Labs, lectures and luring young people into science

My Education Week: Cormac O Raifeartaigh, lecturer in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology


On Monday morning, I give a talk about our physics degree course to students from secondary schools in Waterford and Kilkenny. The physics team at WIT maintain close links with teachers throughout the region, conspirators in the luring of young people into careers in science and engineering. The students seem interested in the course, especially in a module I teach on the physics of the universe and I have the impression they also like the cafés, restaurants and general feel of the college. However, most will choose UCC or UCD when the time comes, and some will never return to the southeast. This constant drain of young people to the larger cities is a major challenge for the region.

After lunch, I give a lecture in applied physics to civil-engineering students, followed by a two-hour practical. It’s a great hands-on physics course to teach, and working alongside lecturers in the engineering school is interesting because of their extensive experience in industry. That said, the lab is tiring and I’m glad when it’s over at 5pm.

After tea, I retire to the office. It’s my favourite time of day becuase I’m free to pursue my own research for a few hours as the college quietens down. On Wednesday, it will be my turn to present our weekly research seminar and I want to discuss the exciting new results from the Planck satellite and their implications for our understanding of the universe. I was lucky enough to catch the first detailed presentations of this data at a conference in Cambridge over Easter and I hope to convey the excitement of the occasion.

Most of the results support what we thought we knew about the universe, but some major new puzzles have emerged.

On Tuesday mornings, I take our physics degree students for a double lecture in their science-and-society module. This course examines issues at the interface of science and society and we’re currently studying the physics of climate change. It’s a fascinating subject for any physicist to teach, but it’s such an active field it’s hard to keep my lecture notes up to date.

In the afternoon, I take first science-for-maths tutorials in the computer labs. Today’s questions are quite challenging; I’m sympathetic because I know it’s hard for the students to keep up to date in all six of their subjects.

After tea, it’s back to the office to prepare Wednesday’s seminar. I’m used to giving talks on cosmology, but there is a lot of new data to summarise. The Planck collaboration has published 18 papers on its results, so I’m glad I took notes at Cambridge.

Home then, to watch Game of Thrones .
Another lecture on climate physics this morning. We’re coming to the end of the course and I’m delighted to see there will be time left over to take another look at the physics of the ice ages, a fascinating phenomenon.

After lunch, I give my Planck seminar. It’s hosted by the college science society as well as our maths and physics group so we get a good turnout of staff and students. It seems to go well and the question-and-answer session afterwards is very enjoyable, as ever. After tea, it’s back to the office to write up the new data in my teaching notes while they’re still fresh in my mind.

More maths tutorials this afternoon and meetings throughout the day. Someone mentions the possibility of an increase in teaching hours due to cutbacks. This is a real concern as IOT lecturers already have teaching duties far in excess of our university counterparts.

In fact, our teaching load of 18 hours a week is comparable with that of secondary-school teachers in many countries. Typically, it involves the preparation and delivery of four distinct courses per semester, many of which are degree level to meet the demands of modern industry.

I like a broad teaching portfolio, but there is little time left over for research, an important activity for third-level academics.

Some research groups at WIT have become very successful despite the teaching load, but there is a human cost in terms of long hours and work-life balance. Another problem is that course leaders and year-tutors have very little time to do the important job of coordinating the subjects, students and lecturers on a given course.

It’s hard to see a long-term solution – the mooted upgrade to technological university status would certainly be a game-changer, for the region as well as the college, but such hopes have been raised many times before.

There is good news on the research front today. A book with the splendid title Origins Of The Expanding Uni verse 1912-1932 has arrived. It contains a historical paper of mine and several other articles I refereed. The book is the outcome of an unusual conference I attended in the US, where physicists, historians and astronomers debated who first discovered the expansion of the universe.

Browsing through one article, I am reminded of something I have long believed: it’s much easier to understand and accept something if you know how it was discovered.

Friday is my outreach day and this morning, I’m preparing a talk on the Higgs boson for a local astronomy group. As a science ambassador for Discover Science and Engineering, I spend quite a bit of time on public science lectures, newspaper articles and a science blog. I enjoy the challenge of outreach lectures; they’re an interesting mix of performance art and rugged science.

More seriously, I think scientists have a responsibility to explain their findings to the public. Many scientific organisations have come to realise the importance of science communication, from debunking a supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism to explaining the dangers of global warming.

Recently, I spent a year with the Science, Technology and Society programme at Harvard University and I came back more convinced than ever of the importance of a public awareness of science and its methods.

I have a very enjoyable lunch in our staff restaurant with colleagues who lecture in French, mathematics and theology. There is great interaction between academics in the different disciplines at WIT, I hope the college doesn’t ever grow too large for this.

On Friday afternoon, I take first science for their physics labs. By 4.30pm, there are few undergraduates left in the college, so I let them off early.

It has been a hectic week, but now I want to get home to practise the violin for some chamber music on Saturday.

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