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Q&A with Dr David Bowler
28 April 2014
In the first of a series of interviews on the topic of teaching, Dr David Bowler, UCL Physics and Astronomy, shares his views, experience and advice
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been using something called IPython Notebook to create interactive lecture notes. Basically, it’s a webpage that contains fields in which you can input text or code and then you can share the file and allow other users to run those programs in their browsers. A limitation of physics textbooks is that they offer fixed information with static diagrams, whereas actually, what you really want is something more dynamic. What I’ve done is make my first-year waves notes interactive, allowing students to change the parameters and see the results. This is something I’m just starting to explore but I’m excited about the possibilities. I’ve worked with E-Learning Environments and the ISD Service Desk to set up a UCL server to support it.
In brief: Dr David Bowler
28 April 2014
Associate PI in MANA, National Institute for Materials Science (2013-present)
Reader in Physics, UCL (2006-present)
PI, London Centre for Nanotechnology (2004-present)
D Phil Materials Science, University of Oxford
BA Natural Sciences, University of Cambridge
Did you know?
Dr David Bowler has a pseudonym – Million Atom Man. The name was given to him by his family after he developed a linear scaling code which could apply density functional theory (DFT) to one million atoms – a world’s first.
What piece of technology do you find invaluable in your teaching?
What I found really useful this year was using a combination of software and hardware to create short screen casts. I started to do this for my Quantum Mechanics course in October. I create five-to-10-minute videos using my laptop and a Wacom graphics tablet and record it with echo360, part of the UCL Lecturecast system. I was posting them on Lecturecast originally, but the students asked me to put them on YouTube so they can watch them on their phones; many now subscribe to my channel.
What advice would you give to someone looking to develop the way they teach?
Trying to understand where the students are is really important, particularly in subjects like physics. I teach things I learned 20 years ago, so there is this huge gap between where I am and where the students are. Professor Eric Mazur at Harvard is very well known for an approach called peer instruction. What he does is set students a problem and if the success rate is 30-70 per cent he gets students to find others with different answers to them and work together. The idea is that students are in the perfect position to recognise what their peers don’t understand.
How do you expect higher education teaching to change in the next five years?
One thing that worries me is the increase in the commodification of teaching. Seeing the student as a consumer is, I think, incredibly dangerous. My role isn’t to teach students how to pass exams, it’s to instruct them in how to think, how to approach problems, how to learn and then watch them spread their wings.
In terms of teaching methods, the current buzzword is the flipped classroom. I think the concept is great, but there is also a real danger of disengaging students. You need to begin by using the motivation and charisma of the lecturer to inspire the students to do the work outside of the lecture theatres. Understanding the questions to ask to make people think is the challenge, and I suspect there will be an initial bulge of flipping and then possibly a drop back. As with all teaching, inspiration from teachers is key.
What achievement are you most proud of?
Last year, a textbook I wrote with a colleague, Atomistic Computer Simulations: A Practical Guide, was published. It’s one of the suggested texts for a graduate physics course at UCL and colleagues tell me it’s proved very valuable.
I’m also really pleased with the webcasts and I’m excited by the potential for IPython Notebook. In all those cases I’m trying to present things in different ways and give people the opportunity to develop and use skills, because ultimately that’s the role of the teacher. We don’t impart knowledge, we give people the skills to find and use knowledge. The fulfilment comes when I see someone understand something new.
What question would you like to ask the next interview subject?
I would love to know whether people find that phones and social media enhance teaching or whether they are another distraction in the classroom.
If you would like to take part in the next Q&A, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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