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Monthly Archives: August 2009

With ALT-C 2009 approaching I found myself updating my details in CrowdVine. It was interesting to see how my work had moved on since the last conference and how my interests had developed, but I found myself stalling at the same question that had foxed my last year:

What topics are you an expert in?

Now there’s a good question… that is ‘What is an expert?

At what point would you call yourself or someone else an expert? Is it an absolute term or a relative one? If you can translate two words from an obscure dead language, and that’s two more than anyone else in the world, are you an expert? Well, you know more than anyone else so, relatively, you are. However, look at it another way, that’s just two words of many thousands, or tens of thousands; you know next to nothing in absolute terms. Feel like an expert now?

Maybe one’s expertness can only really be judged by others; they know how much more we know than they do, we look like experts, but we know always how much more there is to learn.

So, what do I profess to be an expert in? Well, the term is loaded for me; perhaps it is my training (any physical scientists want to comment on that?) but I would be be loath to apply it to myself without thinking I had a lot to back up my claim. The area of my doctoral and post doctoral research, yes, I was the expert in that very small area of that very small field, and unsurprisingly I don’t remember a crowd beating a path to my door to learn more about it. (Buy me a coffee, a good cup of coffee, and I promise not to tell you anything about it).

Yet, there are probably areas in which I could offer someone help and advice; how do you express that though without using the word ‘expert’.

Look forward to meeting you at ALT-C 2009, expert or not!

What topics are you an expert in?

I couldn’t comment on every session I attended and, because of the large number of parallel sessions, I saw only a fraction of what was on offer at this conference.

Here are just a few highlights for me:

Dean Zollman spoke about the Pathway project where expert teachers have been recorded giving advice that they would offer to other teachers on a range of popular teaching topics. These soundbites are then presented in the form of a database for others to interrogate using natural language questions. (

Robert Lambourne spoke on glossaries particularly relational glossaries. He pointed out that physics can be a challenge both in terms of the number of new terms that are introduced during a course and also how words from everyday language may have a distinct meaning in physics.

Antje Kohnle presented a study on students’ conceptual understanding of quantum mechanics, and work on investigating the reasoning behind students’ incorrect answers to questions.

Hans Niederrer linked the raising of student motivation with the concept of student ownership of learning. Indicators of a motivated student where that they exercised choice over what they did, applied effort and were persistent. To support this the teacher had to listen and help but not take over.

Els de Wolf had me ready to sign up for a life chasing neutrinos, and not simply based on the Mediterranean location of the experiment.

Elizabeth Swinbank talked to us about, amongst other things, the physics of bungee jumping as an example of teaching physics in the real world and also the Perspectives on Science course: one on the philosophy, history and ethics of science without predefined content, examined by project work.

Erik Johansson talked about the ATLAS project and its outreach programme. As well as teacher master classes that have been held across Europe there are also sophisticated programmes based on ATLAS available to teaching staff and students through the website (

Steve Swithenby spoke on brain imaging including a contrast of the brain activity of experts and non-experts when solving problems.

Pavel Antonov illustrated a simple student experiment whereby turbulent flow was initiated on the surface of a soap bubble.

Phil Scott caused many a sharp intake of breath when he revealed the results of a test question on forces that had been given to (non-specialist) school physics teachers, but also showed what could be achieved with a small amount of specialised help.

Josip Slisko was an excellent final speaker beginning with errors in well-respected and oft recommended textbooks, and then moving on to many examples of textbook questions describing impossible or nonsensical situations. There was much laughter, especially when we viewed a video that a student had made trying to recreate one of these questions ( but the comments that followed from students having met this kind of question was a reminder that whilst homour is good, you need to take care that you do not inadvertently make your subject look ridiculous. Slisko made a suggestion that we collectively gather erroneous material and nonsensical questions in textbooks: he has convinced me that this is serious.

Watch the GIREP website for copies of presentations being made available in the near future (

And to anyone I told that the game of throw-the-toy-rat-through-the hoop that children were playing during our visit to Warwick Castle, was based on an old English tradition, this was in fact a joke… we used to use weasels.