Professor Judy Hardy

Professor of Physics Education, Dean of Learning and Teaching & leader of Physics Education research group, University of Edinburgh

Can you tell us about a typical day at work for you and all the different plates you have spinning?
Hmm, yes, I teach a number of computational courses. Oh gosh – I’m sure everyone has said the same thing but there isn’t a typical day. In term time, I am typically teaching. I am currently the Director for Teaching in the school, so my time is mostly consumed by teaching matters on lots of different levels, admin, planning, talking to my students. I don’t get a lot of time for research during semester time. My Director role also means that I am in lots of committees! (laughs)

And do you supervise?
At the moment, I have one PhD. I am talking to someone else about co-supervising. In terms of Masters’ students, I don’t have any MSc students at the moment as the Masters’ programmes we offer are not areas I am an expert in. I do offer supervision for undergraduate projects so I generally have a final year student on the go!

What did you study at university?
I studied Chemical Physics as an undergraduate at Bristol – a long, long time ago! (laughs) Bristol is a great city.

What sort of projects are you working on at the moment and what data sets are you working with?
In physics education research, we work with two types of data. One is quantitative, such as survey responses, and assessment results – not necessarily formal assignments we’ve asked students to do that count towards their degree – but diagnostic tests we’ve asked them to do, for example. We also, somewhat unusually for those working in physics, work with qualitative data! This is because we deal with focus groups, interviews and so on.

Something that really interests me – the university has rolled out lecture recording. This allows us to understand what goes on in lectures, what staff are doing, which is very interesting for educators, actually. Also, we can look at the ways that student themselves use these recordings.

I don’t work with humongous data sets. Over years, we can generate big data sets, but in any one year our research subjects are our own students. Data drives what we do; one of the premises of the research we do is to use evidence to develop physics education. That is at the heart of what physics education researchers do! We need data to evaluate new approaches to teaching and new interventions.

What are the biggest challenges in your field?
Hmm. I suppose the question here is ‘challenge for who?’
Something to mention here is learning analytics. We are on the edge of having access to much larger sets of data based on interactions with online resources and materials. That will open up a whole new avenue and world of trying to understand what is effective for students. We are not working with this now but it is about to grow and I’m excited about it. One of the biggest challenges, in general as well as my field of work, is how do we actually use this data and in an ethical way to understand and improve student learning? This is what we want to do. That to me, as a researcher, is a fascinating challenge to address. As an educator – ooh, it’s hard – one of the challenges is that students have access to a huge range of resources such as lectures, tutorials, online resources, slides, notes, the entirety of the World Wide Web. This is a challenge for both students and educators, I must say. How do we navigate this, find the things we need and choose data to use?
I’m sure there are more cutting questions than that in the data world but I find it interesting. The questions and research you’ll undertake as an educator depends on how you’re delivering your teaching. I deal with students who are physically on-campus, for example, but it will be different if your area is remote online teaching. Learning analytics is a big area for the future!

What else does the future have in store?
In terms of education? Hmm, oh wow. You see headlines saying these sensationalist things, such as ‘the lecture is dead!’
I don’t think that’s true; there’ll always be room for human contact. But of course, we also want to make learning excellent for those students who are not physically here and the university has been doing a lot of innovation and development around this. Expanding that will be, indeed, fascinating.
Assessments is also an interesting area for innovation, as student numbers continue to grow. I think that is more of a technology question than a data one, so I fear I’m going off-topic.
As an educator, I teach introductory programming courses, and I would very much like a way of effectively teaching that to larger groups of students. Wherever my students go, they will need basic programming skills, so I would like to see that developed.

Is there anything you wish you could do more of?
I would like more time, actually (laughs) – that would be good. I don’t like doing one thing at the expense of another. More time would be nice; more of everything!
Instant travel between Kings Building and the University’s central area would be wonderful.
My serious answer is that I love my work and balancing all the different areas is actually interesting in its own right, of course.

Do you find your work supportive of women?
My short answer – yes. Something I am proud of is that physics has about 25% women, which is higher than other STEM subjects. Our own department here at Edinburgh is higher than that. I am really pleased with that and it’s fantastic. Long may it continue… we need more women to continuing taking up physics. I do feel supported, although I can only speak for myself.

What challenges remain and what is the future for physics education among women and girls?
Ideally, we would be equal numbers. That’s what we would obviously like. I hope women continue to study physics and the numbers increase.

What really excites you in your work?
Introducing students to programming and seeing the pleasure students get from it is hugely rewarding. I immensely enjoy it. I know it’s not explicitly ‘data’ but it involves the skills you need for working with data.

What do you do when the working day is over?
Sleeping (laughs) and singing. I sing in a choir – a choral society.

Image of Professor Judy Hardy
Picture by Lesley Martin, interview by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

I am proud that physics has approximately 25% women and our department is even higher. Long may it continue – we need more women taking up physics

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