Category Archives: teaching

Crazy times

This is my first blog post of 2017. I took on the role of Acting Head of my School at Keele on 1 December of last year, but the responsibilities only really started to kick in when the new semester started in late January. I have coped reasonably well with those commitments, but what has really caused me problems has been my teaching. I have been teaching a new module on Digital Forensics; very interesting, but I’ve been teaching it single handedly, and although I did a lot of advance preparation, I’ve still had to write quite a lot of material while the module has been running, which is never ideal. For example, the last two lectures, which take place next week and the week after, still have to be written, and they are on challenging topics. More about Digital Forensics in a later post, hopefully! I also had to prepare and deliver four two-hour MChem sessions on Materials Modelling, and although it is my research area, it still took time. On top of this I’m external examiner at a couple of other universities, and have had to review exam papers for them, as well as setting ones myself.

The net result of all this has been that I’ve been doing 7-day weeks, and getting in at crazy times, but still not keeping up. I was determined to write this post just to record it all, but even the time taken to write this could be spent writing some of a lecture!

We have two weeks of teaching left until Easter, and I am literally counting the days. It’s not been good, and I hope I’ll never have another time like this, with this crazy conjunction of commitments. Hopefully the next post will be more positive (:

Academic Year ‘disorganisation’

We have a new style academic year at Keele in 2014/15. Up to Easter it felt pretty much the same as previously, but the differences began to become apparent last week. Before going any further I should say that the changes were intended to ‘improve the student experience’, and only time will tell if they have achieved that aim.

The first change was shortening the Easter Vacation from 4 weeks to 3. For many people, the Easter Vacation has been an essential catching up period, both for marking, but also research. In the past I’ve been able to go to conferences or even research collaboration visits; colleagues elsewhere in my school have run field trips. A 25% reduction in the time available makes all these things a bit harder to arrange.

Previously the 4th week of the Easter Vacation was used for resit exams, and then the finals started. Now we have a full 3 weeks before the finals start. OK, it gives more time for revision, but there was no evidence last week that this extra time was being used actively. Instead the campus still had a vacation feel, but with a few students around. Officially classes continue for 1st and 2nd year students for another 2 weeks (so 3 weeks in total), but previously the use of time post-Easter by many parts of the university for these students has been variable, to say the least.

It gets even sillier in a few week’s time. All the exams are crammed into 3 weeks instead of 4 (which was supposed to work because there would be less exams, which hasn’t happened as far as I can see). This means that the chances of students having exams bunched together increases. So much for improving their experience! And then, once the main Spring Semester exam period has finished, the Autumn Semester resits start, with just over a week in between. I simply don’t believe this is a better time for resits than having them in the last week of the Easter Vacation. Students may have several resits, so they will only have a week after their Spring Semester exams to prepare for them.

Of course, we won’t know the overall effect of these changes for some time, but I’m unconvinced by them so far. And a final note – the changes were largely the brainchild of a previous pro vice chancellor, who retired before they came into effect!

Lectures: to capture or not capture?

My colleague Katherine Haxton has recently published an interesting post on the recording of lectures. This has led me to think about what I do, whether it is working, and whether I could do more. Thinking about this now is well timed, since we resume teaching tomorrow, after our Autumn Semester exam period finished on Friday.

I have been recording the audio component of my lectures for four years now. My thinking has been that, with having the audio and the lecture slides, the students can (if they wish) reproduce most of what happened in the lecture to help their revision. No, it’s not the kind of full capture that Katherine does, and yes, any work done on the whiteboard is missed. But since I don’t tend to use selective release (i.e. I make the recordings available to all, regardless of attendance), there has to be some benefit for actually attending, and I haven’t (so far) worried too much about the part of the lecture that will be missed by those who are absent. After all, it’s still possible to borrow notes!

I haven’t done extensive research into how much the recordings are accessed – the information is there on Blackboard, and I must make an effort to look at it. But judging from comments on module questionnaires, and informal feedback, the recordings are appreciated.

Could I/should I do more? I have recently bought a Microsoft Surface tablet, and could (in principle) use that in my lectures, so that any examples, etc. are captured, by writing on its screen instead of the whiteboard. I am considering doing that, although there are some annoying minor technical issues to be overcome first, like getting an adaptor cable to connect the tablet to the data projector! On the other hand, my more mathematical examples are easier to explain with the extra space of the whiteboard (always assuming the room I’m in has one, which is by no means guaranteed!) I do make screencasts, usually on topics which require more detailed explanation, and there I use Camtasia, which works well. But it is time consuming, as Katherine says.

So, for now, I will continue what I’ve been doing. If my university decides to invest in lecture capture facilities, it will be interesting to see what route/procedure they follow. If anyone has experience of this kind of ‘centralised lecture capture’, it would be interesting to hear of their experiences, whether good or bad!

End of teaching update

I have done my last teaching for 2014. Today’s Materials Chemistry and Catalysis poster session went surprisingly well, and even those whose posters were not the best defended them with conviction. Of course, marking remains to be done, but my next undergraduate lecture will be on X-ray diffraction, in 2015!

I now switch to research mode, with a conference tomorrow in Glasgow. My academic visitor from Brazil, Giordano Bispo, is presenting a poster there, and I have the job of judging the posters (hopefully not single handedly). And of course I hope for some new research ideas for the new year!

