This is the second instalment of my end-of-career reflection on undergraduate teaching and learning – or, rather, on a few of the ‘experiments’ I undertook in that context.
Final year projects are often regarded as the highlight of a student’s time with us and I was fortunate in having a leading role in defining their ethos. They offer the scope for genuinely open-ended high-level research, albeit necessarily time-limited and confined to areas in which there’s a suitable academic guide. Although still applicable to the minority of students, it has always encouraged me to see how many of them achieve enough work of a high enough standard to find its way into co-authored research journal papers. For the four-year masters-level degree programme, wherein the project constituted half of the final year and was therefore a ‘big deal’, a particular innovation was the introduction of ‘role play’ into their summative talk. I set the whole thing up as though it was a research conference: abstract booklet, tight timetable … and the pièce de la résistance: bringing someone in to film the whole thing and then using the footage to provide feedback. From its inception, this conference model had the effect of encouraging students to raise their game. One of the most common student feedback comments established that this was simultaneously the scariest and also the most exhilarating part of the whole exercise. Even now, a decade or so later and after successive generations of our external examiners have praised the practice, my old department remains almost unique in offering the experience.
The group projects also provide me with my final example, which deals with the matter of teachers learning from their students. A group had decided to work around the topic of science in movies, and they expanded on this by designing a demonstration experiment projectile motion to illustrate one particularly poor bit of ‘Hollywood physics’. They trialed their experiment in a local school and with their first-year peers, and got some very positive feedback. I was so taken with what they achieved that I began to incorporate and develop the use of movie clips, snippets from newspapers etc. in my own teaching in order to try to spark discussion and analytical appraisal. Within a year I was extolling its virtues at teaching conferences. Somehow, a journalist in the USA heard about it and wanted to incorporate the idea in an article he was writing. Thankfully, the student group’s project manager was still around, by then as a postgraduate research student, and we jointly participated in a 45-minute ’phone interview with the journalist. The story made the front cover of the magazine, which was nice – but the bigger story remains centred on the long-term contribution made by my students on the way I presented physics to their succeeding generations. Such fun.
|Science News was, and I believe still is, an American science magazine published by the Society of Science and the Public. The group project manager whose team kicked this whole thing off contributed hugely to the interview; she is now a lecturer in physics herself (here).|
|This screenshot from my university’s e-learning web pages reveals a further legacy in that a few minutes from one of my own lecture recordings is still used to demonstrate the software to aspiring lecturers; quite flattering really.|
Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research.
4) Tools of the Trade – instruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? – gender balance in the research team
7) Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – making things work: discussion, consensus and decision?
8) Large-scale Facilities for Small-scale Science – the big ‘toys’ I’ve helped to build and to nurture
9a) Experiments in Teaching and Learning – teaching at a university (part 1)