The HEA STEM blog is about empowering their discipline communities. It provides an opening to express their academic experience, share innovative learning and teaching, demonstrate our creativity and generate enthusiasm for what they do.
“What I cannot create I do not understand”- exploring creativity in STEM disciplines
I was disappointed (but not surprised) to hear on the news today, that “Creative subjects” – which include Art, Music, Drama, and Design and Technology, are being squeezed yet again in the secondary school curriculum. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-42862996)
As someone deeply rooted in the ‘hard sciences’, and without any artistic or musical talent (as family and friends will attest), I strongly believe that neglecting these subjects is reductive, will diminish the educational experience, and undermine students ability to excel as they progress to work or higher education. As an academic trying to embed and foster creativity in STEM disciplines, I recognise the value that providing a space for students to use their imagination can provide, it is paramount that today’s scientist and engineers have the ability to create new ideas or insights, and we can only stimulate this type of creative thinking by practicing it in our teaching and providing learning environments that foster creativity.
The Webster dictionary defines creativity as “the ability to make new things or think of new ideas”; this simple definition encompasses making or constructing of ideas that are ‘new’ to the individual. When Nobel Physicist, Richard Feynman wrote on his blackboard, “What I cannot create I do not understand”, he was reminding himself (and his students) that unless you can take a concept or a theory apart, so that you can understand each individual step, you did not truly understand it.
Other definitions of creativity focus on the use of imagination, and although some of us may struggle to convert the ideas in our heads to a physical artefact; spending time in that explorative space allows us to think more deeply, test our own understanding and views, opens us up to inter-disciplinary conversations - and of course exposes us to failure.
At the HEASTEM conference this week we will be hearing from Academics across the STEM disciplines through workshops, posters and presentations on creative approaches they have taken to their teaching, and how they provide learning environments that foster creativity. The keynote speaker on day one, Dr Gareth Loudon, will explore how his students are taught how to use design thinking to generate new ideas of value, and how to translate those ideas into new products and services.
Whilst we can argue about what creativity is, and whether it can be taught, it is critical that we use, evaluate and share our ideas in this area. As we prepare our graduates for a rapidly changing workplace, where Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used in more roles, which were previously considered graduate jobs, it is useful to remember that AI is not very good at jobs that require creativity, imagination and other ‘human’ characteristics, and these are the attributes that will contribute to long term student success.
If you want to find out more join the joint Twitter Chat at 20:00 (GMT), 31st January 2018. Follow the conversation: #HEAchat #LTHEchat.
Reflecting on the reflective practice for application for Senior Fellow status of the HEA
Nina Storey, Lecturer, University of Leciester
When I began the reflective practice for the senior fellow status of the Higher Education Academy I bought an empty picture frame in anticipation of hanging the certificate in my office. This indicated two things to me: firstly, that I thought I was ready and secondly, that the recognition was important to me. I am grateful for having engaged in this reflective practice because, if I am honest, I probably would not otherwise have taken the time out to remember, digest and integrate the steps I have taken as I gradually developed my teaching practice over the years. Even being informed by pedagogical research, improvement of my teaching methods has very much been an experiential affair and trial and error has certainly played its part. I have found it helpful to regroup and articulate what has worked well for me, such as introducing action learning methods as a dynamic technique to encourage student discussions. It was worth me taking note of how animated the students were when I invited them to perform a Mexican wave demonstration of the electrocardiogram. It has also been beneficial to recall what has not worked so well and to put the ridiculous moments down to experience.
What I really enjoyed about this reflective exercise was that it triggered me to have more conversations with colleagues about teaching and learning. I like to feel part of a team and sharing success stories with other teaching colleagues created a sense of camaraderie which I wish to continue. This also helped me to crystalize my style of influence which is to share teaching anecdotes, both triumph and failure alike.
One realisation from the first tutorial I ran was that I wanted to be a good teacher and as gained more teaching experience I started working towards my fellow status of the Higher Education Academy. That desire grew and became a passion to be an outstanding educator in higher education. Achieving the senior fellow status is an outside validation which brought a sense of confirmation and a rise in confidence that I have been on the right track all these years and I had not bought the picture frame for nothing!
I now have the certificate up on my office wall. The senior fellow status has raised the profile of my teaching practice in the department and my contribution to the degree programmes in the College of Life Sciences. The kudos is important to me because it has given me a burst of energy to continue exploring new ways to challenge my students in their learning and engage my colleagues in their teaching. Although I did not realise it at the time of writing my case studies, recalling my memories and recounting what I had learned on my teaching journey has given me a professional joy in knowing I made the most of my abilities. I found the process of reflection to be a good way to honour all the teaching efforts I have made over the years. Upon reflection, the reflective process of applying for senior fellow status of the Higher Education Academy has had the effect of clearing the decks, making way for new teaching and learning experiences and for me that is of great value.
For more information about HEA Fellowship please click here.
