Sunday, 17 July 2016

For the love of Physics

 Today I finished reading: For the love of physics by Walter Lewin. Lewin was famous for his physics lectures at MIT, particularly when they were posted online. The most iconic moment in his course was when he let a big pendulum off in front of him. The point was that it didn't swing back and smash
him in the head, because of energy conversation.

The book is enjoyable, but also a bit strange. It starts out with popular real world physics, but the second half is about his research into X-ray astronomy mostly using ballons. The last chapter is about Modern Art. He is a big collector and he has worked with some artists. I liked the way he used in the end chapter the metaphor "ways of seeing" to unify his interests in art and physics.

I was disappointed that there were not a lot of discussion of his teaching methods. It  does look as though he was an inspirational teacher. In the book he reported that he gave out flowers, when he displayed Maxwell's equations on the screen. Students wrote to him to say they remember the flowers, if nothing else from the course.  Students liked the demos as well.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Staying ahead at work

Our School is judged by the employability of our students, when they graduate. So we are always looking for ways to build in methods to make sure our teaching equips the students with useful jobs skills. One person suggested developing a system for the students to create a portfolio of their skills.

Last week I read the book "Staying ahead at work" by Karen Mannering. The subtitle of the book was: "How to develop a winning portfolio of work skills and attitudes?"

The book was more focused on people already working in a company and helping them get a promotion or a new better job. So there was a lot of stuff about getting a mentor, or a coach,
and the importance of networking. She also suggested writing an "action plan" to plan for career development and advancement. It was not particularly useful for students at University.

Towards a unified theory of problem solving

I have just read the short book: Towards a unified theory of problem solving, which is edited by Mike Smith. The book contained a set of chapters about teaching problem solving in diffferent subjects, such as:
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Medicine
  • Programming
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Trouble shooting (finding problems in machines).
I teach physics and mathematics, this involves trying to get the students to solve problems.
The aim of the book was to see if there were generic methods of solving problems, which are useful for all subjects.  In the end I didn't see any conclusion that there was a universal method of solving problems in any domain.

There was much discussion about the differences between the problem solving skills of experts and novices. Also there was issues about much information the students needed before they started trying to solve problems. Experts would experiment a bit more before they started to calculate. At the end of the solution of the problem, experts would think about better ways of solving the problems.

The way that TAs explained solutions to problems didn't help students to learn better problem solving techniques.

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