Christmas will be quiet, and spent at Keele. After this busy semester a quiet time will be most welcome! I wish everyone a Happy Christmas and best wishes for 2015.

Molecular orbital calculations in the footsteps of Coulson

Today I ran a workshop for some of our final year Chemistry students with the dual aims of giving them experience of running the Gaussian code and repeating Coulson’s seminal calculations from 1937. Added to that I hope it helped them make some more sense of my lectures on SCF calculations!

As a ‘lab’ exercise it was administratively straightforward: the calculations were easily completed in an hour, and the write-up could mostly be done at the same time (with good organisation). Submission was by a word document online, and I know quite a few of the class submitted their reports within a few hours of completing the workshop.

As for the science, the workshop involved using Gaussian to optimise the geometry of molecular hydrogen. Two minimal basis sets were used (STO-3G and STO-6G), and two split valence basis sets (3-21G and 6-31G). The results clearly showed the superiority of the more complex basis sets, but it is worth mentioning that in 1937 (before the advent of computers and Pople’s use of Gaussian functions and development of the Gaussian program) Coulson managed to get superior results compared to those obtained with minimal basis sets using the Gaussian program! But it has to be said that it would be challenging to extend his calculations to larger molecules.

Overall I was happy with the way everything went in the workshop. I have some ideas for minor tweaks for next year, but nothing major. I am more concerned with how the Quantum Chemistry lecture material has been received, but I’ll have to wait for the exam and module questionnaire to find out!

One-third semester update

Almost unbelievably we are a third of the way through the Autumn Semester. Here’s a record of some of the highlights so far.

I’ve been teaching my Forensics Arson module for 3 weeks now, and last week we had our now traditional arson demonstration from John Caulton. This year the weather held, and the students seemed to enjoy it and find it interesting. As an added bonus we had an appearance by Jack the ADC (accelerant detection dog in normal parlance). Here’s a typical photo from the demonstration:


I have two more lectures in this module, and next week we will look at data from Kuwaiti oil fires!

My project students have all made a good start. One of the projects has started with looking at doped SrAl2O4 for sensor applications, inspired by Philippe Smet’s talk at Eurodim14 back in July. Another project is looking at zeolites for environmental applications; this is a trip down memory lane for me, since I haven’t worked on zeolites for many years (the last publication was in 1998!) We started with zeolite A, but have moved on to heulandite/clinoptilolite. With Keele’s focus on environmental issues this topic seemed appropriate. The third project is a spin off from my teaching; transparent conducting oxides are materials of current interest, and doped ZnO/ZnS have applications here. Although my methods can’t handle the electron behaviour, we can get some useful information about the energetics of doping these materials.

Finally, a week ago my visiting researcher from Brazil, Giordano Frederico da Cunha Bispo, arrived in Keele. His first week was taken up largely with administration, but I’m looking forward to him getting his project underway.

Looking ahead, I have my new lectures in Quantum Chemistry coming up, as well as my contribution to the new Materials Chemistry and Catalysis module. Plenty to keep me busy for the next 8 weeks!

Miscellaneous research musings

In these valuable weeks before the new semester begins, I’ve been dividing my time between preparing new lectures and research, or at least research planning. In this post I’ll discuss my research plans for the coming year.

I normally hope to get ideas for new research topics from conferences I’ve attended, and Eurodim 2014 certainly gave me some ideas. For the past few years I have been concentrating on modelling materials for optical and energy applications, and there were a few talks that suggested possible new materials. A talk by Philippe Smet on Eu, Dy doped SrAl2O4 got me thinking, as I’ve modelled CaAl2O4 before. I’m thinking of getting one of my final year project students to look at this system; if it looks promising it could lead to further work and hopefully a publication. My friend and co-author Zelia Macedo gave a talk on NaYP2O7 doped with various ions, and this also seemed interesting as I have modelled metal phosphates and have working potentials. However my initial attempts suggest it will be a challenge even to model the perfect lattice, so it’s unlikely to be suitable for a final year project. However it will be kept on the list, hopefully to be returned to later. Then there was a talk from Volkmar Dierolf on doped GaN (gallium nitride), an important technological material which Mário Valerio and myself have tried to model before. The problem with this material is representing the covalency of the bonding while retaining sufficient ionic character in our potential model to be able to carry out doping. Again, this seems a bit too complex for a final year project, but I think it’s something we should be working on in the near future.

I also have a paper to write before the end of the month based on my Eurodim talk. I’m hoping to get this done in the next couple of weeks, but it should be straightforward to extract text from my presentation!

I mentioned final year project students earlier. My usual approach is to give them a real research problem, and if it works we can sometimes get a paper from it, or it may lead to a new project, potentially for a PhD student. In the new semester I will have 3 project students with varying requirements in terms of credits and time they need to spend on their projects. One of them will look at SrAl2O4, but the other two are still undecided. Of these, one might look at ZnO/ZnS as these have some new applications in transparent conductors, and one might look at an old interest of mine – zeolites. With environmental issues on mind, their use in cleanup operations is once again relevant. A colleague in the Earth Sciences part of my school mentioned a possible project in this area which could benefit from modelling, and involving a project student in this area is a definite possibility. Anyway, these need to be finalised in the next two weeks. An update might appear if I have time!