I took a seminar yesterday with my current crop of dissertation students working hard to submit their undergraduate dissertations next week. You can imagine the eye-roll when in response to a formatting query I had a minor rant about the number of spaces after a full stop, or if we are being American after a period. This devolved into banter between myself, an ardent two spaces type of guy, and one of my doctoral students present to assist with the seminar who is very much a one space girl.
I learnt to touch type back in the 1980’s on an upright typewriter the summer before leaving for university. This was one of the best things my parents ever encouraged me to do. Ever since those days I have stuck rigidly to the two space rule, despite quickly transitioning to a word processor. The argument goes that modern fonts are designed with variable widths to aid reading and to make the two spaces redundant. But like an editorial pedant I have stuck, to them although I have stopped correcting the error (at least in my opinion) in other people’s work.
So this morning while displacing from a real task (or conducting an exercise in strategic procrastination if you prefer) I had a quick Google and was pleased find this piece in The Independentfrom earlier in the year that suggested that scientists had answered this age old debate using eye tracking software. The original research published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysicsshowed some marginal improvement in reading speeds with the use of two spaces. The gain was small and the results have been disputed, but it is good enough for this dinosaur to continue to claim that the world is better with two spaces!
If you are a student, there is this little tool on Microsoft Word which shows the hidden formatting which I have turned on all the time so I can see the number of spaces and the hard paragraph returns. It can be useful and this sort of pedantry should not concern you overly, just pick a side and be consistent.
Well it is that time of year the festive music is out and the Physical Geography exam is looming int he New Year! So here with a few words of wisdom.
A set of good notes for all topics is critical to successful revision. So in the case of the Physical Geography Unit what constitutes a good set of notes? Well you will need more than just the annotated PowerPoint slides out the slide bank. Some questions will need you to develop ideas beyond the pure content of the lectures; that is to have done some reading around the subject. Look at one of the recommended textbooks and extract some additional examples, facts and illustrations. For example, if you are writing about mass movements then you want a few choice examples with some basic information – when, where, how big, what sort of mass movement. It will be even better if you can include information from a relevant scientific paper; see the hyper links int he slide banks. You don’t need to remember complete citations and references in an exam. Your notes should also include good diagrams.
A good exam answer should demonstrate your understanding of the basic ideas/theory illustrated by good and relevant examples and/or additional information/facts. If you can include relevant information that will make the ‘marking-weary examiner’ sit-up and take note then do so. Always try to demonstrate where you can your reading and research around a topic.
In order to work out what the key concept(s) for each week was/were you need to step-back from your notes and think about the broader issues. For example, in week one we looked at plate tectonics – the key issue or piece of theory was how plate tectonics has a controlled the earth’s long-term climate and not the detail of plate tectonics. In the week about slopes the key concept was the factor of safety and how it could be used to examine the causes of slope failure. Try and pick out what the key concept(s) (or body of theory) was each week and make sure you understand this and can illustrate it.
Exams require you to regurgitate and demonstrate your knowledge so you need specific knowledge stored away and the only way to get that knowledge is to undertake regular revision over a sustained period of weeks. Cramming knowledge the day before an exam is nowhere near as effective as regular weekly revision sessions over a matter of weeks. Revision is highly personal but simply reading ones notes is rarely enough; assuming you have good notes(!). You need to work out what works for you and be an active not passive reviser. For example, when I was an undergraduate I used to use a combination of three things to revise: (1) I used to sit in my room and lecture myself out loud on the material, because my oral memory is better than my memory for things that I read; (2) I used to practice sketching out key diagrams and figures quickly and roughly on scraps of paper many times until I could reproduce them from memory; and (3) I used to practice questions both against the clock and by writing outlines. These are the things that worked for me; you need to work out what works for you and if you don’t know then experiment and innovate until you find a way that works well for you. However you revise, revision is essential to success and there is no substitute. Exam technique
A calm systematic approach to the examination is critical. Arrive at the exam rested, confident and avoid being wound-up and stressed by your peers. All exams are a bit different so know what to expect in this case by looking at the past papers available via Library website and the revision comics which you will find on Brightspace!
