the effectiveness of the different learning style models, before I need to use them.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

More thoughts on using the whiteboard (UKPSF: K4)

I was happy with teaching using a combination of slides and writing on the whiteboard. However, it is clear that I can't depend on having a whiteboard available to me in rooms I am scheduled to teach in.

There are some studies of the effect of using the whiteboard versus an interactive whiteboard.
  • For example, this paper discusses writing on the whiteboard in relation to the cognitive structure of the students. 
  • There are some studies of comparing using the white board versus an interactive white board. For example, here     and here  .  
There are some hints about using the whiteboard.

podcasting (UKPSF: K4, K3, A4)

I am teaching a foundation year course in Physics. The topics are essentially electromagnetism and a bit of quantum theory.  I mostly use slides to present the material, but I like to work problems on the white board. Unfortunately, this year I am in a room with no board. There is a visualizer, where I can write on the screen. Unfortunately, I can't actually see the screen very well, because it is on the wrong side of  the podium. My handwriting is not good and the poor set up of the visualizer is making things worse. One of the students complained to me about my handwriting.

I want to try to use my Ipad, the department gave me, to project from the Ipad to the screen. One possible App is called: Explain Everything.   I have not yet got a cable to connect my Ipad, but I have been playing with the above App. One of the students asked if I was going to make any podcasts.
Below is my first podcasts.

The myth of Humoldt and education (UKPSF: A5,V4)

In the PGCAP literature I quite often see references to Humboldtian model of higher education . For example in the book:

Enhancing Learning And Teaching In Higher Education: Engaging With The Dimensions Of Practice edited by John Lea, there is a discussion piece by Mike Neary.


Mike is very much against teaching as the transmission of knowledge. He is impressed by foundation and guiding principles of the University of Berlin in 1812, by Humboldt and others.  He wants the students to essentially just do independent research projects.

He is also worried by the separation of research and teaching.

People like this type of Education model for Universities, because it
involves research with undergraduate students and stresses liberal
arts values.

It is never clear how accurate the scholarship is of Humboldtian educational values are.  I have read the paper: Bachelor of What, Master of Whom? The Humboldt Myth and Historical Transformations of Higher Education in German-Speaking Europe and the US by Mitchel Ash.  This paper looks as the author has a better grasp of the material than many people in the PGCAP community.

Mitchel claims that the principles below are the basic ideas of the Humboldtian educational values.
  • Freedom of teaching and learning. Students had as much right to choose their instructors and subjects as professors had to decide what and how they taught.
  • The unity of teaching and research.  He thought that learning is a collaborative enterprise, in which ‘the professors are not there for the students, but rather both are there for science. 
  • The unity of science and scholarship. 
  • The primacy of ‘pure’ science over specialized professional training.
    In his article Mitchel notes that Humboldt's writings on education were unpublished, so were not very influential for a long time, because no one knew about them.  His writings were only rediscovered at the end of the 19th century and were used as motivation to reform a system, he had helped to found. The article claims that PhDs were only started to be awarded at the end of the 19th century. Also, it should be remembered that this educational system loosely based on Humboldt's idea, was run, when only 1% of the population attended University, rather than the mass education system we have now.
In the USA, there are small liberal arts colleges, where students have to take a few science courses when they take humanity courses. Similarly, science students have to take some humanity classes. It looks as though these colleges were influenced bu Humboldt, but since his writings were unknown, Mitchel thinks that this is unlikely. The undergraduate degree seems to have been invented in the USA, so undergraduate degrees did not exist in Germany in the 19th Century.

The paper ends with a discussion of the Bologna process on trying to create a common standard of University education across Europe.

Given that Humboldt's ideas, if they existed at all, only worked for a University with only 1% of the population, in a system where there were no undergraduate degrees.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Adding simulations to physics lectures (UKPSF: K1, K2, K4,A1)

In the School of Computing, Electronics and Mathematics, the rule is that a teaching activity is reviewed by another member of staff one a year. Last year, in my course on foundation level physics was reviewed. The lectures were on the topic of  alternating current .  The lectures notes I am using have been used for over 5 years and were not written by me.  Normally they contain many inline exercises that the students can work through in class.

Unfortunately,  the lectures on alternating current didn't contain many inline exercises. Also I started the lecture with a long review of what we did in the previous lecture. I didn't put in too much detail in the review, because that had been covered in the first lecture on the topic.  The reviewer didn't like the lecture too much, because it wasn't very interactive. Also he wanted more background information for the review material.

I am going to rewrite some of the material on the alternating current. I have started to use a set of web based simulation codes called PHET from the University of Colorado. In principle these can be used to explore questions with the students. One direction the work on reviewing alternating current can go, is to look at Electromagnetic waves. The simulations are designed using ideas from Physics Education Research. For example, they use "think aloud" techniques to find out how the students approach problem solving.

One way to understand electromagnetic waves is to first start with waves on a string, so  this simulation can be used.