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HEA STEM Conference, Imperial College, London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:05

If someone had told me that last week I would be hearing anecdotes about the Russian space programme, learning about muscle wastage in zero gravity and discovering that there is a type of rocket engine that is powered by a combination of rubber and hydrogen peroxide, I would not have believed them!

This blog post is all about a recent visit to the HEA STEM conference, held between the 12-13 April at Imperial College London.  STEM is an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  This aims to be a reflective post, to complement a live blog (HEA website) and corresponding twitter feed that was written throughout the two days of the conference.

STEM is a concept that embraces a significant number of disciplines, ranging from psychology through to the physical sciences and engineering.  I should add that I only attended the computing discipline strand (although all delegates were encouraged to be multi-disciplinary and attend others).  What follows is a summary of some of the highlights followed by an attempt (in my own relatively clumsily worded way) to present some personal reflections on what happened during the conference.

Introductions

The conference was opened by Janet De Wilde head of STEM at the HEA.  This was followed by an address by Professor Craig Mahoney (Chief Executive of the HEA).  Craig emphasised the necessity of a skilled workforce and mentioned a recent enquiry in the House of Lords which aims to explore why so many STEM graduates don't end up working in STEM jobs, but industry claims that there is a skills shortage.  Craig's overriding message for the conference was to look forward, be positive and to be creative.

The final introductory address was by Professor Steve Swithenby from the Open University. Steve emphasised the importance of working between and with different disciplines and asked the question of how we might sustain both discipline based and interdisciplinary research?  The answer: talking to people.  This was expressed as an implicit (but important) theme to the conference.

First day computing presentations: morning

There were two parallel computing streams.  To get the best out of the conference I chose what to go to using a heuristic based on interest and familiarity (specifically choosing subjects that I didn't know too much about).  In the morning of the first day I opted to attend the 'innovative practice in teaching and assessment' strand.

The first presentation was by Mark Kerrigan from the University of Greenwich.  Mark's presentation was all about the use of digital tools (such as Skype, blogging tools and so on) and how they might potentially be used through different phases of a programme of study.  Mark's introduced the Google motion chart, a tool that I had never heard of before.  Other resources that were mentioned included the JISC Escape project and Mapmyprogramme.

The second presentation, 'Enhancing small group teaching and learning using online student response systems' was by Harin Sellahawa, who introduced us to the EduMecca EU project.  There are those student response systems that use dedicated hardware and those that use the hardware belonging to students (i.e. their own smartphones); the EduMecca SRS, as far as I understand, makes use of the student's own smartphone.  Some of the challenges of using WiFi enabled smartphones being that some students might not have them, not all classrooms might have WiFi signals (although I'm sure this is changing), and even if they do, there might be reliability issues.  The pedagogic issues are just as important as the technical ones; whilst SRS systems may permit anonymous voting (permitting the quieter learners to more readily participate), the use of smartphones in class has the potential to be disruptive.

Virtual worlds were all the rage a couple of years ago, mainly due to the emergence of SecondLife which enabled users to create their own worlds and environments.  Educators were quick to consider whether such a tool would be useful for teaching and learning, and it was good to see that Colin Allison gave a short talk to bring us up to date on the developments within this area.  Colin's talk covered a couple of key points. 

The first main point is that it seems that open source virtual worlds, particularly OpenSimulator (or OpenSim) appear to be maturing.  One particularly interesting fact was that there appears to be protocol and scripting language compatibility between OpenSim and SecondLife.  One of the biggest risks of using SecondLife for education is that there is the possibility that LindenLabs could change 'the rules of the world' at any time.  Another argument is that you potentially expose students to a myriad of crazy and inappropriate distractions that can be easily discovered in SecondLife.

The other main point was the potential uses of a virtual world.  Colin gave a number of examples.  These included algorithm animation, the creation of learning resources in virtual spaces (such as a 'WiFi island', to convey principles underpinning this particular technology), as well as non-STEM subjects, such as a virtual reconstruction of St Andrews Cathedral.  More information can be found through the St Andrews OpenVirtualWorlds blog.

The morning session concluded with a brief poster session, where each presenter had to give a two minute impromptu presentation about why their own poster was worth a visit.