Foundation Year STEM Studies – an Increasingly Important Part of Higher Education
Professor John Bridges SFHEA, Professor of Planetary Science, Space Research Centre, University of Leicester
When I came to write my HEA Senior Fellowship case in 2017 I decided to use my work in our universities STEM Foundation year. Since 2015-16 we have run this course, which is designed to bring a wider cohort of people into STEM and in particular Engineering and Physics, Computer Science. Preparing and delivering part of the course has tested my lecturing, contact teaching and assessment skills, as we look for new ways with e-assessment to teach a large cohort effectively. Do I think it’s worth it? – Yes. Last week I witnessed one of the highlights so far: a group of our Foundation Year students taking part in a competition with a Kuala Lumpur cohort of 1st year science undergraduates over the internet. The topic was planetary orbits and the prize is an exchange trip to the Malaysian University. Our students led the way in solving the problems. The Foundation Year students are a varied cohort – some who didn’t quite make the undergraduate entrance requirements, those with BTECs rather than A-levels, people wanting to study Engineering or Physics but who didn’t do a Maths A-level. Many of the Foundation Course cohort are mature learners, over 21 years old, and with other jobs, sometimes commuting to the University. The course has attracted 80-90 students per year. The course is full time for one academic year, campus-based and on successful completion the students are allowed into the normal first year undergraduate cohorts.
However, in researching my Senior Fellowship Case Study I searched in vain for any HEFCE White Papers or substantial studies about such courses. That surprised me because STEM Foundation years are a growing part of the UK higher education sector, a response to the identified need for more Engineering and other STEM graduates. Anecdotal feedback from colleagues at other universities suggests that progression rates in the UK are often 70-80%. Our students who have progressed into the undergraduate years have fitted in well, suggesting that our core aims are being achieved. However, non-engagement and poor attendance by a significant fraction of the Foundation Year cohort remain a challenge. There is limited pedagogical research into the effectiveness of Foundation Years, and this important part of the UK Higher Education sector is thus at a stage which requires careful application of the HEA framework in course construction, and ongoing course evaluation.
In a welcome development – which reflects the importance of such courses – the HEA recently decided to include Foundation year studies within the range of allowable work for Fellowship accreditation. I’m glad I chose to highlight my Foundation Year work for my SFHEA application. It helped focus my thoughts on good teaching practice and the new challenges and opportunities for students from a wider than usual background.
For more information about HEA Fellowships please click here.
Biochemistry teaching and my Fellowship – it’s not all science and molecules!
Dr John Barrow, Senior Lecturer (Scholarship) in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Aberdeen
John Barrow is a Senior Lecturer (Scholarship) in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He teaches science to undergraduates across the Medical Science disciplines at the University of Aberdeen. If he was on a game show then his specialist subject would be biochemistry! Below is his story of how he changed from a career in research to one in teaching and how he has never looked back.
"I really didn’t like biochemistry when I was an undergraduate student…not the words you would think a biochemistry graduate and now teacher of the subject would say. This view largely came from the way the subject was taught, so I really felt that things could be different. It was this need to change things that drove me to teach the subject and attempt new ways of teaching, heavily influenced by my journey to becoming a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy."
I am currently a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, having been a Fellow via an accredited Postgraduate Certificate (PgCert) in Higher Education run at the University of Aberdeen. I graduated with a BSc in Biochemistry and then followed the usual science career route of undergraduate degree, then PhD, then postdoctoral research positions. It was during my second postdoctoral position that I made a leap of faith from early career scientist to teacher. I had very little teaching experience, the sum total of which could probably be listed on the back of a postage stamp, but it was those early experiences that really cemented my view that teaching was for me. I had wanted to become a scientist to make a difference, but science is often a slow and laborious process. Don’t get me wrong, science definitely has its rewards, but for me they did not come quick enough, whereas in teaching I could make an instant impact. This ability to make a difference and see a group of students leave the classroom with a smile on their faces having understood a difficult concept or idea had a profound impact on me.
I initially started as a Teaching Fellow in 2009 and was encouraged by our then Director of Teaching to complete an accredited PgCert to get my Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. It was only after I had completed it and looked back on what I had learned that I began to realise my biochemistry and molecular biology teaching did not have to be taught in exactly the same way as they were when I was an undergraduate. This set me on the path to identifying ways that this could change – the subject matter and processes being taught would remain, but how it was taught was the focus of much of my efforts. My main goal: to make biochemistry and molecular biology more accessible to our students, many of whom are not taking these subjects as their main degree discipline, but still require knowledge of the subjects.
The skills and ideas I had learned during my PgCert really helped me engage in this process of change as I was able to base a lot of what I did on pedagogic and discipline-specific evidence. Armed with this knowledge I was able to create new practical classes, new lectures and look into ways that we can enhance the learning experience of our students through technology. Further to the pedagogy, the PgCert allowed me to build networks with colleagues I would never have interacted with. This diversity of experience really had a profound impact on my view of teaching and the values that underpin the role, and this is where having HEA recognition allows you to demonstrate this in a meaningful and recognisable way. It also allowed me to provide evidence of my teaching in promotion applications, and I firmly believe it helped me to secure promotion to Senior Lecturer.
