Research-led teaching: case studies
Case study 1: a recent MPhys graduate
One of the best aspects of studying Physics at Durham is the wealth of cutting-edge research taking place all around you. The high level of knowledge held by staff at the top of their fields transfers directly into your lecture courses, laboratory sessions, research assignments and final-year projects.
These staff members are held in very high regard in industry and academic circles, making your supervisors and tutors valuable assets in pursuing an industrial career, or a place of further study within your favourite branch of Physics. A considerable level of confidence and interest is also added to your lecture courses when the lecturer has personally played a part in making the discoveries being discussed.
This research-led teaching aspect of my degree was absolutely integral in crafting the later stages of my study at Durham, and also my future career. During second-year we were lectured on Electricity and Magnetism by Prof. Damian Hampshire, who highlighted the importance of these principles in his experimental work on Superconductors. Being of great interest to me, I approached Prof. Hampshire to ask about career prospects in this area, and with his help I obtained a 12 week summer placement working on High Temperature Superconductors at Oxford Instruments Nanoscience. Following from this, I then chose a fourth-year project on the same topic, with Prof. Hampshire as a supervisor. With my recent experience of the industrial application of these materials, the expert guidance of a supervisor at the forefront of Superconductivity, and the laboratory skills I had gained from taught modules in the three previous years, I was able to obtain some great results which were industrially relevant.
Like many, I came to Durham with very little laboratory experience, but the ground-up approach to skill building (under the supervision of world class research staff) really hammers home the principles of practical and problem solving skills, the quantification of uncertainties and innovation. I am confident that these lessons will serve me well in my PhD and future career.
Case study 2: a third-year student on his experience of the 'Bridge Project'
I took the Bridge Project in the first year that the scheme was being run. The idea was that the topics/questions were not too serious (there was one project on beer mats sticking to glasses!) but I picked a topic that was vaguely related to what I wanted to do later on in my course.
Because the questions were not ground breaking it gave us all a lot more focus upon the experimental design and process, we learnt new techniques and used the department's confocal microscope, something that none of us had done before, we also developed new ways of analysing the data, using software that none of us knew existed and techniques and data extraction methods that we developed as a group.
It was a great experience to do group research in such an independent fashion: we decided what work we wanted to do, how we wanted to split, who would do what, how they would do each step, etc. This freedom meant that we could play to one another’s strengths and allowed all of us to make the most of the project. The most interesting part of the project was the form of assessment: a wiki-page, a blog and a short, group, informal presentation were all major components of the marking criteria. This gave us all much more freedom that a written report, with no word or page limits and the ability to put videos, moving 3D images and much more on the wiki. The blog system was actually quite a good way to keep track of what you’d been doing that day and is a technique I’ve actually used in other projects I’ve done since.
As a group we met with our supervisor once a day just to check we weren’t going off at a tangent and that we weren’t having problems. My supervisor was very helpful and was quite happy to talk to us about things outside the project, so we managed to have quite a good natter every now and then.
The Bridge Project was a great stepping stone from the structured lab sessions of Level 1, which are aimed very much at giving everybody a solid skill base, and the other lab sessions in Level 2, which are very much student-led and gave us much more freedom on approach and method.
Case study 3: a recent MPhys graduate
I have spent four thoroughly enjoyable years in Durham, but I found the final year project to be the highlight of the course, with the first three years proving to be a solid foundation for research. The project accounts for half of the final year and provides a real opportunity to do hands-on research.
For my final year project I was involved in comparing computer models with observations of real galaxies. In doing so I was working with new data from some of the world's major astronomical observatories. Completing the project required many of the data analysis and computer programming skills taught throughout my four years at Durham.
Final year projects create a fantastic opportunity to provide your own input in an environment where your opinion is valued. Together with your supervisor's guidance and direction you will be involved in pushing the boundaries of scientific thought. The project has not only given me research skills to continue on and study for a PhD in Astronomy, but has also developed my time management and problem solving skills.