Friday, 14 September 2012

I'm not young enough to know everything

I've just finished my lectures for the year. I've been teaching electromagnetism to our advanced first year class, and it's been the usual rollercoaster ride of a bit of integral calculus, laws by Gauss, Ampere and Lenz, and culminating in the rather wonderful Maxwell's equations
These are amongst the most important equations in the Universe. Why?

Well, there are 4 forces in the Universe, two of which we generally don't worry about on a day-to-day basis (namely the Strong force which holds the nuclei of your atoms together, and the Weak force which is responsible for radioactivity), gravity, which wants to drag you to the centre of the Earth, and electromagnetism, which is responsible for everything else.


From stopping you falling to the centre of the Earth, to controlling the flow of your ADSL, to the radio stations coursing through the air. The friction that stops your car, the things that give your bones strength, and allow you PS3 to have wireless controllers (well, to give it it's fair dues, it was responsible for making the wired controllers work also).

But I'm not here to wax lyrical about electromagnetism (although I could :).

I thought I would talk about my experience teaching it. Well, actually, teaching in general.

A bit of background. I've been lecturing at a university for the last decade (precisely!!). Before that, I worked as a research astronomer and had no teaching to to do. Becoming a lecturer, however, came as a bit of a shock. Why?

It's what we had to teach. The material was very similar to what I received as an undergraduate (which was more than 20 years ago), and so it should be like water off the proverbial duck to teach it.

But every course I have taught, even though I did really well in these subjects as a student myself, I realised there were gaping holes in my understanding. I clearly did not understand it as well as I thought I did. In truth, I had to relearn a lot of stuff.

For some subjects, this was not so bad. I use a lot of classical mechanics in my research, so there was a lot of material that was very familiar, but there were nook, crannies and surprises even here.

But with other topics, such as general relativity and quantum mechanics, and especially electromagnetism, I realised that the holes in my knowledge were quite substantial, and so I spend a significant amount of time chasing information and building up my understanding of a topic.

The result is not only do I feel confident about fielding questions from students, sounding knowledgeable and introducing the quirks and stories of a topic, but it makes me a better researcher. Improving my understanding of a wealth of topics has bolstered my research by incorporating techniques, ideas and approaches.

 I should mention that the way funding schemes are structured, the best researchers who get fellowships tend to run from teaching (to focus on their research), or are only willing to teach a course extremely related to their research. I personally think this is wrong. The best researchers should be put in front of first years, teaching something from left field. Not only does this expose the students to the research leaders, but should make the researchers stop and think about their own knowledge and understanding, and potentially improve them as a scientist. In my humble opinion, this should be a requirement of fellowship schemes.

Anyway, at the end of a course, we do unit evaluations, to see how well the course was received by the students etc. Some of the scores can be a little sad, especially the self-assessment of the students on how consistently they worked on the topic, but I am happy to say that I generally score OK on my lecturing. The feedback often focuses upon my mangled accent (being the son of a welsh coal miner who when to university in England, and then off to the US and Canada before coming to Australia), but I got the following this time around:
 I didn't mention Torchwood in my course, but it's nice to hear that I am still welsh enough to be considered part of the team :)


  1. Geraint, your every visit to The MAS has always been received enthusiastically..your passionate approach to your subject and the easy style that you deliver it, always has the members asking for more!

    Cheers, John.

  2. You're as Welsh as John Barrowman?

  3. Eve Myles (raised in the next valley to me) is the real hero of Torchwood!

  4. I hear you loud and clear! If anybody has a "mangled accent", it's the Americans!

  5. First year physics 28 years ago was one of the highlights of my tertiary education, deriving Gauss's Law was a favorite party trick ;).

    Geraint, your lecture at MAS last night was entertaining and hugely informative. Many thanks for sharing the benefit of your knowledge.

  6. Thank you for your kind words! And as you may have seen, this weeks post is on Gauss's law, just for you :)