Doing Nottingham proud

This is a guest post by Christine Cleave, a member of the ENTHUSE project team. It is the last post in the ENTHUSE series. Christine’s post captures exactly my thoughts and feelings on working with Emma, Jarrod, Jeremy, and Tiago in Ethiopia — it was an honour to be part of a project which benefited so much from their enthusiasm, commitment, knowledge, skills, and company.


It is now a little while since experiencing the heat of Adama with the ENTHUSE team. Despite the fact that I have made regular visits to Ethiopia to teach practical work to teachers since October 2008, this was a landmark trip because the team members from the University of Nottingham helped to make a difference in new and significant ways.

In their brief they were asked to devise an experiment which required materials that could be obtained locally. Our walk to the local shops to buy these things took the Nottingham students past the shoeshine boys, the pavement stalls and the beggars, a vibrant testimony to the difficulties of most of the Ethiopian population to making ends meet. They experienced the humour and kindness of the shopkeepers, when buying such things as straws and sponges. And they engaged with it all at every stage. Their own blogs show their lasting impressions.

I shall remember the clarity of their communication, whether they were explaining the Physics of taking a sealed bottle of water from Addis Ababa to a lower altitude at Adama, or talking about electronics or neutron stars. I celebrate the fact that their demonstrations were carefully thought through and planned so that they really worked; one resulted in teacher excitement at finding the number of atoms in a pencil mark on paper.

The students showed personal qualities of resilience and determination in difficult situations – when the electricity or the water wasn’t working in the labs, when exhausted in the heat or not quite adjusting to the food, when asked to be flexible about where or when they did their teaching and when requested to fetch and carry apparatus. They never moaned!

I have to admit that I had a wonderful time, as I got the chance to sit around with them over meals and just talk about physics. Physicists have a unique sense of humour!

The Nottingham students gave us the chance to extend the project in new ways, especially in helping the teachers to experience what it was like to get real data and to question why we didn’t all get the same answer when making measurements.

They absolutely made the most every experience on offer, whether faced with eating colossal quantities of injera, or sleeping under huge mosquito nets.

The University can have immense pride in their graduates and undergraduates. These young people were stunning ambassadors – able to use their education and also to engage sensitively with others from a very different culture. They gained the warm respect and thanks of the Ethiopian teachers.

 

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers

I’m reblogging this important post by Leonid Schneider on the atrocious behaviour of the Swiss publisher Frontiers. Instead of binning the next e-mail I receive from them, I’ll respond with a link to Schneider’s post…

For Better Science

Many scientists have been receiving unsolicited emails from the Swiss publisher Frontiers, with invitations to submit papers or become peer review “editor” with this Open Access (OA) publisher. In fact, the Holtzbrick-owned Frontiers are occasionally criticized for these activities, which were compared to spamming. These “spam” emails however are not written by robots, but by actual human beings, usually interns. Many of them do not seem very happy about their jobs with Frontiers, as one can read at the employer-evaluation portal Glassdoor. Most of the criticism is directed against middle management, who, as I have previously shown, sometimes nonchalantly manage academic topics way outside of their professional competence.

Now, you can learn what goes on inside the Frontiers “spam” factory from a first-hand source.  I was approached by a reader of my website, who turned out to be a former full-time employee at Frontiers. This person…

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Where pints, papers and protocols collide…

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I’m writing this on the train back from St. Pancras to Nottingham, having spent this morning at the launch of the 2016 Pint Of Science festival. Pint Of Science is a fascinating initiative which, as you might glean from the moniker, aims to bring science into the pub; scientists stand up in their local (or not-so-local) and wax lyrical about their, and others’, research for forty minutes or so.

I’ve spoken at a couple of “pub science” events, including Skeptics In The Pub and SciBar, and have thoroughly enjoyed them. (I’ve got a couple of Skeptics… talks coming up in the coming months). I’m always impressed by the quality of discussion that follows the talk (or, better, kicks off during the talk!) — I’ve often had much more challenging questions from non-scientists in pubs than I’ve had following presentations I’ve given at international scientific conferences in my research field.

