On 1st August 2018, I took on a new role as Director of Student Education in my department and that has got me thinking more practically about the higher education teaching stories that I read. Since I now have a position where I can effect change, are there positive steps that can be taken? The first story I came across was this from the Times Higher Education Supplement:
The modular structures of degree programmes have resulted in a stressful assessment environment for students in UK universities, according to a recent study. It is not just the volume of assessment but also the ways that students are evaluated that is hindering meaningful learning…
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Since I’m “young” (whatever that means) I sometimes get asked to advise on how to disseminate research outputs through new-fangled doohickies like “the social media” (like writing click-baity headlines). This came up in a School Management Group meeting today, in the context of trying to increase visibility and citation rates for papers published by our faculty. It was something that I was quite interested in, so I spent about an hour doing some quick literature searches and then implementing some of what I found. Here’s the gist:Read More »
We had some sad news in the department earlier in the week. We heard from his son that Professor R McNeill Alexander FRS had passed away at the age of 81. I didn’t know Neill very well, but we had chatted a few times over coffee in the department, which he still visited regularly until a year or two ago. We also lived in the same area of Leeds and I saw him often at the local farmers market. However, there was one particular encounter with Neill that I remember vividly, and I wanted to share the anecdote:
I was at a local Cafe Scientifique in 2013 when I saw Neill give a short presentation and demonstration of some of his world-leading research on dinosaur locomotion. However, rather than this being in front of an auditorium full of people (as would befit a Fellow of the Royal Society, former President of the Society for Experimental Biology, former President of the International Society for Vertebrate Morphologists, author of countless books and articles, the list goes on…), Neill gave an informal presentation to a group of four young children, their parents, and me. Sat in the cafe at Leeds Museum, Neill quietly explained to the small audience the history of his discoveries: how dinosaur models could be used to evaluate mass and centre of gravity, how dinosaur tracks could be used to infer gait, stride, and speed. I don’t recall him taking any personal credit, although it was his to claim, but rather he discussed the ideas as having been a communal advance. Then, at the end of the talk, Neill sat with the children and played with them using the same toys from which he had drawn such inspiration as a researcher and through which he had revolutionised so much of what we know about animal biomechanics and locomotion. I don’t know who the children were, and I don’t know whether they or their parents were aware that they were sat playing with dinosaurs alongside one of the greatest scientists of his generation, but for me that is perhaps the purest example of science communication that I have ever witnessed.
RIP Robert McNeill Alexander (1934-2016)
I had a fantastic day out recently at the Great British Food Festival, held at Harewood House in Yorkshire. However, tucked away in the line-up among the hog roasts, cooking demos, and coffee kiosks was a little treat: a guide to foraging. Foraging for food in the wild has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last decade, after two generations (really since rationing ended in the mid-1950s) of neglect. This has been helped by high profile chefs such as René Redzepi at Noma, a restaurant which has been awarded the title of “best restaurant in the world” in four years out of the last five, where locally-sourced and foraged ingredients are given centre-stage. Suddenly an innocuous-looking green weed growing up between the flags in your garden path has become haute cuisine!
I wanted to share a few interesting points that our foraging guide (Adele Nodezar) offered to the group:Read More »
If you are interested in doing a PhD but are struggling to find funding that fits your project or have been unsuccessful in applications to the funding schemes that are scattered around (e.g. the NERC DTP schemes that are interviewing at the moment) then don’t despair! There are always funny little pots of money that you can apply to. The University of Leeds has three such scholarships available that can be used to fund PhD research in biological sciences (and some other areas). These all close on 1st June but if you are interested in applying please do get in touch with me (or one of my colleagues in the Ecology and Evolution Research Group) to discuss a potential project. The sooner the better!Read More »
Academics have many draws on their time: research (grant applications, writing papers, speaking at conferences), teaching (planning lectures and workshops, delivering teaching, marking), and administration (committees on all of the above and more – admissions, marketing, student education, research, outreach). Most of that is just keeping things afloat, and so we sometimes lack the time to develop new ideas and discuss interesting and novel ways of working. Over the past couple of years I have been the “Academic Champion for Blended Learning” in the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds, and that has meant that I have spent a fair amount of time horizon scanning for teaching technology and working with early adopters. However, trying to roll-out big initiatives (like our brilliant new lecture capture system) can be hard because staff have limited time to engage. Recently, I tried something new to give colleagues an opportunity to talk about teaching: “Pedagogy and a Pint”.
