ViCE PHEC with the IOP

The looming threat of the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework has left some universities wriggling, with funding being linked to quality rather than quantity of education. For some, this is of no concern: they have got a well-supported, well-respected group of teaching fellows who proactively campaign for the student experience. The Variety in Chemistry Education/ Physics Higher Education Conference (‘ViCEPHEC’) celebrates these people. I attended as I’m determined for undergraduates to get the most out of their education, I want more people working in physics (not investment banks) and I’m keen to find how teaching innovation translates to the school environment.

ViCE PHEC covers a range of interesting themes and wonderful ideas that make you so happy education exists. Much to my surprise there are whole departments with real-life PhD students researching education and even UK-based academic educational journals for teachers and researchers. Heads-up if you’re just finishing a PhD looking to get in to higher-ed research: in studies you can get away with a much smaller sample size, and you’ll likely get the keynote spot at a teaching conference. Whilst physicists were physically outnumbered by the chemists, with less interactive 3D molecular models, we weren’t any less engaged, and the higher education group of the IOP met a day early to formulate our plan.

Improve Labs: A big proportion of talks are from university groups using laboratories to promote scientific thinking. It became evident that to make sure undergraduates benefit from their time in undergraduate labs, they must do more than try to confirm known results. There are some universities who have really invested in teaching labs; employing dedicated lab coordinators and they see big improvements in the dreaded student satisfaction surveys (NSS). Labs can be structured so that errors/uncertainties are not what you Google frantically before a lab deadline and instead of storage rooms for broken multimeters, they become places to encourage group-work and enquiry.

School vs. University: There is comparison between graduate and secondary school teaching, where you may have an undergraduate degree in your discipline but (crucially) you’re taught how to teach. In universities, the lecturers are the experts in their disciplines, but not taught pedagogy or explicitly “how to teach”. The students change their study approaches too, recognizing that there is less guidance and they need more motivation and administration. Could teachers integrate decreasing levels of support into year 13? Can sixth form students become independent scientific researchers, who contribute to the academic community and learn how to be self-sufficient in a lab?

How can researchers support and improve exams and assessment?

  • Do multiple choice questions encourage “What” not “Why”?
  • Instead of marking numerical answers and calculator confidence, could we evaluate model-making and diagram skills?
  • Could ‘talking-mark schemes’ and self-assessment improve student expectations and study practice?

There’s some innovative/ terrifying way of students evaluating their teachers: from coded free-text on post-it notes to the real-time geographical anonymous social network “YikYak”.

Particularly impressive is that lots of the research has been carried out by summer project, MSc and postgraduate students, developed by students for students.

The extortionate student fees are making undergraduates more demanding. If they’re paying for it, should undergraduates should get what they “want”? Should physics departments be responsible for the delivery of professional skills courses to a next-generation of investment bankers?

One of my favourite talks was Ian Bearden from the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. In a matter of minutes, he had the whole lecture theatre on their feet playing with pendulums. Bearden points out that students can get everything they want online (particularly appropriate after MIT’s recent open publication of all their teaching materials), downloading free lectures with the click of a button. Universities have to offer something different: a community of scholars who can welcome and develop inquisitive minds.


Physics with the Sutton Trust

I’ve been allowed to plan the physics strand of the Sutton Trust summer school! What an absolute joy. For three days, I’ve got free reign of the schedules of 22 year 12 scientists. Here’s what we got up to:

Date Time Session
Tuesday 2nd August 13:30 – 16:30 Medical Imaging and Tour of Hammersmith (Nuclear Medicine, Echo, MRI)
Wednesday 3rd August 09:30 – 12:30 Isaac Physics (Exponentials in physics)
Wednesday 3rd August 12:00 – 13:00 MAGPIE Tour (Plasma) & Physics Workshop Tour
Wednesday 3rd August 13:30 – 16:30 Geophysics (Earth Sciences & Engineering)
Thursday 4th August 09:30 – 12:30 Flexible Devices from the Centre for Plastic Electronics (CPE)
Thursday 4th August 13:30 – 16:30 Bletchley Park (Making a Pringles Enigma)!