First keynote: Project bloodhound, Wing Commander Andy Green OBE

I always sense that giving a keynote speech at a conference is a pretty tough task.  A speaker should ideally present a subject that can connect with many of the debates that may occur throughout a conference, pose some challenging questions, and ultimately leave the audience inspired and energised.

Andy Green's fundamental question was, 'is it possible to build a car that runs at 1,000 miles an hour?'   His answer was, in essence, 'there are a bunch of people who are trying to do just this, and I'm going to be the driver'.

This is all very well and good, but how does this connect to STEM?  Andy offers a multitude of answers: designing a car requires engineering (obviously), copious amounts of computing power, a good amount of satellite imagery and a generous application of many of the STEM subjects (such as physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and so on).  Much of the connections can be seen through the Project Bloodhound SSC website (SSC being an abbreviation for Super Sonic Car).

Andy asked the audience, 'to make this car work, what problems do we have to solve?'  There was no shortage of answers.  The main one was 'keeping the car on the ground'.  Others were 'how to store the fuel, how to deal with heat, how to stop it, how to build the wheels...'  Many of the problems gave way to a brief presentation of some of the hard technical issues that have to be dealt with.  Computational fluid dynamics was mentioned, along with rocket science and how tough manufacturing challenges were being addressed.

Another question is: 'why do it?'  One answer is that the existing record is currently under threat by other teams.  Another connection question might be, 'why build a car that goes 1K mph when there are other bigger humanitarian problems to be solved?'  This is a fair question, but solving any technological problem requires a degree of design and innovation.  I personally feel that it is not (always) useful to make a judgement about what is a 'good' or a 'bad' problem to solve.  The innovation that occurs in a 'bad' problem might find its way to helping to find a solution for a 'good' problem.

Bloodhound SSC is described as an education project as well as a land speed record attempt.  It achieves this by providing many aspects of the design available for everyone to see.  Another dimension of the project is that on the day of the record attempt, telemetry data will also be provided for followers to see.  Computing is a subject that features from the initial design and operation of the car through to sharing of information about the project and the data that the project generates.

I have to admit that the talk was pretty inspiring.  Am I now more interested in subjects such as materials engineering and the chemistry of rocket propulsion?  I'll be lying if I said that I didn't (I admit to being somewhat more interested than I was before Andy's talk).  The biggest impact of the keynote, for me, wasn't so much the detail about the car, but the idea about the educational aims of the project.  This got me thinking.  I asked myself, 'what kind of project could I be involved with that might inspire people to take up (my special bit) of STEM?'  With this in my mind, I guess the keynote worked a treat.

First day computing presentations: afternoon

During the afternoon I split my time between two sessions, beginning with 'enhancing the employability of computing students' and then moving onto 'innovative practice in teaching and assessment'.

The first afternoon presentation, entitled 'understanding difficulties with generic conceptions of employablity' was presented by Martyn Clark.  The key point that I took away from this presentation was a very important one.  Simply put, different organisations have different cultures; one student may more readily fit into the culture of one organisation rather than another.  This raises the problem of how do we try to prepare students for the world of work when there is extensive variability?

The second presentation in the theme of employability was entitled, 'the inspiring teacher in computing' by Alistair Irons, University of Sunderland.  Alistair's presentation connected strongly with the keynote.  This reminded me of a sub-discipline of computing which can be broadly entitled 'computer science education'.

Being inspiring is, of course, important when it comes to student retention.  If one is not inspiring, learners may lose a lot of their motivation.  Alistair challenged us to consider what 'is not' inspiring.  The bullet point list of items make for an interest read: PowerPoints, lectures that are filled with loads of facts (which may make them tough to understand), lecturers being unprepared, lecturers who talk in monotone, lectures that are boring, lecturers who give the impression that they don't want to be there, and teachers who talk down to the students.

All these points are pretty negative, so how about considering the other perspective of what makes an inspiring lecturer?  Again, I can summarise by presented a bulleted list.  Key points are: lecturers who appear to be comfortable and are enthusiastic, who know their stuff and are willing to help, are friendly and approachable, make good use of humour and make good use of stories.  There was the comment that all these points could be compressed or summarised into three key points.  These are: personality and authenticity, experience, and finally, approaches and methods used.  To me, one point stands out, and that is authenticity and its sister attribute, humility.

