12 July 2013

Loud music, audience participation and a passion for her subject gains a Lancaster Environment Centre professor a Lancaster University teaching award.

When first year students walk into one of Professor Barbara Maher’s lectures they are greeted by very loud music blaring out, usually Fatboy Slim.

“I want them to know that they are about to have an experience, that they are not just the passive receivers of information, that they are going to take part in an event,” explains Professor Maher, professor of environmental magnetism at Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC).

Professor Maher’s passion and enthusiasm to get new students interested, engaged and understanding that: “this is really exciting stuff”, has won her an Alastair Pilkington Award for Teaching Excellence, named after the inventor and businessman who was Pro Chancellor of Lancaster University for ten years.

Engaging, enthusing and inspiring

The award is in recognition of Professor Maher’s contribution to a new lecture series, Environmental Systems and Processes, taken by all of LEC’s first year undergraduate students whatever their discipline.

“The challenge that Professor Maher rises to so effectively is one of engaging, enthusing and inspiring such a wide range of students, whilst teaching topics that are often considered by many of them, prior to her classes, to be esoteric and peripheral to their interests,” said Dr Andrew Folkard, who nominated Professor Maher for the prize.

“The problem with the way students are often taught in schools is that it can be a conveyor belt whereas at university they are part of the process of debate,” Professor Maher said.

“Trying to establish a dialogue with 200 students is quite interesting. So I try to be provocative, to get them to discuss and to participate. When looking at the little ice age in the 17th to 19th centuries I get them to look at food prices, how small people were and mortality data, to link what they are studying to human lives. When we studied the cycles of gravitational interactions between the planets, I got the students in different parts of the lecture theatre to beat out the different rhythms of these interactions.

“The word ‘Education’ means drawing out, and that’s what I aim to do. I try to hook the students into the subject. It’s like panning for gold.”

In the footsteps of Faraday

Professor Maher’s passion for lecturing was reinforced ten years ago, when she gave a lecture at the Royal Institution, where great scientists like Michael Faraday and William Bragg once lectured. “I read Bragg’s notes on lecturing beforehand. Michael Faraday is my hero so it was a fantastic experience to be standing lecturing where he once lectured.”

Dr Folkard believes that Dr Maher has put Bragg’s notes to good use. “Barbara consistently lives up to Bragg’s famous guidance that: ‘a good lecture is a tour de force; a good lecturer should be keyed up to a high pitch of nervous tension before it and be limp and exhausted after it’.”

Students obviously love the approach. Feedback from Professor Maher’s lectures is consistently good with one student commenting: “She can make even the most boring subject interesting.”

More teaching awards for LEC

Two other LEC academics have won Lancaster University teaching awards, where students nominate their most inspiring teachers.

Dr Jos Barlow, senior lecturer in conservation science, was voted Best Student Advisor and Dr Wlodek Tych, senior research fellow and director of studies for environmental science, was voted Best Dissertation Supervisor.