"Teaching what is at the cutting edge makes the need to fully grasp the basic principles become more obvious."

Professor Alan Aylward, Dept of Physics and Astronomy

Using the Teaching Equipment Fund to buy water level recorders

9 August 2013

Dr Helene Burningham describes how instruments bought with help from the Teaching Equipment Fund have revolutionised teaching in the Department of Geography.

River Rye

Helene's story

Using money from the Teaching Equipment Fund and a faculty bonus, the Department of Geography recently bought a suite of 18 water level recorders for PhD and MSc students to use in their research [one of which is pictured below]. The recorders measure water pressure, which indicates whether water levels are going up or down. The benefit of these recorders is that they’re very portable and flexible. You can carry them in your hand luggage on a flight and then set them to measure water level variations as often as you like, leaving them in one place for months or even years at a time.

Within a coastal setting you have tides and the water level moves up and down quite frequently. Using a lot of these recorders in one location means that you can start to evaluate spatial variations in those changing water levels. Ordinarily, students can only measure water levels with a stick or a gauge, which can only be done while they’re actually there and will only apply to one point in the water. With these recorders, we can leave them in an area for a long period of time and also get spatial distribution, which means you end up with a full temporal and spatial data set which, until now, has been completely impossible for students to collect. It forces them to actually think about their sampling strategy: how are they going to measure the thing that they’re most interested in?

One of UCL Geography's water level recorders in use

Having so many water level recorders also means that more than one student can be collecting data at any one time, even if they’re using multiple recorders in one place – it means we’re not compromising the learning experience because students can work on separate projects simultaneously. If we were to use all 18 recorders in one place we’d be moving into the sort of ballpark where you’re really pushing things forward on the research front – but even having four or five in one place will help the students get an edge on the data currently available in the field.

The research experience certainly leaves our students much better equipped for jobs in environmental consultancies where short-term monitoring exercises are two-a-penny. It’s allowing us to align the experiences our students get to those that are likely to be a part of their future and I don’t know of any other universities providing this kind of opportunity.

As well as giving the students the hands-on research experience that will be so helpful to them in the job market, the water level recorders allow them to get used to dealing with specific types of data from an enormous data set. They can get to a point where analysis can’t really be done using Excel but instead has to be done using a programme like MATLAB (a numerical programming environment), so we’re taking the students on a journey away from a simplistic notion of data to something far more analytical. From a learning perspective that’s quite empowering.

Some students are using their data to support their modelling as well. In general, the more data you have, the better the outputs from your model, so in that sense the recorders are facilitating a much more rigorous process.

A lot of the time I think that it would be great if I had a certain piece of equipment but then when a funding opportunity comes up it’s no longer needed or relevant. This time when the Teaching Equipment Fund was announced, my colleagues and I knew exactly what we wanted. We decided if we were going to apply for funding for water level recorders we weren’t going to just ask for a couple, we were going to do it properly – which is how we ended up with 18, plus two air pressure recorders! It’s always a problem when you only have one piece of equipment that has to be shared among all the students, because they have to organise when everyone is going to take it out and bring it back, so having a body of instruments that everyone can dip into really does make a difference.

A huge benefit of the Teaching Equipment Fund is that you don’t have to align your application to a particular research question. The equipment we bought this year can be used by people working in a number of different places and disciplines. It has genuinely changed the way we teach.

Helene's team received £4,694 from the Teaching Equipment Fund and matched this amount with departmental money.

Interview by Ele Cooper

Further information

Page last modified on 09 aug 13 12:47

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