In this exam you must write three answers in 2 hours. You are advised to spend 30 minutes writing each question and the remaining 30 minutes in planning, revision of your answers and thinking. Make sure you adhere to the following:
Answer the questions provided and if there is more than one part make sure you spend equal time on each part. The hardest part for an examiner is to give zero for a beautiful answer that is not relevant to the question and that is what examiners have to do. So don’t just write what you have revised if it is irrelevant to the question in the hope that demonstrating some knowledge is better than showing no knowledge. Only include relevant material. Even if you do a superb answer for part of a question you won’t be able to get over 50% in a two part question with equal weighting so make sure you write something relevant down for each part and spend equal time on each part.
Answer in whole sentences, you don’t need to worry too much about essay structure at this level but don’t give way to the temptation to simply dump information in bullets and lists – it is an essay not a set of notes that you are being asked for. You need to expand and explain the points you are making clearly and in full to get the credit; demonstrating your understanding is key.
Make sure that you include relevant diagrams and illustrations if you can; they don’t need to be neatly drawn as long as they are legible to the examiner.
Explain concepts well and clearly, don’t just litter your answer with jargon; demonstrate your understanding by what you write.
Include specific examples and illustrations wherever you can; facts and figure are much better than waffle.
Try not to repeat yourself; say something well once, and effectively.
Make sure you spend equal time on each of the three questions. One good answer and two poor ones will give you a worse mark than three mediocre ones.
How much is enough? Well in this case you should be write/drawing flat out for 30 minutes and will end up with an essay of several pages in length. There is more than enough material relevant to each question to keep you writing hard for 30 minutes
Above all else don’t panic, remain calm and let your pen do the talking!
Museums are often perceived as dusty cabinets full off dead and ancient things, especially those institutions you’ve never heard off. You know the ones, the neglected pride of county towns that could play a vital cultural and social role but struggle for funding.
For some, technology is the answer, virtually recreating museums and their contents online, or launching fancy augmented reality smartphone apps that overlay videos of the real world with interactive computer-generated content. We certainly see the potential for such apps to make museums more exciting, especially to young people, and have recently been using them to bring dinosaurs to life.
But sadly our experience suggests visitors just aren’t keen on downloading these apps. So is there another way technology can help revitalise musuems and similar attractions?
Using the phone’s camera to scan a code on a notice board or flyer brings forward a 2D computer-generated image superimposed on the phone’s live camera feed. Users can see a troop of mammoths walk over the horizon with the real landscape behind, or have their selfies taken with a mammoth. We’ve since created our own free app that recreates augmented reality dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles and mammals in 3D, without the need to scan a code.
We deployed the mammoth and a T. rex at various events in 2017 and 2018, allowing visitors to pose for selfies. The tech was embraced enthusiastically, not just by children but by older generations as well. We found the sense of technological wonder coupled with a chance to strike a silly pose with an extinct animal really appealed to the visitors.
But when we first deployed the app at a museum, in summer 2018 at the Etches Collection on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, it challenged our thinking. In fact, it stopped us dead. When we had staff on site to show people what was possible with our own tablets and phones, the technology had an impact and people were excited to see it in action (although they did not always download the app). But no one engaged when we relied on posters and banners to encourage visitors to download and use the app.
We failed at the first step, not due to a lack of interest in the technology or in the 3D dinosaurs deployed, but due to the fundamental reluctance of visitors to download museum apps. We have since found this experience to be shared by others, such as Skybox Museum, who also struggle to get visitors to download their app deployed at their site in Manchester. In fact, the feedback we’ve received so far suggests that simply getting people to download a museum app, rather than a problem with the underlying technology, is the biggest obstacle to its success.
What makes people download apps?
To find out why, we immersed ourselves in a growing body of consumer-based research on smartphone apps. It turns out that the characteristics of an app are less important when it comes to getting people to download it than whether they trust the makers, and that brand loyalty and familiarity help build this trust. We also know that the potential for social interaction and pure enjoyment are more important than the usefulness or educational value of an app. People want to be entertained, engage with others and are wary of potential risks to their phones and personal data.
So when you’re asked to download an app at the doors of a museum, the default position is to decline. It’s a hard sell, especially if you have children in tow. Promoting the app in advance helps but, even if you overcome this reluctance, people still want a guarantee of fun.
What’s the answer? Games are an obvious possibility. Which regular museum visitor hasn’t seen a horde of children with clipboards on some form of quest or hunt? Promising a fun game is perhaps the key to getting children to try the augmented reality we know can change a museum experience.
