St Hilda's Physicists' Online Short Options Party

Up until lockdown I never fully appreciated just how uncomfortable dining room chairs really are. Even though no one has visited our house in months (and likely won’t be visiting for a while), I have not been able to bring myself to replace my beautiful, creaky and impractical dining room chairs with something better for the spine - office chairs are just so ugly! While resisting change on the furniture front, I (we) have completely embraced change when it comes to undergraduate teaching.

Tutorials have moved online and Microsoft Teams has temporarily replaced the Winifred Moberly Room. Traditionally I, and many other physics tutors, rely on a whiteboard when teaching. The virtual equivalents, online whiteboards, are slow, unresponsive and difficult to use. They are even more useless when dealing with the fact that no two students have access to the same computing hardware. So instead of whiteboards (virtual or otherwise), we have become experts in screen sharing multiple documents at once and miming graphs to each other using our arms over webcam! It took a couple of weeks but I think we have figured out good systems of remote teaching, which we will hopefully never have to use again!

As part of their course, physics undergraduates have to pick one short option every year. These are designed to be fun and interesting introductions to non-core physics topics. Because of the lockdown, the exams for these short options have been cancelled. Instead the Physics department asked colleges to check that students have engaged with the material internally, however we saw fit. Some colleges opted to set online, open-book exams. Others had seminars. At Hilda’s we decided to do something a bit more fun. We had an “Online Short Options Party”. Granted, the title does not make this sound like a particularly exciting event… but I promise it was! The students were each given a budget to buy drinks and snacks to help up the party atmosphere and we tasked each of them with creating something fun to explain a concept from their chosen short option to a general audience. The students did not disappoint.

We had prizes for the best creations (including for whoever had the best drink or snack). Zella Baig won best snack for her home-baked biscuit version of the solar system. Blowing my own trumpet, I was rather pleased with my Lager-itas (an Atomic Burger inspired combination of Corona Beer and Margherita). Their scientific creations were of such high quality we ended up awarding joint second place to three students and joint first to two.

Joint second place went to Mike Penkov, for his video on tidal locking. Fellow winners were Will Feasey and Josh Greensmith. 

Will and Josh were doing the short option, “Functions of a complex variable”. To the uninitiated this short option probably sounds even less fun than an online-physics-short-option party, but it is a really powerful branch of mathematics that can be used to solve otherwise unsolvable problems. The course includes the topic of Fourier transforms, an incredibly useful tool in the physicist’s toolkit. This is the topic both Will and Josh chose to explain.

Will made a video presentation introducing Fourier transforms and Josh made an interactive website that links Fourier transforms to spirographs. His website contains a brief introduction, draws the College crest using a crazy set of epicycles and even allows you to draw your own picture and watch the epicycles draw it. Mike chose the astrophysics short option. He made a great video explaining why tidal locking means we only ever see the same side of the moon.

We awarded the first place prize jointly to Ethan Garrett and Jacob Jackson. Ethan wrote a song entitled “Einstein’s Golden Hammer”. It is a really fun exploration of the development of quantum mechanics. I think we may have a future Brian May in our midst! Jacob made a video demonstrating a table-top experiment you can try at home that explores ideas around surface tension. Both Ethan and Jacob’s production values were top notch.

The way that our students have adapted to online learning is really impressive, and seeing them stretch their creative muscles in the short options party has made us (their tutors) so proud! The physics short-option party is not the only virtual social event we will have this term. The first-year undergraduates are organising a Zoom quiz for us in place of the yearly picnic. I’ll have to get some strawberries and cream in preparation.

Whilst lockdown has perhaps not been the most positive experience for many, it has forced us and our students to be creative. Whilst maybe not getting everything perfect, Hilda’s Physics has risen to the challenge of teaching, engaging with and caring for one another at a distance. And whilst one day this will be over, there are some things from lockdown that would be great to hold onto.


Home-baked biscuit version of the solar system by Zella Baig