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I’m delighted to announce a suite of additional PhD projects in the School of Biology at the University of Leeds (scheme details are here). These are in addition to the dozen or so competitively-funded projects through our NERC DTP, so please do check there as well if you are interested. Most titles are indicative of the broad research area, but there will usually be a great deal of flexibility in the nature of the project depending on the interests of the student. The deadline for all projects is Thursday 29th January 2015, and applicants will need to have submitted a research degree application form (see our “How to apply” page) and be in receipt of a student ID number prior to application for the scheme. Briefly, the titles are:
- The Evolution of Plant Form
- Marine microbial processes and interactions
- Improving piglet survival and subsequent performance
- Managing soil plant processes to enhance the sustainable intensification of agriculture
- Emerging Infectious Diseases
- Continental trends in, and drivers of, the spread of European aquatic invasive species
- Biomimicry, biophilia, and urban design solutions
- Identifying and investigating factors which improve sow performance in Irish pig herds
See the project summaries below for more details.Read More »
Background: When we build ponds in urban areas, they can play a number of important roles: managing floodwater, cooling the urban environment, removing pollution, improving the appearance of built-up areas and providing a habitat for wildlife. However, these different functions often require different forms of management, and so urban managers typically prioritise one or a small number of purposes. We were interested in the biodiversity value of ponds in Bradford in the UK.
What we did: My MSc student, Andrew Noble, surveyed a series of 21 sites across Bradford including 11 ponds that were prioritised for biodiversity, 6 ponds that were prioritised for amenity (usually park lakes and other ornamental features), and 4 ponds that were used as overflow ponds for water management. He surveyed aquatic plants and aquatic invertebrates to investigate patterns of biodiversity. This was then compared against what would be expected from high quality ponds of similar size (called a “reference site approach”). The results showed that the urban ponds were generally of very low quality, and that unsurprisingly the biodiversity ponds tended to contain higher numbers of animals and plants. However, this was not always the case and some amenity and overflow ponds contained more species despite not being managed for biodiversity. Finally, Andrew talked with managers who, while obviously enthusiastic about biodiversity, were unaware of important local factors that were influencing their sites, such as run-off from local sports fields which were likely contributing to algal blooms.
Importance: There have been a range of studies (including some by me) which have suggested that urban ponds can provide substantial benefits for biodiversity. However, these high value ponds are relatively rare, and it is important that we understand what factors result in some ponds being of high value while others are not. This study suggests that management could play a major role.
This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored. This paper, entitled “Poor ecological quality of urban ponds in northern England: causes and consequences”, was published in the journal Urban Ecosystems in 2014. You can find this paper at the publisher’s website.
Image credit: tpsdave, http://bit.ly/11ozTHF, Public Domain.
This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored. This paper, entitled “The impact of environmental warming on Odonata – a review”, was published in the International Journal of Odonatology in 2012. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.
Background: Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) are thought to have evolved in the tropics and possess a number of adaptations that allow them to exist at higher latitudes. This makes them interesting to investigate in the context of climate change, since these adaptations might facilitate a response to increasing temperatures.
What we did: This paper is a review of the literature looking at the ecology and evolution of Odonata in the context of climate change. A number of areas are discussed including distributional changes, phenological shifts, evolutionary responses, the effects of drought and the physiological effects of temperature.
Importance: A large amount of work has been carried out on the influence of temperature on the biology of Odonata over the past 50-60 years. This has come from a variety of loosely-related fields and our review brings this together to provide an overview of the state-of-play concerning our understanding of the topic.
Image credit: Patricia H Schuette, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, http://bit.ly/1BO5i4r
I don’t get many readers, but some people do find my blog and that has led to over 70k views for the past few years. I’m quite pleased with that, and it gives me the encouragement to carry on through the dry spells. However, I remember starting out and not knowing who would ever read (or even find) my blog. Now I have students who are setting out into the blogosphere and writing great material so I thought I would do my bit to send some traffic their way. Here is a quick list of their blogs, vlogs, radio shows and documentaries that I have come across recently:
EcoSapien – my former student David has been busy working on a number of projects. EcoSapien is a YouTube show dedicated to spreading awareness about conservation and biodiversity, as well as providing resources for teachers to educate school pupils about wildlife.
North Ronaldsay – David was also the mastermind behind a three-part documentary on the Orkney Island of North Ronaldsay. The show covers the history, wildlife, and people of the island with some beautiful nature shots.
Eye on Wildlife – Emma produces blogs and podcasts focused on wildlife biology and biological conservation. You can also see her talking about How the Internet Can End Global Poverty, from the University of Leeds TEDx event in November 2014 (video should be available here soon).
Simon the Scientist – a mixture of science writing looking at a wide range of (pretty diverse!) topics.
In Search of Ancestors – Simon (a different Simon, just to confuse us) is currently – at the time of writing – working as a field assistant in South Africa working on a fossil hominid project. This blog catalogues his ideas on hominid evolution.
The Roaming Researcher – Dan and I worked together on his MSc dissertation project. Since finishing his MSc, Dan has been travelling the world working on a wide range of field projects and shares his experiences on his blog.
Weekly Wildlife Watch – Tania and Gabriella have been running a student radio show on wildlife ecology and conservation for some time and have managed to get some fascinating folk in for interviews. Go listen and share!
If I have missed anybody then please do let me know and I am happy to update!