Collegiate Commentary: Five things that broadened our horizons about ‘Innovations in Science Teaching’ series

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In this extra post, we share with you the Collegiate Commentary from the latest Teaching Matters newsletter: Five things that broadened our horizons from the ‘Innovation in Science Teaching’ series. The regular newsletter format – ‘Five things…’ – summarises key messages from one of our two-month Learning and Teaching Enhancement or Hot Topic themes. While Teaching Matters primarily showcases University of Edinburgh teaching and learning practice, our core values of collegiality and support extend beyond our institution, inviting a wider, international community to engage in Teaching Matters. In the Collegiate Commentary feature, we ask colleagues from other Universities to provide a commentary on ‘Five things…’, and share their own learning and teaching reflections, resources or outputs on the same topic. In this newsletter, we welcome a commentary from Dr Richard Lewis,  Director of Learning and Teaching at Cardiff University School of Physics and Astronomy.

The “Innovation in Science Teaching” series is, in my opinion, an excellent way to highlight the inspiring work of colleagues who have quietly implemented effective innovations and creative approaches to teaching and learning to the great benefit of their students, colleagues, and institutions during the pandemic. I was therefore delighted to be invited to comment on this series, and I shall address each of the five themes from the newsletter in turn, as well as giving an additional perspective from Cardiff University.

1. Academics are currently addressing the ‘adoption gap’ to make EdTech more usable for all: In 2020, I co-authored an opinion piece with Professor Timothy Drysdale and others on the value and potential of Non-Traditional Work Practices (NTPWs), such as remote laboratories. As Tim and his colleagues in the School of Engineering have shown, it is entirely possible to boost students’ active engagement with real physical equipment while reducing the ever-growing pressure on the University’s limited estate. The adoption of AR by the Edinburgh Medical School underlines some of the major advantages of the NTPW approach; it is safe, enables educational affordances not possible with traditional methods, and enhances accessibility.

Our approach to undergraduate labs at the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff has been to enable safe, socially distanced physical labs while allowing students unable to attend physically to “dial in” by means of a Zoom-based camera and microphone system at each laboratory station. My colleague, Dr Simon Doyle, implemented this system for our undergraduate labs. He notes:

If students had been required to attend in person, a number would have fallen below the minimum required 80% lab attendance as well as losing the opportunity for active engagement. With this simple system, they could keep actively joining in, and no-one was disadvantaged

I observed some of the interactions between students physically present and those attending remotely. Only one student had their hands on the equipment, but both students shared a laboratory script. Approaches to the session varied organically depending on students’ personalities and rapport. Established lab partners might divide roles between “procedure reader / sanity checker” and “operator / reporter”, for example. Those still building up their rapport might have a more equal investment in all activities, although the remote student’s operation requests had to be communicated verbally. All absolutely fascinating to watch. How do I think that our approach could be improved? Simon and I both think that a system that allows students the possibility of attending labs physically (as before), in a mixed mode (as now), or remotely (with real kit, as per Tim’s system) then you would have the experiential bases covered. Different experiences, for sure, but that is no bad thing.

2. Teaching beyond the ‘doing’ of science: At the postgraduate taught level, students are at a fascinating threshold between “consumers” and “producers” of science. Together with my colleague, Professor Paul Roche at the School of Physics and Astronomy, I have run a core MSc programme which resolves the apparent tension between the “doing” of science and the “being” of scientists. When we first started, I did not realise just how innovative our design was. We are co-located with the MSc students in a dedicated MSc teaching area, we organise our students into self-sufficient research groups of about six students each with academic / PGR oversight, and we develop our students into practitioners with highly realistic collaborative learning, problem-based learning, and student ownership of learning. In other words, we provide the ethos, environment, and the opportunity for the students to develop.

Within a very short time, the MSc students have formed a self-sustaining and self-supporting community of practice. Just as with fully-fledged academic research groups, the support and diversity of skillsets and personalities are a force multiplier for the students’ development. It is a phenomenally efficient and effective model, and one I am proud to say was a strong theme in my 2019 National Teaching Fellowship award. The work of colleagues at Edinburgh to develop students as highly skilled, reflective scientific practitioners is very much in the same vein. Our work shares the ethic that students are not mere “consumers” of science, but with the right kind of opportunity and support, they can also be truly excellent co-practitioners and co-creators. In other words, they are our fellow scientists.

3. Covid accelerated the adoption of EdTech in university teaching: I love Conway’s Game of Life; the classic cellular automata demonstration. I have an implementation of it on my MiSTer FPGA system, which I find endlessly fascinating. One of the options I like in this implementation is the ability to randomly populate the play field after which the simulation continues to play out. Even though the randomisation stage happens in a single frame, it has a particular sense of drama, as if you have shaken up the world and now just want to see what happens. Most patterns quickly dissolve into nothing, but some particularly clever patterns are stable; they survive the shake-up.