Links & Resources:

Guide to Our Activities

Slides for CPE

Sutton Trust Links & Resources

Ivan’s Slides


An evening in London

Makerversity claims to be “Europe’s most exciting community of emergent maker businesses”, but it feels like an incredibly trendy secret that people with fluffy beards only tell you after you graduate from art school. Deep underneath Somerset House’s East Wing, the Makerversity offers workshop and desk space to creative types, at a substantial cost and on a competitive waiting list. They run tours once a month, which fill up weeks in advance, and despite my Mancunian science hangover I was keen to explore. I’m not quite sure what I expected but it certainly wasn’t what I got. The Makerversity feels like it could be brilliant but to me it never quite meets the mark. The tour guide didn’t have any answers and it seemed like you’d have to kill someone to get one of the private vaults (start-up workshop spaces). Everyone had a Macbook air and a snazzy haircut. The Makerversity doesn’t run any training on their 3D printers/ sewing machines/ laser cutters, but there is “always a trained technician on site”, only he’s “not here now”. The workshops themselves are very small and, at first glance, less well-equipped than a school’s art department. IMG_0964What was awesome were the rest of the people on the tour I met a wonderful lady who was refreshing to be around and made the whole underground rip-off much easier to swallow. Jane was knocked off her bike outside St Mary’s hospital, and so badly injured she developed epilepsy. Jane is fascinated by empathy and virtual reality, and was paid by a big pharma company to create an artwork explaining the world through her eyes to the wider world. Jane’s video, ‘In My Shoes,’, has premiered everywhere, from London to Sheffield to Canada and right across America. I even got a chance to watch Jane’s video, in a posh room behind the Somerset House café, where we drank orange carrot juice and I told her my dad could have been her neurologist.

Afterward I caught the District Line to Whitechapel to listen to STEMPra’s “Good Blog, Bag Blog” discussion.

EuroScience Open Forum

I spent the passed three days at the European Open Science Forum (ESOF), in Manchester, using a TimPix radioactivity detector on a stand with CERN. Life doesn’t get much more surreal. I’m actually in EIRO forum, a collaborative effort of Europe’s world leading research facilities. I spent three days comparing the radioactivity of macadamia nuts, brazil nuts and bananas. The most radioactive by far were Sainsbury’s bolivian Brazil nuts, which were popping out alpha particles like it was nobody’s business. I was lucky enough to be with James Gillies, head of strategic planning for CERN, a very well informed and eloquent physicist who has been in Geneva since the mid-80s. I hadn’t appreciated the historic significance of CERN: built to unite countries whose relationships and enthusiasm had been crushed by a world war, celebrating discovery and curiosity. Whilst I’m clutching at wires and trying to find an appropriate plug socket, James recounts the day they first turned the 27 km ring on and when they launched the first proton down the tunnel. There were hundreds of press officers and communications teams in the audience, mixed among the scientists and researchers, all predicting this was the day the world would end. One blue dot on the computer screen in the control room told them the launch had been successful, and when the second blue dot appeared, there were tears of joy, hugs and celebration. The significance of seeing those tiny dots popping up on the screen didn’t only move the CERN crew, but the onlookers, journos and pessimists.

Fast forward 4 years and there were tears in the ESA launch room as the Rosetta mission made its way toward Comet 67 G-P. Rosetta’s philae probe went to sleep on Wednesday 27th July 2016, when I was lucky enough to be in a room with Mark McCaughrean, ESA’s senior science advisor. So what’s cool about comets? To Mark, comets are just like the dust left over in a house from when you built it. It’s the material that’s hung around since the beginning of the universe: the water, the carbon dioxide, the organic molecules. Comets help us to understand the building blocks of the place we call home. How do you fire a rocket at a comet? It’s almost impossible to join a comet’s path, unless you ride the gravitational push of planets on the way. Our first images of the comet showed a big cliff, which McCaughrean thought might be ideal base jumping. Other than the fact it would be the most boring base jump in history. The gravity on Comet 67 G-P is so low that it would take you 20 minutes to get to land, and, when you eventually did, you’d arrive at 25 cm s-1, ¼ of your walking pace. Even the launch could kill you- the escape velocity of Comet 67 G-P is only 0.9 m s -1, which is equivalent to jumping 4 cm.