The alternative is to make such resources available without an app, and we are exploring this. One solution might be to enable visitors to access it through their phone’s internet browser or via a standard QR code. Another idea we are trialling is to preload the technology onto a tablet hired like an audio guide at a museum’s entrance. As the software doesn’t need downloading it can be more complex, for example using locational technology such as GPS that can prompt the user to activate the device at a given spot and offer content tailored to their visit. But this would make social interaction and downloading those fun-filled selfies harder.
We believe that technology has much to offer the museums of the future. In fact, we would argue it’s essential to their survival. In particular, mixed reality, a form of enhanced augmented reality where real people and objects are displayed in virtual worlds, has some exciting potential to create immersive, engaging and educational content. But for once, the smartphone may not hold the key.
In the current academic year I have a team of ten forensic undergraduates working on their dissertations with me. They are exploring different aspects of footwear evidence from taphonomic studies through wear of branded shoes and real time experiments using instrumented shoes. The team is contributing to the research of one my Doctoral students and to my own work in this area. Co-creating knowledge is fun. It is great to have a team and we meet each week to monitor progress and to provide feedback and support.
For a geographer it is perhaps surprising, however, that I don’t have any geography projects this year. I am keen to correct this and to use the same team-based approach I am using this year. So in the spirit of building a group of students working on related projects I thought I might throw out a few ideas. They are all linked by their use of digital elevation models whether derived from satellite data or created by near-surface photogrammetry. If any of these interests you then get in touch!
Project ideas that interest me at the moment:
Moraine volumes in Snowdonia. The Younger Dryas was associated with a number of small cirque glaciers in Snowdonia as evidenced by a range of moraine fields. The moraine fields vary in volume and form. This project will use high resolution DEM’s to estimate moraine volumes and explore/explain this variation in relation to data on the dynamics of these former glaciers and geological data.
Hillslope and climate: homage to Troy (1977). In a seminal paper in 1977 Terrance Troy established a model of slope form and its relationship to climate. It was a beautifully designed project, at least in my view, but is now a bit dated. The aim of this project is to replicate this work using modern DEM’s to explore Troy’s original conclusions.
Scratch Dials: Before the advent of train timetables local time used to vary across small county areas and clocks were not ubiquitous. Scratch Dials were carved into the sides of churches and a stick placed in the centre to tell the time in a similar fashion to a sun dial but vertical not horizontal. Clergy would mark on the times of service. Scratch Dials can be found in Dorset and elsewhere in the country. The aim of this project is to capture these dials via photogrammetry and explore local time zones.
Volcanic morphology in the East African Rift. Sections of the East Africa Rift Valley floor contain numerous small monogenetic volcanoes. The aims of this project are to explore their morphology, spatial arrangement (faults?) and age using high resolution DEMs.
Volcanic morphology of sector collapses. I have previously worked on volcanic debris avalanches and would like to extend this work through morphological description of examples around the world looking for common morphological traits using DEM’s. Debris avalanches are significant volcanic hazards in some regions.
Near-surface photogrammetry in geomorphological monitoring. Structure from motion is a type of photogrammetry in which DEM’s are created from a selection of oblique photographs and is something we have expertise in at Bournemouth. I am interested in exploring its application to a range of environmental monitoring projects from footpath erosion, cliff recession/weathering and beach morphology. This may involve the use of drones.
Fossil footprints at White Sands National Monument. I have ongoing research at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) into terminal Pleistocene footprints both human and megafauna (mammoth, camel and sloth). For those interested and with the resources to do an overseas project this is a fantastic opportunity to gain field experience and first-hand knowledge of conservation with the National Park Service in the US.
Inventory of Dinosaur Footprints in the UK. Again for students willing and able to travel this time around the UK we are in the process of digitising in 3D dinosaur footprint sites around the UK in order to develop a digital resource. There are a number of student projects possible around this theme.
In addition we will be offering a range of forensic projects next year all based around the use of photogrammetry in footwear, document forgery, and suspect height profiling from CCTV footage. Drop me a line if any of these interest and I will add to this list as ideas come to mind.