After several years of changing teaching practices on my courses and our degree programmes I began to realise the impact my teaching was having on our students, so I decided to re-engage with the HEA Fellowships and apply for Senior Fellowship.
I think very few people (certainly in the UK) enjoy writing about themselves and what they have achieved – I would much rather quietly get on with the job. That said, the process of writing my Senior Fellowship application really helped me reflect on some of the ideas and developments I have overseen from concept to inception. Writing the application also allowed for many networking opportunities with colleagues from across our institution through meetings and writing workshops. This certainly made the process an easier one as it allowed your application drafts to be peer reviewed as well as giving you that extra encouragement when you had a touch of writers block.
Becoming an HEA Senior Fellow is an honour and it allows you to evidence your high quality teaching in a way that is widely recognised. If you’re thinking of applying for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy at any level, my advice is to go for it – it really will help you reflect on your teaching practice and let you highlight all of the great things you are doing as an educator!
You can find out further information on HEA Fellowship here.
Everything is Awesome? Using LEGO® to trigger reflection in Higher Education
Mag. Nicole Brown MTeach, DipTrans, SFHEA, Secondary Teacher Education Programme Leader, Lecturer in Education, UCL Institute of Education
Nicole Brown facilitated an interactive workshop at the recent HEA Annual Conference, where participants used LEGO® and a river drawing activity to explore their own experiences within HE. This session attracted a lot of interest from the delegates, so we have invited her to tell us more about how she encourages students to use LEGO® and other visualisations to create physical metaphors as triggers for reflection.
Nicole is a Lecturer in Education at the UCL Institute of Education, where she teaches on the Master of Teaching course within the Secondary Teacher Education Programme (STEP). Students are recruited from all over the world to a fully funded scholarship programme in London where they study for a double master's degree in preparation for an employment as teachers in their home countries. As part of the STEP programme students attend teaching placements in UK secondary schools. Reflecting on these placements is critical to enhancing teaching practice; however students often struggle with reflection and limit it to describing specific incidents. Nicole wanted to encourage holistic reflection, and has worked with students to research the use of using metaphors and artefacts as triggers for deeper reflection.
Reflection is a key tool within teacher education for trainee teachers to self-assess their strengths and areas for improvement. However, the commonly used models of reflection rely heavily on individual incidents or experiences, which are analysed using words. I realised that students were applying the reflective models mechanically rather than trying to engage with their deepest thoughts and feelings. I wanted to gain a holistic insight into their experiences in placement schools and therefore needed to adjust my approach.
I asked students to picture a river from source to mouth and to consider its natural and man-made features, such as rapids, waterfalls, meanders, tributaries, bridges, stepping stones and the like. I then required students to map their learning experiences onto that river, creating their personal “River of Learning”. Students' identification of challenges and enablers in their learning suddenly became more meaningful and detailed. Buoyed by their positive engagement in this activity, I then asked the students to build their personal learning journey using standard LEGO® bricks, LEGO® people, and some special features like doors, windows and arches.
Although I felt that the drawing and model-making activities were working well, it was important to undertake a robust evaluation of their impact. As the aim of the research was to get a detailed holistic insight into the students' experiences; I realised that the best approach would be to engage students as active partners in the research - not just participants or objects. I worked with a focus group of five students who were the project investigators, responsible for data collection and analysis. My role was to guide them by setting the methodology and demonstrating how the analysis could be done.
We agreed that all students would express their experiences with the help of objects, artefacts and metaphors, recreating their experiences as physical, metaphorical representations. This approach is based on the notion that human life and language are closely connected with metaphors and as humans we cannot escape the metaphorical (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). Once students had expressed their experiences using metaphors the investigators collected the objects and held conversations with their peers about the artefacts' meanings. The investigators took an active role in the meaning-making process by interpreting and analysing the metaphors.
The diverse ways in which students represented different concepts was very revealing to the research team, for example ‘Time’ was represented as an elastic band, an umbrella, a watch and an alarm clock. This led to conversations about the ‘elasticity’ of time, which can appear to pass very slowly during the lesson planning process, when students tried to fill 50 minutes with activities for their pupils, but those same 50 minutes passed very quickly once they stood in the classroom to deliver their lesson.
The research demonstrated that the majority of students had a very positive experience in their placements, however it did prompt us to make some minor changes to the way in which we communicate with schools and to the activities we asked students to complete during their placements. The outcomes of the project also informed our curriculum review in which we restructured the entire placement organisation.
In recent years, the student voice within Higher Education has become louder and stronger. Partly, this is due to the changes in HE funding structures, which have resulted in students having become consumers of education and expecting specific returns for their tuition fee payments. Partly, the student voice has increased in importance in the context of the heightened interest in teaching, scholarship and research-based education within Higher Education. Engaging students in staff-student collaborations and connecting students with research at an early stage in their education means letting students take charge of and responsibility for their own learning. The students participating in this project developed their research literacy and actively practised research skills long before they were required to carry out their own, independent projects. At the same time, the outcome of such collaborative research projects can feed back into the development of courses and modules so that teaching, learning and the student experience are improved.
Lakoff G and Johnson M (2008) Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press.