Next Steps for STEM Education and Training in Scotland

This half-day seminar was one in a series of similar events around public sector services provision operated by Scotland Policy Conferences. There were two sessions across the morning, the first chaired by Iain Gray, MSP and that after coffee by Clare Adamson, MSP.

The STEM Strategy

The first session was on the Scottish Government’s STEM strategy and began with a personal view and the recent history of it by Professor Iain Hunter1. He mentioned in particular the [STEM Strategy Implementation Group] (https://beta.gov.scot/groups/stem-strategy-implementation-group/)2 and summarised the STEM strategy, which was welcomed by several speakers at the seminar, as being about excellence in STEM learning, closing gaps, inspiring and connecting to the labour market. Professor Lesley Yellowlees3 and Polly Purvis4 also addressed delegates before these speakers formed the first panel for Q&A and commentary. A call for primary teachers to have more science qualifications so they can teach it (more?) was challenged, particularly in light of the narrowing of the curriculum in Scotland and the greater restrictions on accessing broad education, something I spoke about with Polly over coffee later in the morning. Societal attitudes and STEM literacy were also identified as important factors in improving engagement in STEM, particularly by girls. Creativity and confidence are the hallmarks of excellent primary science teachers, and are more important to development of STEM literate children than an extra science qualification for ITE applicants, my assertion of which during Q&A seemed to be against the zeitgeist of the seminar.

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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics


I’m not sure this is a “popular science” book at all, not because the lessons are difficult or contain equations (they aren’t and don’t), but if you approach this slim volume from a scientist’s perspective, there is an insight available to you that maybe the man on the Clapham omnibus will miss. Carlo Rovelli’s broad-brush sketches of six important physics concepts are watercolour impressions of scenes that you may have gained intimate familiarity with over years of study, and yet have never really seen. The final lesson addresses our own place in the universe that we have discovered and reconnects us to what brought us into science in the first place.

Copper Blossom and Alicia

We found a new place for our annual June birthday lunch: Copper Blossom on George Street and North Castle Street. The menu is varied and inviting, with a range of great food from “bites” to deli sandwiches, to a full Sunday Roast.

Alicia Ukelele

Alicia Ukelele

I settled on ham and eggs and it was excellent: tender and perfectly cooked gammon under a light glaze, a perfectly fried duck egg and home fries in a bucket. There’s a short wine list that covers most preferences and a similarly short but irresistible dessert menu. The horror of there being no trifle left was amply mitigated by a compensatory Eton Mess that did not disappoint.

One particular delightful surprise was Alicia Ukelele, who sang for all of us as we enjoyed our meal. She has a really good voice and interprets a great catalogue of songs in a way that’s summery and joyous. I particularly loved her rendering of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”. Alicia is a music therapist and that’s not a surprise when you hear her performing.

You can hear more of Alicia over at Soundcloud, or better still why not go along to Copper Blossom and see her live on a Sunday afternoon?

Upgrading solr server from 6.6.0 to 7.3.1

I use Apache’s Solr to provide a global search facility on Moodle. Now that my courses have ended for the summer, it’s time to bite the bullet and upgrade the Solr server software from version 6.6.0 which I installed last year, to the current 7.3.1. This turned out to be more straightforward than I feared, and did not require me to touch the PHP solr module that I had to compile from source when I installed it the first time. Here are the steps:

# cd /opt
# wget http://apache.mirrors.nublue.co.uk/lucene/solr/7.3.1/solr-7.3.1.tgz
# tar zxvf solr-7.3.1.tgz
# cp solr-7.3.1/bin/install_solr_service.sh .
# rm -rf solr-7.3.1
# ./install_solr_service.sh solr-7.3.1.tgz -f

Notice the -f flag which tells the script to upgrade an existing installation. The script stops the currently running instance, extracts the new code and starts the instance. A quick check of the admin interface on port 8983 shows the new code running OK, the cores intact, and the client service on Moodle nominal.

EDIT: At present (June 2018) Solr 7 is not supported on Moodle 35. The latest version of the Solr server that works with Moodle 35 is 6.6.4: the instructions above will install Solr 7.

If you want global search to work with Moodle 35, replace “7.3.1” with “6.6.4” and fetch the code using wget from the Apache archive at http://archive.apache.org/dist/lucene/solr/6.6.4/solr-6.6.4.tgz.

TV On Demand

So, we thought we’d catch up on Channel 4’s Humans with some popcorn. On with the Sky box and the telly and press the TV guide. Catch up. Here we go. Microwave is on. Sounds of corn popping.