As a relative newcomer to the public engagement game, Pint Of Science is expanding at a seemingly exponential rate. From just three “nodes” – Oxford, Cambridge, and London – in 2013, the initiative now involves twenty cities in the UK (including Nottingham – we joined this year) and spans five continents.

I spent a little time this morning chatting with Michael Motskin and Praveen Paul, who established Pint Of Science just three years ago, and was impressed to hear that they are now inundated with requests to join the PoS network. The upcoming festival, which this year runs from 23- 25 May, involves each of the “nodes” in the PoS network running pub science talks in parallel (across the world) – a major organisational undertaking which is only made possible through the fantastic efforts of the talented team of volunteers who drive the various events.

This morning’s kick-off event involved four of this year’s PoS speakers (including yours truly) giving a short “taster” of their talk. I covered the single atom/single molecule manipulation stuff that has been the focus of our research here at Nottingham for a number of years but it’s the other talks I want to focus on here. I learnt a huge deal this morning via a number of fascinating and engaging presentations — the PoS audience next month has a real treat in store.

Clare Elwell discussed her group’s hugely impressive work on brain imaging with near-infrared light. Although I’m familiar with functional MRI (and other techniques) being used to map the brain – I’d have to have been living in one of Nottingham’s famous caves not to be aware of this, given that our School boasts a group of highly influential MRI researchers, and Nottingham’s own Peter Mansfield won the Nobel prize in Physiology/ Medicine for the invention of MRI – I hadn’t previously encountered the use of IR to probe brain activity. I was riveted by Elwell’s talk. Not only has her group developed a low-cost and highly portable imaging unit but they have used it to carry out the first brain imaging of infants in Africa (as part of a project to ascertain the effects of malnutrition on brain development, now funded by the Gates Foundation).

The next presentation was from the duo of Mark Thomas and Alejandro Gavez-Pol, and was a complete change of theme – a description of just how art and culture drive human behaviour and evolution. (Their talk is part of PoS’ new Creative Reactions initiative). I was particularly fascinated by Thomas’ discussion of a model he and his colleagues had developed which illustrated that a certain critical population density was necessary to drive cultural development. (Any physicist who hears the term “critical point” immediately starts thinking about phase transitions and the like. We squalid state physicists with an interest in the thermodynamics and kinetics of crystal growth also start wondering about percolation pathways and connectivity…) Gavez’s energetic presentation on art representing science complemented Thomson’s talk wonderfully, and provided lots of food for thought on the matter of creativity in art and science.

The launch event came to a close – well, at least the ‘formal’ proceedings did – with an informative talk from Gabriele Lignani on a gene-editing technology called CRISPR. I’ve got to come clean here and admit my ignorance – I was not at all familiar with the CRISPR technique, despite it featuring heavily in a range of journals and magazines over the last year (as Gabriele highlighted). It’s arguably not the most memorable of acronyms, however. (Having said that, it’s a heck of a lot more memorable than the unexpurgated long-form name of the technique: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). I was once again blown away by the ingenuity of biotechnologists in harnessing and adapting natural processes (in this case, a bacterial activity) in genetic engineering.

After the talks there was a great deal of conversation, fuelled by nibbles, drinks, and a bespoke PoS cake…

I very much enjoyed the PoS launch and I look forward immensely to participating in the festival in Nottingham next month. My only regret is that with all those science talks going on simultaneously across the world, I’ll not be able to take it all in.

(Special thanks goes to Hetty Tapper, who not only invited me to speak at the launch event  but kept me informed over the last couple of weeks about progress with PoS 2016 (and sent me the photo below of the PoS team with today’s speakers)).

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“If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it”

This a guest post from Jeremy Leaf, a third year PhD student in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.


 

It is one of our first electronics sessions. An Ethiopian teacher is learning how to use a multimeter and breadboard. Having measured the resistance of a number of discrete resistors using a multimeter, I suggest he try to measure them in series using the breadboard. He chooses two resistors and, on paper, calculates what the total resistance should be. He then carefully measures across both resistors in series. The teacher’s face lights up as he breaks into a wide smile. The theory is correct.

