Month: January 2022

New focus on research into education for Department of Physics

Interviewer: Sarah Saxton

Headshot of Michael FoxA new team of teaching fellows and researchers is focusing their efforts on improving education within the Department of Physics.

The informal grouping – the Physics Education Group – began work in 2021. I spoke to new Senior Teaching Fellow, Michael Fox, to find out more.

How did the Group come about?

This is really part of the Department of Physics’ response to two main things. Firstly, the publication of the College’s Learning and Teaching Strategy in 2017, which set the direction to think about physics teaching as a research-based activity. Secondly, the annual National Student Survey (NSS) had highlighted some areas of improvement for physics teaching. This led to the creation of additional teaching and research posts such that we now have ten people in the Physics department with a focus on delivering and continually improving the educational experience of our undergraduate students.

What is the main focus of your work?

I am part of the Strengthening Learning Communities project, which is a 3-4 year project that Mark Richards and Vijay Tymms helped set up and now supervise. It can be thought of in two integrative parts: one quantitative and the other qualitative. The quantitative element of the project is examining ten years of data from past physics students to identify any attainment gaps in between different demographic groups, allowing us to target interventions and ultimately find ways to address the gaps.

We’re looking at lots of different demographic characteristics, including sex, gender identity, ethnicity, race, school background and socio-economic background. The data includes both Department and College level data which is all anonymised before we use it.

It sounds like a big data set…

It is, we’ve seen over 2,000 undergraduate students through the Department over the last ten years and we have data on attainment in each of the modules that they have taken over the three or four years of their degree. Each student studies between 5-10 modules a year so it’s a lot of data. We also have all of the department-level data from a decade of NSS results.

What made you suspect that attainment may be affected by demographics?

We’re building on a previous small-scale study within the Department that looked at some of this data and which found some clear differences between demographic groups. We wanted to look at a bigger data set and leave no stone unturned in our analysis of it.

And the project also has a qualitative strand?

That’s right, this is the second part of the project, where we have a PhD student, Amy Smith, who is looking into physics students’ sense of belonging, both to physics as a subject as well as to the Department of Physics at Imperial. Sense of belonging may affect retention in physics as well as attainment. One possible future avenue of the qualitative work is to speak to physics alumni about their time at Imperial. Through their historic data their experiences are already feeding into the project, but numbers can only tell you so much about the lived experiences of students.

I understand your partnership with the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship has had a huge impact on the project?

It absolutely has, we’ve been lucky to have had fantastic support from CHERS. This is the first time the Department has been able to invest in research into physics education and we’re all physicists who have moved into physics education at different stages in our careers. Camille Kandiko Howson from CHERS is a member of the Strengthening Learning Communities project and her insights and support to the team have been invaluable.

Will you be involving students in the project?

There will be quite a few ways for students to be involved in the project. Last term, I supervised a BSc student project looking at using machine learning to help process qualitative data. Additionally, Amy Smith and Jessie Durk, a postdoctoral researcher on the project, have already run a Student Shapers project to learn from the experiences of students during the pandemic to help this year’s first-year students settle into undergraduate life. As well as the possibility of future Student Shapers projects there will be opportunities for undergraduate researchers to get involved in analysing and interpreting the data. And as we identify issues that need to be addressed in the way that physics is taught, we want to get students to propose and help us evaluate new ways of doing things, which will ultimately inform our decision making.

Supporting Inclusion, Diversity and Success for STEMM Students

Authors: Dr Tiffany Chiu, Dr Órla Murray, Katarzyna Zukowska and Marine Coispeau 

The Supporting the Identity Development of Underrepresented Students (SIDUS) project is funded by the Excellence Fund for Learning and Teaching Innovation. It aims to promote inclusion and diversity and support success for STEMM students to foster a diverse and inclusive academic community for all, especially amongst underrepresented groups.