Computer animation (CGI) has revolutionised the film industry. No longer is a writer or director limited by the constraints of delivery and execution, literally any action stunt or visual world can be created. The limitations are now those of the digital artists, of the computation required, of time and budget. Jurassic Park (1993) showed what was possible; dinosaurs reborn as you had never seen them before. By the time of Jurassic World (2015) and its sequel (2018) hit our screens the wonder was gone; CGI was taken for granted. Given that anything is possible, should we not now expect a greater degree of scientific realism? The Martian, for example, was widely lauded for its scientific veracity, but even here scientific veracity (i.e. the dust storm, radiation risks and geological aspects of the landscape) were not allowed to get in the way of a good story; after all we go to the movies to be entertained not educated. Or do we? Subliminal learning particularly in challenging scientific and gender stereotypes matters. After all, aside from a rampant genetic hybrid of a dinosaur in Jurassic World it was ultimately the male and mad geneticist that is the true villain of the pierce.
Most scientists would agree that there are lots of good science programmes and documentaries out there today, but there are also some very bad ones. Many documentaries and films play to the lowest common denominator, ‘sexing’ up the risks to humanity of a particular phenomenon and combine stock images and video carelessly. The last point is a good case in point; just about every documentary that involves a volcano plays to the geological stereotype of red hot molten lava, when in fact gases and volcanic ash are perhaps the norm and only a few of the world’s volcanoes actually produce such fluid molten lava. It is a volcanic stereotype reinforced by countless movies such as Volcano (1997). Similarly the fact that the velociraptors of Jurassic World remained without feathers, despite the advance in science since 1993 that suggested they were in fact feathered is another example of a stereotype at work; we don’t see birds as frightening in the same way we see reptiles.
But is it really the fault of the film maker or animator? After all their objective is to entertain not educate and stereotypes are essential ‘short-cuts’ in storytelling. Is it not the fault of the scientist who fails to stand up and point out these failings? Perhaps as scientists we should challenge the loose use of science-based stereotypes, not just around gender, race and the mad-demonic and out of control geneticist, but all those stereotypes that miss-inform and miss educate? If we as scientist demanded more, were more vocal as critics especially of those who set out educate via documentaries, as well as those that seek to entertain would things change for the better? The Martian was subject to a surprising level of scientific scrutiny – with countless blogs and newspaper reports documenting what was right and what was wrong with the science. Perhaps fuelled by the claim to be the ‘most scientifically accurate film yet’. It was good to see. While ‘feather-gate’ (Jurassic World, 2015, 2018) still has palaeontologist grumbling into their pints (or not) perhaps they should have done more through public engagement and the use of their own animations to change the stereotypical dinosaur? In the world of CGI where anything is possible scientists have an increasingly important role in constraining the art of the possible with a dose of scientific reality.
Portrayal of the social contract between state and university in the UK
There are bridges to be built since animation has huge potential in public engagement. Public engagement is now an important part of most scientists work, a requirement of research funds and part of the agenda in most UK universities at least. It lies at the core of the social contract between state and the university; that money is received to educate and research and while freedom to explore both is essential the reality of societal and economic are clear. The growth of the impact agenda as part of the Research Excellence Framework in the UK has strengthened this as a drive to demonstrate both value for money but crucially societal return on investment. Scientist now blog, hold numerous outreach events and some are actively researching the process of impact and engagement itself. Animation offers one route to engagement.
A University funded project (2015/16) saw us working with a BU animation graduate (Katie Hill) to produce a series of short animated video clips to promote research in human evolution. After all BU has one of the World’s leading animation courses and also has some great scientific research to shout about. The clip showcased here shows what is possible with animation alone, and was generated to support footprint research at BU and to stress the importance of human evolution in a dynamic landscape. The story is based on published scientific research, the terrain is based on digital elevation models derived from satellite observations, the vegetation assets reflect those present at the site and the footprints are based on detailed 3D models captured by photogrammetry in the field. The behaviour of the volcano and the eruption is consistent with volcanoes of the region and referenced to real-life still and video images throughout. The only nod to fictional composition was to move the signboard inside the site enclosure and to reverse it orientation. The rest is accurate; a level of scientific veracity that in truth was not hard to achieve although the animation as a whole was not quick to produce taking six months of work. We used a second animation to help promote our work on springs and human evolution.
The point here is that getting things right in a world of CGI is actually not that difficult, but is matter of care and belief in its importance and collaborative working between scientists and animators. Scientists have to stand up and engage, not just grumble from the sidelines and if they embrace the tools of animation they have much to gain.