The process of learning a physical theory, and then observing it manifest itself in an experiment, is a vital pathway to understanding physics. It allows us to grasp difficult concepts and truly understand their nature. Unfortunately, in Ethiopia, physics education stops at the textbook. The education system has neither the funds nor expertise to employ physical experiments in their schools. Our assignment was to show how experimental physics could be taught using locally available materials. We also employed some more advanced apparatus, such as multimeters and breadboards, in the hope that they would be able to acquire these in time.

Simple apparatus and experimental concepts that we take for granted are often totally new to many physics teachers in Ethiopia.  This project was an exciting opportunity to make a small but meaningful impact on the futures of those who go to school here, as well as forge a link between our two countries. Education is key for this country to develop a generation of young Ethiopians that can think critically and creatively. I feel immensely privileged to have been a part of that process.

We were there, now we’re back again

This is a guest post from Jarrod Lewis, a 2nd year undergraduate Physics MSci student at the University of Nottingham and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.


Right now it is raining, it is cold, and it is quiet.

Shockingly, I am no longer in Addis Ababa.

I am typing this post after returning from Africa on the 9th of April. I am now many thousands of miles away from my former hotel room, back in my hometown in South Wales.

My evening has consisted of many attempts to succinctly explain my ENTHUSE Project experiences which, coupled with a neurological twitch to subtract six hours off the clock when asked what time it is (entirely independent of any time zone difference), reinforces my belief that a Western twenty-something could spend a lifetime in Ethiopia and still be quietly amazed by it.

But if the good Prof could meet his conflict with the local microbes of Ethiopia with such resilience, I suppose I should give this blog thing a go.

If the dream of a fully developed Ethiopian state is to be realised, its people will have to be fed, employed, housed and provided for with new and accessible infrastructure. In short, Ethiopia is going to need a lot of problem solvers. (Read: Physicists)

The ENTHUSE course was our contribution to this effort.

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In our course we covered the specific methods for various practical physics demonstrations, the basics of the scientific principle and an introduction to the proper treatment of data obtained from empirical investigation. The beauty of the course was that it is based on scientific experiments, which produce quantitative results that are directly indicative of the learners progress.

We had roughly twenty eight hours of contact time. Our achievements within this still baffle me.

People who had never plotted a graph before could do so perfectly. The basics of experimental design were instilled to such a degree that the teachers could identify potential sources of systematic error and adapt their methodology accordingly without a single raised eyebrow of prompting from yours truly. We covered the basics of circuit building, breadboard function and demonstrated specific classroom demonstrations that used only locally sourced equipment. We even had time to talk about our own areas of interest, and how they are studied about the wider academic world.

We discussed everything and dictated nothing. We covered both experimental theory and the physical limitations of what can be achieved in a lab. Ours was a course that encouraged questioning and skepticism, and for me the most rewarding part was sitting down with these teachers, many of whom had travelled for days on end to reach the venue of this course from far flong corners of their country, and to have a good old fashioned scientific disagreement.

Makbil if you’re reading this, never change.

Our task was to improve the group’s understanding of practical physics so that they could bring this into their own classrooms, ‘enthusing’ themselves and their students and hopefully instilling some grassroot level vigour to the Ethiopian STEM sector.

Our teachers left Adama better problem solvers, more skilled in the evaluation and the analysis of empirical data. They left us bright eyed with smiles on their faces, proud at not only their achievements but their potential to achieve so much more for both their students and their country.

I left Adama a better student, a happier human and with new friends from both home and abroad. It was harder than I ever imagined, but if the chance arose, I would be back in that classroom in a heartbeat. Mosquitoes, chalkdust, blistering heat and all.

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If I had to summarize my thoughts on this crazy week, which I suppose would be useful, then it would go a little like this;

Like happiness, we do not diminish our knowledge by sharing it with others. We exhaust nothing but our own need to sit around and talk about a subject that we already live for, yet in doing so we gain for ourselves a greater pool of future colleagues and innovators.

