Second-year Bachelor of Science (Applied Chemistry) student Alex West admits physics was the one subject that “freaked me out” before coming to university.
“I didn’t study physics for the HSC, so the prospect of doing it first-year at uni was a little scary. However, I soon discovered, it wasn’t like that at all. I found the material really stimulating and made a lot of sense as the theory and prac linked together well.
“The subject started off with a bang! They didn’t waste any time getting us straight into the practical things; and you have to admit it’s pretty cool when your first lab involves testing out Hot Wheels cars and constructing huge ramps for them to speed down.”
But it’s not all fun and games. West says there’s a serious side too.
“We had to use the equations we learnt in the lecture to manipulate the distance and accuracy of the car. It was a big competition among the class, and whoever could build the highest, but also most accurate, ramp won. A bit of competition is always good to get you thinking.”
Associate Professor in the Faculty of Science’s School of Physics and Advanced Materials Les Kirkup says incorporating practical experiences and research into classes keeps students intrigued and engaged.
“We like to try and use the research we do as inspiration. We try to weave it in seamlessly to the lessons and give students a reason for knowing about it.”
One example is the Mind Switch research project, which saw a group of UTS academics – Research Associate Yvonne Tran, Professor Ashley Craig and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology Professor Hung Nguyen – develop hands-free technology to improve the quality of life for disabled people.
Kirkup then incorporated this research back into the first-year physics program.
“Students are generally academically able but have often avoided maths and physics in high school. Our challenge is to turn that around.
“I like to use real-world applications the students can relate to, and Mind Switch intrigues everybody,” says Kirkup.
“We used it as an example to teach first-year students about electricity, which is traditionally a very difficult subject because it introduces a number of challenging concepts, such as electric fields and electric potential.
“However, using the research from Mind Switch we can demonstrate the way in which the electrical activity of the brain can be sensed and picked up on scalp electrodes, which can tell us, for example, about how relaxed a person is.”
In recognition of his work, bringing research-inspired learning into first-year science degrees, Kirkup was earlier this year awarded a National Teaching Fellowship by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council.
“My fellowship is about changing practice towards inquiry learning, especially at first-year level, to better reflect the processes and practices of science and scientists,” says Kirkup.
“That means engaging the creativity and imagination of students, their ability to analyse and their ability to work in groups, allowing them to investigate for themselves rather than following some step-by-step process.”
Ayaka Goto, also a second-year applied chemistry student, says Kirkup’s style of teaching makes science easier to understand.
“What was great about so many of the experiments was that you had the freedom to do it your own way. Often there’s not a given set of instructions, so you have to use what you know to figure things out for yourself.
“In one lab we got to use bows and arrows. Apart from having a lot of fun, we were testing different factors to see how they influenced the flight time of the arrow. We tested different strings and how far those were pulled back, which was really interesting.”
According to Kirkup, encouraging research-inspired learning early in a degree is vital for increasing well-rounded science graduates and the pool of future research students.
“UTS has ambitions to significantly enhance its research profile. This can be interpreted and enacted in many ways, but what is for certain is that UTS needs more PhDs and postdocs to contribute to the research efforts.
“Where will those PhDs come from? By-and-large they must come from our undergraduates; so there is a need to ‘switch on’ more undergraduates to research and that must happen in the first year of their studies.”
Kirkup adds, “Graduates from UTS have gone to work as medical physicists, patent attorneys, in meteorology, in finance – modelling stock market variations – and one is even working as a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.
“Whether or not students go into a career in science, the experience of learning through inquiry will change them forever and shape the way they see and interact with the world upon graduation.”