Sky says we have to contact them because that channel isn’t free to view on demand on the downstairs telly. Weird. We can watch Channel 4 for free on the internet-connected upstairs telly OK, but we wanted to sit with our popcorn, now ready to eat, downstairs.

OK, no problem. XBox. There’s an app.

XBox says it won’t connect to the internet because it wants to do an update first. Sake.

Update eventually installed and restarted and we can sign in and find the app. It needs installed. No problem. Popcorn almost finished now. App installs, but Channel 4 wants us to sign in. Why?

We can’t sign in, we don’t have an account. Why would we have an account for a free-to-air TV channel? It seems we have to visit their website first to create one. Uckfay offhay. Have you people never heard of GDPR?

Popcorn finished. The moment has gone. Casualty it is.

Bring on the AI revolution! Technology is no threat to us.

Google Research releases exoplanet discovery ML code

This week, Google Research released the AI code used in the discovery of two new exoplanets. Their article includes an accessible intro to planet hunting and machine learning for those interested in either topic.

The associated paper is mostly about the AI but includes a good sense of just what real planetary research looks like and how far it’s come: Shallue, C.J. & Vanderburg, A., 2017. Identifying Exoplanets with Deep Learning: A Five Planet Resonant Chain around Kepler-80 and an Eighth Planet around Kepler-90. The Astronomical Journal, 155(2), p.94.

There’s an interview with Chris Shallue, the lead author on the paper on the TWIMLAI podcast which makes interesting listening for anyone interested in machine learning, AI or exoplanetary research.

Gender stereotypes emerge early

I read a recent paper on gender stereotypes that interpreted research data from studies of 400 children which identified the emergence of gender stereotypes – the association of “brilliance = males” – from the age of about six years of age. Although this research was conducted within a US cultural context (which one was not indicated in the paper), the findings reveal that these beliefs, and the self-selection by girls of areas of interest that are not seen as “very, very smart” like physics and psychology, are inculcated culturally from an early age. The paper does not try to identify where these stereotypes are from: early years educators are implicated but it’s clear that these beliefs are deeply rooted by the time children reach secondary school. It is a huge ask of physics teachers to take responsibility for mending the gender gap in their classrooms.

Bian, L., Leslie, S.J. & Cimpian, A., 2017. Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science (New York, N.Y.), 355(6323), pp.389–391.

Open Badges Closed

Well, that was another massive waste of time. For all the hype and hope of having truly transportable awards for training and achievement, backed by Mozilla, no less, the current state of play is pretty disappointing.

I’m running an online resource for some of my students using Moodle, and have been experimenting with badges for minor achievements to help them remain motivated in an unpressurised way, in what is otherwise a highly pressurised programme. Feedback from them has been that the badges are just a bit of fun, really, and not a significant feature of the course. However, talking to one of the students recently revealed that if the badges were to be publicly show-offable, such as on a LinkedIn profile, then they would add a new level of significance that might help them work just that little bit harder to earn these little digital stickers.

Enabling the backpack link within Moodle and trying it for myself (yes, I have awarded myself one of my own badges, for testing purposes obv), I discover that the whole open badges thing is now dead, having been abandoned by Mozilla. Simple issues such as having multiple email accounts within the backpack remain of no interest as the whole idea withers and dies.

Shame. This whole internet thing seemed like a good idea when it was new.

Open Source 1, Microsoft 0 (own goal)

So, I’m sitting down to work on some stuff for my job that is in a Microsoft file format, because that’s what the corporate world uses, when this message appears. I managed to sign in using my corporate id and their subscription.

What ticks me off is that I have already bought and paid for this software. It makes me even more determined to move to open source.

tryGit: it’s the teach, not the tech.

I picked up a link to a free online course from a recent Linux Voice podcast. I tried the course and wasn’t really impressed with it. The interface is nice, with an embedded virtual terminal to let you practice typing in the commands but the pedagogy is pretty weak. There’s nothing in the presentation that indicates that the designers understand how to construct understanding: all this lovely bit of code is doing is rehearsing a list of commands (and there’s even a click-once shortcut if you can’t be bothered actually typing). It’s more of a checklist than a course. It would be easy to turn it into a really effective bit of online learning with the addition of some better structure and graphics, and maybe a little assessment for learning. A shame, really, as it is clearly a loss leader to sell the Code School itself: I am in the market for some good quality online learning in their area, but I’m not likely to look any further at their catalogue.