We cannot leave a generation of budding scientists, mathematicians and engineers fumbling in the dark, unable to apply their exemplary theoretical knowledge to practical problems; not when it costs us so little to share what we have already cultivated for ourselves.

I can only hope the triumph of the first ENTHUSE project will inspire others to give their time and abilities to such a vital education program, and in doing so contribute to the global scientific community that is the foundation of our (in my case, future) lives as physicists.

It’s wonderful to be able to give back to the community that has already given me so much, and I loved every minute of it.

As you’re reading Phil Moriarty’s blog; I think you would love it too.

 

 

ENTHUSE and include

This is a guest post from Dr. Bill Poole, Institute of Physics coordinator — Ethiopia and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.


 

I have been coming to Ethiopia for about 8 years as one of the Institute of Physics Co-ordinators to give practical physics training to teachers.

This time it was different because we were joined by Professor Philip Moriarty and 4 students, Jarrod, Emma, Tiago and Jeremy from the University of Nottingham.

We have completed the training of 40 teachers and the University of Nottingham people made an excellent contribution. I think it has been a brilliant experience for them and they have been whole-hearted in their participation. They were a great team to work with and we had some relaxing and enjoyable times mixed in with the hard work.

The students experienced an International collaboration with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, took part in delivering training and interacting with teachers who are used to rote learning. Changes to the training programme and lack of resources also gave experience of “thinking on your feet” for the students and they showed great flexibility and ability in adapting to the conditions. All this took place in a  significantly different culture to our own.

The teachers reacted with great appreciation to the contributions made by the University of Nottingham with the students giving sessions on what enthuses them about Physics, an experiment with equipment that could be made with local materials and delivering a main session.

In a world that is tense with war, poverty and crime it has been really refreshing to be part of a project that has been so positive and inclusive of people across the generations, faiths and cultures.

 

The bigger picture

This is a guest post by Emma Woods, a 3rd year MSci Physics student at the University of Nottingham and a member of the ENTHUSE project team.


 

On my second day in Addis Ababa I found myself sitting in my hotel room having closed the door to what I had seen over the past 48 hours and a sense of relief came over me. I was overwhelmed. Before sitting down to write this I spent a good while thinking about how to articulate my experience; how I’m feeling, the sights I’ve seen and how it compares to the world I’m used to.

The first thing to note would be the astounding beauty of the area, Addis sits at the foot of Mount Entoto from which you can see breath taking views of this gorgeous grassland city. Atop this mountain hosts the historical palace built by Emperor Menelik II just 150 years ago and is surrounded by many colourful monasteries leading it to be considered a sacred mountain. A visit to the Entoto museum, led by a wonderfully succinct tour guide, showed just how full the heritage of this country is.

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Moving back to the city centre it is clear to see there is rapid development with many high rises in construction in what will be the city’s financial district. There is also an increase in luxury services from shopping malls to spas so that, besides the differences in building materials and blatant disregard for traffic safety, you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were in the west. Yet beyond this mask you can see real hardship. Many seem to have been left behind in the hasty development; the presence of the impoverished being forced to beg left me feeling unsettled. Despite the obvious guilt felt when I have to refuse my help, there is also disappointment in the level of support offered to them here. Whilst projects exist to tackle the housing problem in major cities, it almost seems like a token gesture when the infrastructure needed for sustainability severely lacking (e.g functioning sewage systems). The continued urbanization of Ethiopia is sadly sure to see an increase in disparity between the wealthy and the poor.

This brings me on to what I hope to achieve with my time here. Education is very important to me. I am a firm believer that an education is the most valuable thing a person can receive because it cannot be taken away. ENTHUSE captured my imagination from the beginning as I realised just how much impact it could have. Speaking to Bill and Christine who have both been working on this project for a good number of years, the positive influence is evident, even for simple things like labelled storage for the equipment at the university.

By improving the knowledge and skills of the teachers, and in turn the education of the pupils in Ethiopia, my hope is that we can develop the problem solving skills of the next generation ready to be applied to tackle the problems faced by those around them; now that is the ripple effect in action!