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The Perfect Project

One of the best things about an undergraduate degree is usually the final year project that most students undertake. The idea is that this should be a more open ended and research orientated project than those most students are used to, and so it gives them scope to really get to grips with a area, allowing them to show their imagination and ingenuity. Or at least this is the idea. The problem is that students need to be assessed, and while it might be great to mess about with a project over the course of two-four semesters and try different things, if at the end of term you don’t have hard data, or if the project just didn’t work, you might find yourself in a bit of bother. Of course at University level we understand that this can happen. So if a student has kept good records of what they did, and can demonstrate a good understanding of what they were doing and trying to d and demonstrate that they worked hard and achieved something, we can give them a reasonable amount of latitude. They are trying scientific projects after all, and these don’t always work. Students, naturally, can be nervous of this approach, and the ‘having fun finding things out’ idea can give way to, ‘but I want a good grade, so a graph to two would be nice, wouldn’t it?’ moment of panic. I was there once too.

Data taken as part of a final year undergraduate project last year on aerosol properties: made use of new technology and enabled data analysis. Data then fed into second part of project. Anomalous unexpected readings on right hand side provided an analytical challenge.

My honours project supervisor was of the opinion that you shouldn’t set a final year project that you couldn’t do yourself in a week. He is very talented, so I suspect he could do quite a lot in a week, but for me, I am happy to set things that are outside my comfort zone (programming Kinects, Wiis and Arduinos; modeling solar cell coatings, for example), but things that I can offer sensible experienced advice about. I usually have a  clear goal about what I want to see happen, and set projects up with various intermediate goals to achieve. If the student is poor, then getting to one of these goals should allow them to get a decent mark, while at the same timing I can set (in my head at least) a far reaching goal, if the student turns out to be really good and finishes the main stuff early. Beyond this I let the students know that the project is theirs. I will support them through discussion, acquiring kit and help with new and unfamiliar concepts (and if the concepts are unfamiliar to me, we can work through stuff together). I can point them to relevant literature and supply them with the odd PhD student or postdoc to help in the lab if necessary, but ultimately I expect them to take responsibility for their learning and be proactive at all stages of the process. Even at honours level this can be tough for some students to do, as at the same time they have other classes, and find it difficult to prioritize the higher weighted project over homework that is due next week. The good students can multitask, the weaker ones tend to treat the project like a big teaching lab assignment.

The question is ‘what makes a good project?’ From my point of view this is something that is relatively open ended (with intermediate goals), requires you to learn new skills, demonstrate the skills you have learned, and allows a good investigation of a new topic. From the student’s point of view it should be something that can give them a good grade, but also that allows them to develop new skills that will be useful in a future career. These two options are not always the same.

What makes me consider this, is that at High School level in Scotland, final year students, doing the Advanced Higher Physics course must undertake a short project. Occasionally we have pupils come to the University to carry these out, and I am speaking to a student later today about doing a polarisation project in my lab. I am happy to help, but I know that the marking criteria on school projects is quite strict, and that it is possible to have a ‘perfect project’. Students need to design a simple experiment (say measuring ‘g’) and look at more than one way of measuring it. Then they must take data and analyse it with appropriate error analysis. If this is done well, it is perfectly possible to get ‘full marks’ on the project. Projects that are more research oriented, or stray away from the obvious topics, are perfectly valid, but much more difficult to get good marks with. If you design a nice experiment, understand how it all works, but fail to get decent data, you will suffer on these marking schemes. This I find a shame. It seems that we are not rewarding real innovation by pupils in projects, or really pushing pupils to look at more complex ideas. I’d like to see closer integration with our local schools and the University with these types of projects, offering pupils the opportunity to try mini-research projects and put these forward as examples of more independent thinking, but it’s difficult for a range of reasons: time being a big one (both on the pupils and University staff’s part) , schools themselves struggle to do such projects as they don;t have the kit; also if you have twenty five pupils doing AH Physics (many schools this year seem to have bumper size classes) it’s challenging for a teacher to deal with so many projects. I hope to have a good experience with the pupil who will try to explore polarisation, but we will start with Malus’ Law – I wonder if we can, or even should, go much beyond this?

Any thoughts on ‘the perfect project’, or better school-University collaboration are most welcome.

PS A wonderful role model for school-University projects seems to be the Simon Langton Grammar School, which has projects on Cosmic ray detectors, and works on CERN related projects, as well as research projects in bioscience with the University of Kent.

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  1. Luke Halliwell
    September 2, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    Looking back, I definitely wish we’d had some more open-ended learning opportunities at school. I think I had a fairly good education in many ways, but it was very focussed on clearly-defined tasks and when you get into the real world, you quickly discover there’s a lot more to life than that.

    For my final year physics project, I chose to look at the angle of a boat’s wake in deep water, which we did on the school swimming pool (can’t remember the physics … maybe a theoretical relationship between speed and angle?). We had a motor to try and move the boat at a constant speed, but of course there are no power outlets by a school swimming pool so we had a massive extension lead running through the changing rooms from the corridor outside. And of course … you can see what’s coming next … out of all the times we chose to do this, we coincided with a pool safety inspection. We got about 30 seconds warning of the inspector coming and there was nowhere to go. So we reeled in the extension lead as fast as we could and hid in the changing room cubicles. Me and my physics teacher in 2 adjacent cubicles, clutching armfuls of wire, a boat, a motor, a camera and tripod and some books, holding our breath waiting for the safety inspector to go past so we could sneak out 🙂

    • September 2, 2011 at 7:46 pm

      Sounds like some of my laser lab health and safety inspections…Seems like it was a good project though (!) – and importantly, it sounds like you had the right sort of teacher. The sad thing is that the AH projects are a bit more watered down now than not so long ago, so there just isn’t the time to do more open ended studies. I think the Curriculum for Excellence may change some of this, and I think the sorts of things my kids do at primary school is actually pretty good (and they seem to have good teachers, which helps) and does instill a more independent way of thinking about things. I hope that this continues when the new senior high school assessment methods are unveiled.

      And yes, the real world leads to real problems, where the answers are often far from obvious, or simply not known, and it’d be nice if we could show kids more that this is the case.

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