A change of session led me to join Thomas Lancaster's presentation about contract cheating.  Contract cheating is where you pay someone else to write your assignment for you, passing it off as your own work.  One advantage of using this approach is that because the work is original (even though it isn't yours), it will not be detected by the usual plagiarism detection systems such as TurnitIn.  Thomas presented an interesting and slightly alarming summary of his (and his colleague's) analysis of sites that offered 'essay writing services'.  It struck me that the university sector has now entered an arms race; universities need to apply ever more sophisticated technology to detect cheating that may be facilitated through new ways of using technology.

At the end of Thomas's presentation a question was asked about whether software might be able to detect a 'step change' in the grammatical and linguistic style of submissions from students.  There are a couple of challenges of such an approach.  Firstly, to do this accurately you need a fairly big sample of texts.  Secondly, the writing style of students is likely to change and develop as they gain more experience.  I feel this will remain a challenge for computational linguists for some time to come.

Karl Stringer presented, 'A googlemaps feedback system implemented with Blackboard'.  Karl described a system where exercises (for a module entitled 'using the web') are mapped onto locations on a Google map, adopting a simple metaphor of a walking trail.  One of the really good points of this approach (ignoring the Blackboard dimension of the implementation) is that it makes use of software that is free to use, and helps students to understand what the current generation of web-based tools are capable of.  It was also thought provoking in the sense that it takes advantage of how we can remember maps through our spatial and visual memory.

The final presentation of the computing strand was by Peter Thomas from the Open University.  Pete described a tool that enables diagrams to be automatically assessed.  This means that a student may draw a diagram using a tool which is hosted within the Open University's implementation of Moodle, and the resulting diagram will then be assessed against a set of pre-defined answer.  Pete commented that the system he presented could cater for many different types of formal diagrams (which could include entity relationship diagrams and spray diagrams) and the marking accuracy was as good as human markers.  He also challenged us to send him diagrams which we thought the system might not be able to handle.

Second keynote: The next small step, Kevin Wong

We were asked to consider the story of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who led an expedition which circumnavigated the globe.  Magellan began with five ships and 237 men.  Magellan didn't make it back, but eighteen men did.  In the expedition all but one ships were lost, and 80% of the crew, facts which were surprising and shocking.  This emphasised the point that exploration is difficult.  It is difficult for a whole host of different reasons.

Kevin Wong is an astrophysicist and medic who worked for NASA.  Kevin's talk focused upon the challenge of a manned space flight to Mars.  After telling us about Magellan, Kevin then went onto present a concise and compelling history of space flight, firmly situating its history in the context of the cold war.  Whilst talking about the Apollo programme, we were reminded about Kennedy's defining speech at Rice University, 1962.

Kevin presented a number of questions which he tried to answer.  The main ones that I remember are: why go to Mars?  And, what are the main problems that we have to solve?  Other than being a project that is likely to inspire and facilitate the development of new technologies there is the fundamental question of life itself.  If there is no evidence of life, of any kind, on Mars, then this makes our humble planet all the more special.

Moving onto the problems, different mission options were described to us and one of the best options is likely to take two and a half years, with some considerable time to be spent on the surface of Mars.  Spaceflight exerts a huge physiological and psychological toll.   Without gravity, muscle and bone wastage is extraordinary, not to mention the increased risk of cancer due to exposure to radiation.  Astronauts will be confined in small uncomfortable environments for considerable lengths of time without the creature comforts and the luxurious opportunity for social interaction that we have on earth.  Human exploration of space, it is emphasised, is difficult (which, of course, is an understatement).

Kevin's talk concluded with the sharing of an image of a craft that could solve the challenges that weightlessness causes: a structure the size of the London Eye that rotates around 4 times a minute, which is enough to create artificial gravity through centrifugal force.  It could be built with materials that get stronger when they are subjected to stretching forces (if my memory serves me well!)  At the end of the second keynote Kevin was asked the ultimate question, 'if asked, would you go to Mars?', to which he responded, 'I would go to the moon... but Mars is something totally different'.

Second day computing presentations: first session

For the first part of the second day, I attended a workshop entitled, 'embedding employability attributes into the 1st year curriculum' by Paula Bernaschina and Serengul Smith, both from the University of Middlesex.  We were introduced to the CBI employability skills, something that I had never heard of before.  These skills were not specific to any specific discipline or subject.  Key skills related to: self-management, team working, problem solving, application of IT, communication and literacy, application of numeracy, and business and consumer awareness.  We were given the challenge of how to create activities that address each of these points.  More information about these skills can be obtained by viewing a report that can be downloaded from the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) website. Towards the end of the workshop, a question was asked as to whether there were any other employability guidelines that module designers might potentially use.  A personal view is that any skill that is developed within a module (or series of modules) always needs to be contextualised to ensure that its purpose and use is clear and its industrial relevance explained.