With the shake-up caused by the pandemic, institutions are quite rightly searching for the clever patterns in teaching and learning. I was very impressed by the creativity shown by the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies with their ingenious use of what, until quite recently, might have been thought of as “just a game”. Ironic given that the utility of gamification in education is now such a topic of interest. Similarly with the AR/MR innovation in the School of Biological Sciences. In both cases, talented educators have drawn links across disciplinary and experiential divides to provide valuable learning experiences that are worthwhile in the context of a pandemic and will remain so beyond it. Clever, stable teaching patterns.

I can think of many examples of successful 3D/VR/AR projects run by our Outreach and Public Engagement Team at the School of Physics and Astronomy, but in keeping with the theme of students as co-creators, I am reminded of my former MSc student’s research projects. In just 12 weeks, this student developed a prototype VR application that allowed the user to interact in real-time with a simulation of galaxies whose morphology was realistically represented and derived from real-world catalogues. This student felt confident enough to demo this in real-time at their dissertation stage presentation. A reminder, if one was ever needed, that our students are a rich source of creativity, enthusiasm, and talent.

4: Careful online course design can eliminate the “attainment gap”: Physics and engineering share the common language of mathematics. For decades, physics students have sat written examinations and coursework where derivations and calculations have been conducted with pen and paper. This approach is so entrenched and familiar it would be all too easy to assume that it is the best way. The one question I have learned to ask of everything since this pandemic has started is “is there a better way?” In this case, the answer is “yes”.

My colleague in the School of Physics and Astronomy, Dr Annabel Cartwright, has trialled the use of Möbius for the weekly mathematics tests for her first year “Mathematical Methods” module. As Annabel notes:

Questions could be set requiring numerical or algebraic answers, and these could be set up with parameters that varied for each student, so that the students were all seeing slightly different questions. There was a high level of engagement, with nearly all students completing all the tests. Because of the randomization in the questions, students could be given their marks and feedback immediately on completion of the tests. Marks were automatically copied to Grade Centre. Our Digital Education staff have done an excellent job of interfacing Möbius with Learning Central, so marks and feedback were available to students with no problems. I had access to the marks and attempts of the students and could go through and double-check any queries which students had. The ability to set algebraic problems, and for example problems with multiple components, allowed much higher quality questions to be set, and removed the possibility of guessing.

This example from my own School, together with the excellent work of the School of Mathematics at the Edinburgh, show that careful online course design and the appropriate choice of tools can eliminate not just the “attainment gap” but the “engagement gap” as well.

5. Achieving authentic and effective hybrid teaching and learning in science is possible: The thought of attempting to turn a fully practical course into a truly bespoke and effective hybrid course makes me feel a little queasy. I am incredibly impressed by the work by Dr Dani Orejon who has managed exactly this. The feedback from the students speaks for itself. It can be done, but the resolve required to avoid the pull towards blended or fully remote is surely considerable.

Several of my colleagues have run hybrid or part-hybrid courses to great success. My Physics and Astronomy colleague, Dr Matthew Smith, won a Cardiff University Students Union Enhancing Student Life Award in the “Covid Hero” category for his hybrid modules “Introduction to Astronomy” and “Galaxies and Galaxy Evolution”. In common with the themes identified throughout this piece, truly effective hybrid delivery enhances accessibility and provides unique educational opportunities.

Professor Stephen Rutherford is a long-standing colleague of mine, the Head of the Education Division of the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University, and a National Teaching Fellow. I asked him if he had to choose one big lesson learned from the pandemic, what would it be?

Steve chose the importance of providing students with a safe way to ask questions. He compared the kinds of questions he would be asked following a face-to-face lecture and after an online lecture. In contrast to the few questions Steve would receive following a face-to-face lecture, “in online teaching I regularly spent 15-20 minutes after online lectures answering a stream of really insightful questions. The relative anonymity of a Chat function in Zoom or Teams was enough to encourage students to ask a question that they would never have dared to ask in a room of 500 other people.” Steve has retained this facility in face-to-face teaching via the Q&A function on Mentimeter to allow students to ask questions during the lecture which he pauses every 10 to 15 minutes to answer. In this simple and elegant way, Steve reinforces the lecture’s important points while simultaneously providing regular breaks.

Concluding remarks: Covid has been incredibly disruptive and forced us to challenge our assumptions about teaching and learning. In many cases it has highlighted things that we did not even realise we were assuming. I very much look forward to discovering more of the inventive approaches and resources that our colleagues have come up with – I am sure that we have only just scratched the surface. One thing is for certain: there is a better way.

Richard Lewis

Dr Richard Lewis is the Director of Learning and Teaching at Cardiff University School of Physics and Astronomy. Richard teaches extensively on the School’s MSc programmes, and has won multiple institutional, national, and international awards for excellence and innovation in teaching. Richard is a Member and Chartered Physicist of the Institute of Physics, a National Teaching Fellow, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and an Enfys Friend and Supporter.

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