Month: February 2019

The scientific iceberg

Sophie Rutschmann, Senior Lecturer, Department of Medicine

This time last year, I was in the midst of my first educational research project. As a student on the MEd ULT, I had completed my ethical approval, was finishing my interviews and transcribing them. I remember thinking that this was the tricky part, but I now know it was just the tedious one. Analysing the data, doing justice to the personal experience my participants had openly shared with me, and importantly trying to answer my research question in the least unbiased way were the challenges yet to come. I later also realised that, had I read more of the relevant literature before, I could have written sharper interview questions or picked a much narrower topic to investigate. In hindsight, I was merely re-discovering the struggles inherently associated with research, just in a new field. But by that stage, not too much could be done, so I ploughed on.

So what?

So what was this ‘broad-but-close-to-my-heart’ research project about? Since focussing my career on education, I have been exploring ways to bring our daily professional activities into the classroom. Why? Because I profoundly believe that there is no better way to learn than on the job: there must after all be a reason we all became good critical scientists without having had a single specific critical thinking class! My everlasting quest has therefore been to identify educational events from our everyday professional lives and reproduce them in the classroom. Some of these activities, like chatting around a coffee and ‘exchanging ideas’ will come naturally to our students! Some, like giving them the opportunity to freely use the scientific method by designing and executing their own mini-research project in our teaching labs, requires more planning. Some will also need careful preparation, such as allowing students to discover the hidden side of science, to realise that old-timers (that’s us!) can be challenged and can be wrong (hopefully not all the time!), and that science is full of controversies – something we do not talk about enough in the classroom but which, according to the PhD participants in my MEd project, is truly transformational in terms of critical thinking. This idea of a hidden but transformative side to science, that I called the ‘scientific iceberg’ (see illustration below), was recently presented at the Advance HE STEM conference in Birmingham, a presentation followed by some thoughtful discussions with peers from other HE institutions.

What next?

With a recently reviewed curriculum and based on the results of my MEd project, I have the incredible opportunity to take the next cohort of MSc Immunology students on a journey to explore the immersed part of the iceberg – to ‘drill’ and see with them what can be found in the carrot. Adapting Halpern’s model of teaching critical thinking to this idea of scientific iceberg, I have designed a series of activities which will hopefully help my students (and others?) develop their critical thinking skills further.

So I’m now back to square one: applying for ethical approval to not only evaluate the impact of this activity but also research whether the drill, directly inspired by the experience of newcomers in our community, has a positive impact even without the time, or trial and error factors we all know are key to learning on the job. So hopefully more to write about in another year’s time!

Power dynamics in student staff partnerships – a RAISE special interest group event

Mike Streule, Director, StudentShapers

I recently spent an interesting afternoon with other Student partnership practitioners and students engaged in student partnership initiatives at a half day meeting discussing power dynamics in staff-student partnership work at the University of Westminster. In recognition that our institutions instil a strong hierarchical structure amongst staff, and that generally the students fall beneath staff in that hierarchy in many contexts, provides us with a troublesome backdrop against which to facilitate student partnership projects. This backdrop leans towards uneven power distributions amongst co-workers on projects with the power bias typically leaning towards the staff. A thought provoking keynote talk by Dr Lucy Mercer-Mapstone extended this further, recognising that various characteristics such as gender, race and nationality could contribute further to the power dynamics amongst co-workers and create a complex intersectionality.

Student partnership often cites the desire for partnerships to operate in a model of reciprocity, and of mutual trust and empowerment within the project. But taking all these multi-dimensional power distributions, it is unlikely, perhaps impossible to truly have an even distribution of power amongst a staff-student co-working team. Perhaps, even, it is unethical to do so – should we totally de-legitimise the Professorship that an individual may have ‘won’ when all the statistical data would suggest they (according to their characteristics) were unlikely to do so?

So where does that leave us? Staff-student partnership should none the less be intentionally disruptive to the power relationships between staff and students, at least within the context of the project. And such disruption is likely to be potentially uncomfortable to staff and students, but also incredibly valuable. It gives greater agency and legitimacy to the student contribution to a project, and serves as a valuable learning experience that students may encounter again, and the experience directly aligns with some of Imperial’s graduate attributes.

Closing the meeting included an interesting discussion around the post-partnership relationships that staff and students might assume. Perhaps the balance of power shifts heavily back to the staff partners as future assessors of a student’s work or degree outcome? One can of course not retract a lived experience of partnership, but merely acknowledging a (temporary) disruption to the pre-existing power hierarchies by both staff and student is valuable in being able to, in some capacity, resume pre-existing power balances. Importantly however, working in, and developing the student partnership space can in time challenge the institutional power dynamics between staff and students and develop them into a more productive arrangement.

Imperial’s student partnership programme StudentShapers is growing and is part of the work of the Learning and Teaching Strategy to facilitate staff engaging with students as partners.  A roundup of the day, including Panopto recording will be added to the University of Westminster website soon. Feel free to get in touch at