The project has two phases – ‘Research’ and ‘Pedagogical materials development and implementation’. In the research stage, the team conducted 110 interviews with STEMM students from underrepresented groups at Imperial and the University of Reading to explore their lived experiences. We focused on areas such as sense of belonging, disciplinary and professional identities and career intentions, including suggestions on how university can support underrepresented students.

The pedagogical materials development stage built upon these rich interview data. During the summer of 2021, we worked with three dedicated Student Shapers – Marine Coispeau (Life Sciences), Danai Bili (Physics), and Katarzyna Zukowska (Electrical and Electronic Engineering) – to produce our pedagogical materials in collaboration with a professional illustrator, Raquel Durán. We are now disseminating these resources across the College to support students and staff supporting students, particularly with more emotional elements of their student experience. We have already distributed 4,000+ bookmarks!

Images of the SIDUS team members

It was exciting to get to turn our research into creative outputs like these, and particularly getting to work closely with the students. Their creativity was inspiring and allowed us to translate research data into materials that would speak to other students and provide essential information on how to navigate university life and the complicated organisation of the College and the Student’s Union.

We identified themes and powerful quotes from our interview data and used them to inspire a series of bookmarks, posters, and a student guide to Imperial (pdfs available online). We also produced a staff guide to using the materials with suggested activities for incorporating these materials into teaching and supporting learning, induction events, and other pastoral support systems like personal tutoring.

SIDUS posters

An image of a SIDUS posterAn image of a SIDUS poster

A Student’s Guide to Imperial

The cover page of the          A Student’s Guide to Imperial

SIDUS bookmarks

An image of the SIDUS bookmarks

Our student guide, bookmarks, and posters highlight important student issues and concerns using interviewees’ own words. Then we identified relevant student support services at the College and other online resources to redirect students to the appropriate information and services to help them access support.

In our research, we found that many students found the transition to university challenging, particularly those from very underrepresented groups. While we aimed our materials at all students, we paid particular attention to the experiences of students from underrepresented groups, highlighting issues like racial microaggressions, accessing mental health services, and imposter syndrome, and ensuring our illustration portrayed a wide array of students and society events to encompass a diversity of student experiences. We also wanted to ensure that all students gain an understanding of the barriers and challenges that underrepresented students face, to encourage greater literacy around social inequalities that unfortunately are still very present across STEMM disciplines and universities.

images of the three student partners

Katarzyna Zukowska: “I particularly enjoyed the process of creating the materials, from analysing data to writing content and designing. It felt like I was really contributing to the student community and the topics we were touching upon in the handbook were often very relevant to me personally. I was drawing from my own experience on issues such as imposter syndrome, wellbeing, finding a sense of community and identity at university, but at the same time I was deeply reflecting on these topics, identifying helpful approaches and solutions.

“It’s true that doing something for others benefits both sides, and by producing materials to help other students I improved my student experience too. I feel very empowered by the work I have done on the project and I think it gave me courage to stand for a role in the Wellbeing Student Representative network. Throughout the project, we discussed a lot about the importance and impact of diversity and inclusivity, which made me much more aware of the challenges that students from underrepresented backgrounds face, by getting to know these perspectives I learned how to be a better ally.”

Marine Coispeau: “A Students Guide to Imperial” or the Handbook I never got and wish I really did. Fear of not belonging, Imposter Syndrome, Imperial Academic and Social expectations etc are major themes which not only appeared in the SIDUS interview data but also resonated with my own worries as a student. Seeing that these worries were shared, this empowered me to reassure and make a difference for both current and new students. Particularly, when it came to identifying gaps in current resources such as what to expect at Imperial after a week/month/term, the importance of a healthy work-life balance, understanding clubs and societies. Being able to design and conduct Bookmark, Handbook and Poster campaigns as well as contribute to the dissemination of these materials on campus was a beautiful way to give back to the Imperial community.”

Want some SIDUS bookmarks? Request your copy now!

 We believe in the power of authentic student stories and evidence-based resources to support students with their transition to and progression through university. Please use/signpost these resources to your students where relevant! Read more about the SIDUS project here and let us know what you think about these materials by filling in a brief form here.