After hanging out with the CERN crew for two days, I’ve spent every minute wishing I was as chic and stylish as these European physicists. They wear great clothes and drink rubbish coffee and eat Manchester Central’s sandwiches without batting an eyelid, they query the humour of ‘Pi with the Prof’, a drop in lunch discussion, and they give cracking talks without batting an eyelid. They’re also part of the most incredible, ground breaking, world-uniting science experiment on the planet. Claire’s one of their resident researchers, a South African genius who is on a mission to study the fundamental relationships of the universe. To Claire, the world is to be explored, and the Standard Model of Particle Physics is like a menu in a fancy restaurant. Instead of ordering based on price, you order based on energy (GeV/c2), and the Higgs is an exceptionally rare dish. That’s good news for Claire- she gets to go for a lot of lunches. I took part in an ‘floating’ panel discussion on ‘keeping the science alive’ for the younger generation, and went for a fancy dinner in a restaurant that footballers go to, where your drinks menu is on an iPad. (You can’t order from an iPad, and the paper menu is on the table too). Whilst I’m in Manchester I also managed to fit in an evening a Pint of Science, who were hosting a Women in Tech night with Science Grrl. I’ve only ever seen Dr Heather Williams, chair of the IOP’s Women in Physics group, wearing fancy clothes in the marble-lined palace that is the Institute of Physics. Tonight she’s speaking to the quite surfeited crowds of Pie & Ale, explaining positron emission tomography using colourful tennis balls and a hula hoop. It works. There’s a pub quiz based on allergies (including a music round featuring songs like ‘Honey to the Bee’) and the opportunity to extract the DNA from your spit- although, this proves very difficult for me.

I had to squish in a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry and a visit to their new Wonder Materials exhibition. Wonder Materials, a celebration of the city’s discovery of graphene, is the only exhibition I’ve ever seen with a sellotape dispenser in a Perspex box. They’ve got examples of pieces of graphite from the hills of Borrowdale, pencils from the Keswick pencil museum (shout out to my childhood in the Lake District!), and a mock clean room you can dress up for. I could spend thousands of pounds in the MSI shop, from the graphene notebooks to the I love Manchester tea towels and sky drive motorised planes. After a wonderful train journey, I dropped of my bag and Medipix/ Cern @ School radioactivity detector at home and jumped on the tube to tour Makerversity in Somerset House.


Liquid assets after a late night at the Museum of Science & Industry:

An evening in Manchester means lunch with my northern family. Here’s the Feinmann Feynman Diagram:

Sci Comm Careers 101: @SciCommSocLDN

An American journalist in the audience described SciComm London’s careers speed-dating as a ‘Giant’ session of ‘free therapy’ and said it had restored her faith in the crazy country we’ve created over the past few weeks. There were some pretty epic panelists, from comms experts to big dogs in public engagement, directors of galleries and coordinators of science shows at media festivals:


What’s important:

  • Never leave a job after less than a year, preferably two
  • Use each job to develop skills for the next job you want- find out what you want to do and shape where you are to train yourself
  • Never expect to be paid well for science communication
  • An academic CV is nothing like a CV in real life
  • For volunteering/ ‘outreach’ positions, detail these in a cover letter
  • Unfortunately, university ‘widening participation and outreach’ departments become a holding spot for PhD graduates
  • Whilst most people acknowledge you don’t need a science PhD or degree, lots of places request it now as a prerequisite. It’s important to say what you can bring to a position (enthusiasm, overview, communication skills- “translating public science into culture”)
  • Clever comms officers treat research groups like knowledge mineshafts, loaded with knowledge and understanding. Comms teams can shout up the important parts.
  • If you’re uncomfortable about your job title, learn a few sentences that describe what you do
  • Never run a pop-up science shop 7 days a week- it gets exhausting
  • There is no need to have an MSci in Science Communication to succeed in science communication
  • If you’re considering doing a PGCE, it’s probably worth it, and can be a passport to teaching for life
  • The data in the BSA’s Public Engagement Survey isn’t 100 % legit- perhaps not 66 % of science communicators are not women… perhaps just 66 % of BSA survey respondents are women
  • Science can be powerfully used to inspire public dialogue and debate
  • Moving from ‘hands-on’ science communication to management means a loss of the ‘warm fuzzy’ instant gratification
  • Science funding might be changing, to focus on people creating futures
  • There’s loads and loads of money being pumped into science communication now

Oh, and then evening was spent here, discussing robots with the Lords.

Institute of Research in Schools: TimPix CPD Day


The TimPix project will offer schools the unique opportunity to carry out their own research using radiation data from Timepix detectors (based on technology from CERN) on board the International Space Station. These detectors monitor the type of radiation Astronauts and Cosmonauts come into contact with whilst in orbit. The radiation comes from the Sun and other sources outside our Solar System. TimPix and CERN@School are part of the new Institute for Research in Schools – a national charity supporting sixth form students in performing original academic research.

Pupils will have the opportunity to share their results at a Research Symposium in November 2016.