Second day computing presentations: second session

The final discipline specific session of the day comprised of a series of four presentations.  The first was by Jose-Luis Fernandez-Vindel and Tina Wilson (from UNED, in Spain, and the Open University respectively).  Jose spoke about the challenges of translating Open Educational Resources (OERs), which is akin to the problem of software localisation (Wikipedia), and connected the problem to the domain of learning (or instructional) design, mentioning a design tool called Compendium LD (Open University website).

The second presentation was by two Open University colleagues, Frances Chetwynd and Chris Dobbyn.  Frances and Chris have been involved with the production of a new first level introduction to computing module, entitled TU100 My Digital Life.  Their presentation, entitled 'consistency v autonomy: effective feedback to a very large cohort' aimed to share practice and experience in relation to developing and enhancing feedback that is given to students.  Since TU100 is a first level module, the issue of skills development is considered to be very important (to aid progression to later levels). 

One of the challenges of teaching some aspects of software design and computer programming is making use of compelling examples that are rich enough to get students to think.  Nicola Whitehead from Swansea Metropolitan University shares the perspective that when it comes to teaching how to create a use case (or a set of use cases), the canonical example of a student information system doesn't really offer too much in the way of inspiration.  Nicola introduces the card game Fluxx (Wikipedia) to her students and challenges them to use it to extract some use cases.  Fluxx is cited to have the advantage that it is unfamiliar enough to facilitate debate, and complex enough to create some sufficiently challenging use cases. 

The final presentation was by Paul Neve from Kingston University.  Paul made a compelling argument that skill development in computer programming is discontinuous, i.e. it happens in 'light bulb' moment jumps, where insight and understanding is suddenly gained after periods of gaining experience and considering different approaches (or 'banging ones head against a brick wall').  Building on teaching experience gained at Kingston, Paul described a web-based system where the student is taken through a series of challenging activities and assignments.  Paul was keen to emphasise the importance of a lecture as an event that 'frames' the problem or describes the tools that are used to deliver programming activities.

Panel discussion

Much of the time left for the panel discussion was given over to the audience to raise points make contributions.  Before this occurred, representatives of 'lunchtime meeting groups' were asked to feedback on key issues that they felt relate to STEM.  I've noted down a number of key themes.  These were technology and its use and how this relates to pedagogy and the sharing of practice.  Other themes were the importance of the student experience and how to facilitate interdisciplinary research and projects.  There were was also comments about wider involvement and engagement, with reference to policy makers and industry.

One comment from the audience jumped out at me, and this related to not only to the theme of student experience but also the theme of pedagogy.  This was that we should feel free to draw upon the experience of education at other levels.  It struck me that interdisciplinary isn't a single dimension of 'subject'.  The other dimension is that of the 'level' of study.  The point being that we should learn the lessons that have already learnt by others to ensure that we can uncover and develop the best opportunities for teaching and learning.

Reflections

This is the first big HEA conference that I have attended.  This is also my first STEM event, where experts in different disciplines come together, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  The computing strand contained some really good stuff, especially the session on what makes an inspiring (computing) teacher; this was certainly very thought provoking.

Two general points come to mind.  The first is that I did feel that there could have been more formal opportunities to meet colleagues from other disciplines.  The second was that there might have been more of an opportunity to share 'war stories', about challenging (or innovative) teaching practices, to learn what went well and what didn't.

I do feel that there is something positive about the notion of STEM.  The shared principle (to me) seems to be the use of knowledge and skills to solve problems and to do interesting things that may benefit industry and wider society.  The challenge (again, this is my own view) is trying to focus attention when members of different disciplines might be looking in slightly different directions (in terms of their own subjects).  This is certainly something that was reflected in the panel session with the comment, 'there needs to be opportunities to find the spaces to have conversations'.  From conversations might become focus and further opportunities to develop further ideas and learn from the experiences of our peers.

All in all, a fun event.  A good venue and cracking keynotes, all coming together to create a thought provoking couple of days.

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