Creating a podcast or sound clip for that important presentation is easy using something called Audacity or so I learnt last week. Previously I had always struggled to edit audio in video editing software such as Camtasia but never again. Audacity is a powerful tool and is freeware to boot! Just watch the download, it seems simple, but you need an extra file to make it work with MP3 files.
I discovered Audacity while creating an audio-book for my daughter. Stories written and recorded by my mother, with music and sound effects added by me. Audacity records well both using a microphone and internally while sampling YouTube sound effect files. There are some good noise reduction tools as well and some other simple effects of which i have only just began to scratch the surface. It is simple and intuitive to use. There is also a healthy body of ‘how to’ videos on YouTube and a variety of websites all offering support and help.
So yes this must read like a sales pitch for Audacity and so it is; it is awesome for the occasional user like myself and has opened my mind to the idea of the podcast as part of my teaching portfolio. I have previously done a few podcasts to sit alongside PowerPoint slides, but the idea of the podcast covering key topics is centre stage in my mind at the moment, so what this space!
The relative importance of practice versus innate talent is a matter of extensive debate and there is some pretty cool research out there and lots of popular articles to read. Malcolm Gladwell coined the term the ‘ten thousand hour rule’ in his book the Outliers and developed this further in a piece in the New Yorker. Basically complex tasks like composing or playing chess at the highest levels require in excess of 10,000 hours of practice so the rule goes. The question here off course is where does raw talent (genetics) feature?
This debate is explored in relation to new research by Maria Konnikova in another piece in the New Yorker. On reading her piece I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, that the average athlete benefits most from practice and training while the margins of gained are much smaller for elite ones. Secondly practice relative to raw talent operates differently in different areas having less impact on education and computer science for example when compared with music or sport. Finally, if you take a group of highly talented individuals their career performance is ultimately determined amongst many factors by ‘work (practice) ethic’. Now I believe in the importance of work ethic; the more you invest in yourself and your contribution the better the outcome. Constructive and directed industry has always been a big indicator of success in my opinion, although it is often mitigated by the power of an extrovert who can tell a good story. There is off course the irrational pique here of an introvert speaking.
So why am I writing about practice? Well I run sessions for the Doctoral College here at Bournemouth on academic writing. As a severely dyslexic individual writing has always been difficult, but over the years I have done a lot of it, and while I would never say that I am particularly good at it, I am continually learning and improving. I advocate in these sessions the importance of practice, off investing in one’s own development.
Now writing is a skill that is on the decline in most science graduates. Can I evidence this? Well not really, but it is apparent every semester in the papers I grade. The point is that students don’t get the chance to practice in the mercenary academic world in which we live. In this world only the thing that seems to count to most student’s is work that contributes to a final grade. Summative assessment is king and we are increasingly limited as tutors by what we can set. As tutors we do not help this because with the growth in class sizes we usually strive to reduce grading at all costs. Yet what science students really need is formative assessment and coaching in writing. As a student I had to write four tutorial essays a semester in addition to coursework, these essays didn’t count for any unit grades but they did in hindsight help me along the way. Over thirty years later you would not get a modern student doing this unless there was a grade it in. As I say education has become very mercenary. So when a student graduates and ends up needing to write academic papers in Graduate School they struggle. It is why they come to classes on academic writing!
My answer is the same however; you need to practice. Write something every day, it doesn’t really matter what as along as it is coherent prose. I advocate the use of blogs, after all they don’t have to be public and there are so many of them these days that most remain obscure even if they available online. A blog post of 500 to 600 words is an ideal length to practice, and writing prose free of references and academic baggage allows you to focus on the writing itself. In class I am asked: write about what? My answer is always, anything that holds your interest. Who will give us feedback? No one is the answer, learning to be your own critic is one of the keys to good writing. How many take this advice? To be honest I am not sure, but I hope they do, because in the case of writing reading good prose and emulating this through practice and self-critique will always be king in my view.
I have one other tip to pass on. I once had a management coach when on the academic leadership track and he told me a story which I can’t now remember to whom it was attributed, but basically it went like this. Instead of sitting down at your computer each morning and writing emails, posting on Facebook or Twitter write a piece of coherent prose for half an hour and you will have a more productive writing day. Not sure what the evidence for this was or is, but try it because it works for me.
If you are an undergraduate reading this. Well my message to you is simple, practice and invests in yourself and in a good work ethic and in my experience you will win the day.