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HEA STEM Conference, Newcastle 2018 (part 2)

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This is the second part of a two part blog post about a HEA STEM conference (HEA website) that I attended during January and February 2018. This second post covers the second day of the conference, 1 February 2018. As before, this blog has been written from the notes I made during the various conference sessions that I’ve attended. 

Keynote: A journey into STEM

The opening keynote was by Floriane Fidegnon-Edoh who is currently an engineering student at University of Warwick. Floriane spoke about her journey into STEM, during which she emphasised the importance of creativity and design thinking, and the impact that school and early educational experience have in fostering and developing attitudes towards STEM. 

I noted down the phrase: ‘it was easy to buck the trend of my demographic’ and noted down the importance of taking studies outside of the classroom (I note down a site called Technology will save us), to move studies from a school to a different academic environment. 

Floriane offered me a reminder of something that I had heard of before, but had slipped my memory. She said that there opportunities to give back to the school sector whilst being in university, by teaching in a primary school and working as a STEM ambassador.

I noted down an interesting (and slightly challenging) quote: ‘statistically I shouldn’t be here’. We were given a challenge: higher education has an obligation to improve the pipeline (of students) from school to university. There was a reference to something called the Wise Campaign.

 and that academics who work within universities could become STEM ambassadors. Other notes I made were about the importance of targeting certain backgrounds, reaching out to families and engaging people through STEM clubs. We were presented with a final challenge: a lot of the responsibility [for engagement] rests on the shoulders of the HE establishment. This means that teaching and learning should be taken outside of the lab or lecture theatres; teaching should be connected to the real world, to make it applicable, and to make it engaging.

Creativity and Programming

Cathryn Peoples from Ulster University gave a talk entitled: Creative practical programming assignments on a Master of Science degree in Professional Software Development. Cathryn spoke about two modules: a module that taught students about the principles of concurrent systems and a module that introduced students to the concept of data structures.

In her concurrent systems module, students were introduced to concepts such as threads and deadlock; in the data structures module, students were introduced to abstract datatypes such as a stacks, queues and arrays. Students were given a challenge: to develop a social network application.

Object-based learning

I attended Dave Smith’s session, entitled ‘Object-based learning in the classroom, to engage and enthuse’ because I mistakenly thought it might have something to do with object-oriented programming, but I quickly realised that I was mistaken. Object based learning was defined as ‘a student centred approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning’. Object based learning was all about physically handling objects and ‘interrogating’ them. We had an opportunity to handle 3D printed models of DNA and discuss the objects with whoever was sat next to us.

During the session, I realised that I had used a form of object-based learning myself; on occasions I have taken my old (and very badly designed) clock radio into a class as something that is used as a part of a role play about interaction design. I could immediately understand Dave’s points that objects can directly and immediately facilitate learning.

Dave has also written a short blog post about object-based learning where he shares a number of different resources.

Synchronous online tuition

A number of Open University colleagues, Lynda Cook, Diane Butler, Vikki Haley-Mirnar, Catherine Halliwell and Louise MacBrayne delivered one of the final sessions of the conference: Synchronous online tuition: Differences between student and teacher expectations and experiences. The background to this session was that over the last 5 years, more science tutorials have been presented online. There are, of course some questions that relate to this change, such as: what do our students think about online tutorials, and do we achieve our expectations for good tutorials? Also, do students and tutors have the same expectations?

Students and tutors were interviewed and a survey was carried out. I made a note that 88% of students surveyed used the recordings, and ‘they would go back to the recordings multiple times’. They would listen to a presentation from their own tutor to check their understanding of module concepts.

My colleagues did some further research: they listened to 74 recordings and studied the extent to which interactive tools were used. A finding was that the tutors use only few of the features of the online environment that is available but both tutors and students do seem to make extensive use of a feature that is known as text chat. Two quotes I noted down were: ‘students feel really insecure in the online room’ and ‘when the recording button goes on, they don’t talk’.

The aim of the research was to ask the question: are we achieving our aims of delivering good online tutorials? A concluding comment was that: ‘we’re not getting what we used to have face to face’ and that social constructivist learning may not be taking place. This said, it was reported that students appear to be happy but there was a concern that they were just passive recipients of recordings and the very act of recording may affect student behaviour.

The research found that there were very few instances of real time online group work. In some respects, tutorials were becoming more didactic. This reflects to a challenge that many OU tutor faces: that it is difficult to get students to speak through their microphone or using their headsets. A personal reflection is that we may need to uncover pedagogic approaches to try to solve this problem.

Collaborating with impact

The final presentation I attended was called Collaborating with Impact: Increasing student attainment through higher order engagement and was by Matthew Watkins from Nottingham Trent University. Matthew talked about a collaboration with an industrial partner that had a very specific problem: to design a cycle safe system for existing construction vehicles that is aerodynamic, is commercially viable and is suitable for off-road and urban environment. The project is a significant one, since we were told that 40% of cycling fatalities were connected to construction vehicles.

In incentivise the students, the industrial sponsor offered students two thousand pounds in prize money. As a part of the experiential learning experience, student went on field trips, got to see a construction depot and climbed into the cab of a truck.

I noted down some important take away points: students were presented with learning that was relevant, learning that took place through discovery, and learning that occurred within a particular social environment. What I also remember is Matthew’s enthusiasm about the partnership that he has established with an employer. Whilst industrial collaborations are really useful and are important, it takes commitment from both sides to make things work.

Reflections

There were a number of different things that I enjoyed from this conference. I appreciate the fact that the keynotes were relevant and appropriate: we were presented with a number of different challenges. I also appreciated that so many of the presentations were specifically about sharing practice. Whilst the conference did have (perhaps unsurprisingly) a distinct academic flavour to it, there was a clear focus towards sharing taking experiences with one another.

From a personal perspective, one of the presentations changed my practice, and another presentation extended my understanding about something that I have been doing. I appreciated the talk on blended learning, since this changed how I delivered online tutorials for a module that I teach on. The presentation about object-based learning helped me to understand that the approach that I had taken was, as I suspected, a very useful technique!

I feel that these smaller STEM specific conferences work a lot better than the big multi-discipline conferences that the HEA also run. Whilst I’m a great proponent of interdisciplinary, I did welcome the ability to listen to talks about the teaching of topics within my own discipline that I know can sometimes be challenging. An example of this is the session about how music can be connected to programming languages.

A final thought about this conference was that it was good to meet with so many of my Open University colleagues who were also delivering presentations about their own research and scholarship. Normally, we’re so busy doing things, such as preparing timetables and travelling to meetings that we rarely have the opportunity to catch up with what we are all doing and what we’re working on. Conferences also give us an opportunity and the time to share, discuss and debate.

More information about the conference can be found by visiting the conference hashtag #HEASTEM18.

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