EEE Postgrad Teaching Assistant wins big at Education Awards
11 June 2021
In conversation with the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering’s Jonathan Hawkins, on being awarded the Provost’s Education Award at the recently held UCL Education Awards 2021.
Congratulations on winning at this year’s Education Awards 2021! Can you tell us a little more about your experience of being a Teaching Assistant during the pandemic?
Since starting my PhD at UCL in 2018, I have been involved with the first-year laboratory and IEP Engineering Challenges modules, as well as a couple of the Scenario weeks. All of these modules have significant practical elements which have been the main difference when assisting with teaching over the past year. The uncertainty that the pandemic brought meant that staff, TAs and students have had to be responsive to changes in module content, how it is delivered and received. There was a lot of learning on the job for everyone and EEE students have been very patient with the particular challenges of remote learning such as slow Zoom connections, cross-time zone communication in MS Teams, installation issues with software, etc.
What were the challenges you faced during this period?
The IEP Engineering Challenges module takes place during the September term, which means it was one of the first practical courses to be delivered remotely. There were elements of the module which had to be converted to simulation-based exercises. Simulation can be a really powerful teaching tool in electronics, but I have learned it works best when used in combination with a good theoretical foundation and the opportunity for practical experience alongside.
What did you enjoy?
With experience from previous years of the areas that students engage with and find difficult, the opportunity to contribute to the development of updated module content was really interesting, and the teaching and laboratory staff in EEE are always happy to provide feedback which makes for a very supportive environment for PGTAs.
You developed a simulation-based alternative to Challenge 2, an interdisciplinary project undertaken by all first years which took place over eight weeks (conventionally five weeks), in Multisim. Tell us more about this?
Challenge 2 brings together EEE and CS students to develop a testbed for the control system of a low-cost tuberculosis vaccine bioreactor. In a normal year, both cohorts of students get hands on experience of programming microcontrollers, developing control algorithms and integrating these with motors, infrared and temperature sensors. Bringing all of these into a single simulation tool is a challenging task, so they were split into individual environments – Simduino for developing the control algorithm, TinkerCAD for programming and interfacing microcontrollers with electronic components and Multisim to design and test the interface circuitry for motor control and sensor inputs. Multisim is the software that EEE students can use alongside their first-year laboratory exercises to interact with circuits and simulate their behaviour, so it made sense to use it for Challenge 2 as well. However, as with any software, there are unexpected behaviours and errors that threw up some difficulties along the way!
What research are you working on right now?
In collaboration with Lancaster University and the British Antarctic Survey, my research focuses on the development of a reduced-frequency (20-40 MHz), low-power and phase-precise radar to survey ice shelves using a technique called synthetic aperture radar (SAR). Without expensive hot-water borehole drilling campaigns, radar is one method that glaciologists and oceanographers can use to gain insight on the base of ice shelves, which can be up to 1km thick where the ice becomes afloat in the ocean. Over the past three years, the research has involved the design of a 5 metre long antenna, RF circuit and PCB design, radar signal processing, and the planning and execution of a fieldwork campaign in the Swiss Alps. I’m currently working on finalising the radar system for its intended deployment with an autonomous robot on polar ice shelves.
Any teaching words of wisdom for all students out there, EEE and beyond?
If a circuit, system or subject topic is intimidating I find it helps me to break it down into smaller sections, go back to the fundamentals of each section and work up from there.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
As a PGTA it is always motivating when students ask questions which challenge you and demonstrate that they have understood the content they are learning. As a PhD student, I enjoy the challenge of the engineering problems I am faced with every day, but also the potential for using our radar system to investigate some of the most remote environments on the planet which are under threat from climate change.
What’s an accomplishment that you’re really proud of?
Outside of UCL, I enjoy spending my time cycling and mountaineering – a solo cycle tour down the west coast of Scotland ending with a personal best time to run to the summit of Ben Nevis and back is up there!
Jonathan Hawkins is a member of the Radar Group, part of the Sensors Systems and Circuits Group led by Prof. Paul Brennan.
UCL Education Awards recognise staff making outstanding contributions to the learning experience and success of our students. Exceptional individuals and teams receive the Provost's Education Award. A full list of 2021 winners.