Engaging children with STEM

post by Neeshé Khan (2018 cohort)

Last year I decided to partake in a program that engages primary school children from disadvantaged backgrounds to engage with students from the local university. This provides an opportunity for children to have positive role models or Mentors that can provide support and some sort of a roadmap to whatever they might dream to be when they grow up. I decided to do this to encourage a child to dream about a life in STEM.

As young adults, it is easy and intuitive to explore, experiment, and discover the right choices for your future career. Despite having an aptitude for STEM you might want to explore Arts or Business which is perfectly acceptable. However, when you change your mind STEM doesn’t welcome you back into the fold. There are stringent requirements for the combinations of subjects you must have and the grades you need to be able to start an undergraduate degree. If you have Physics at A-levels (anyone who has done this will tell you that Physics contains more Mathematics than A-Level Mathematics subject) it is required that you must also have Mathematics in A-levels. So if like me, a student also wants to explore economics, business studies, and a language, it means you can no longer enter an Engineering undergraduate degree regardless of your grade in Physics. However, this poses no issues for pursuing a degree in any non-science subjects as all undergraduate degrees will make you relearn the basics, and often lecturers will tell you to forget what you learnt in previous years as it’s mostly inaccurate for truly understanding the subject. Unsurprisingly, I believe that this ‘locking out’ of bright young minds for STEM fields based on ‘desirable combinations’ is in large the main contributor towards the STEM skills crisis that the western world is now facing.

But coming back to the point, I wanted to help a young child strengthen their academic STEM foundations and generate interest where they can see an exciting future in this space. In a few days, I was matched to an 11-year-old (let’s call her “Tara”) who’s interested in STEM and aspires to become a doctor.

While there are several programs available, I really enjoyed this one. It was structured, transparent, had clear expectations and outcomes, and well organised. It offered training and support for the Mentors which meant I would enjoy speaking to Megan (project co-ordinator at the venue) about what my meeting plans were or if I wanted some insights or advice.

I started off the program by providing continuity. I became a staple figure in her life which meant we would meet at a fixed schedule, for the agreed duration, at the agreed time, and follow the agenda that we had agreed in our previous meeting. I always showed up. Much like the gym, showing up (to see this little person waiting for me) meant more than half the effort was already done. We had decided to work on subjects that Tara identified she needed help with, particularly focusing on SATs (Maths, Science, and English). I also allowed Tara to decide what our meetings would look like, empowering her to be in control of our progress. This meant that while she performed very well on tests, we also reflected on what factors contributed to the mistakes and explored tools to overcome them. After a year, Tara ended up achieving one of the top scores in her school and got one of the two scholarships for a private secondary school in the area.

There were also some difficult times. I sometimes struggled to get her attention or interest. Many times this was because she had other things on her mind. Her mom was a qualified nurse from another country who couldn’t practice in the UK without an equivalence which takes time and money, two of the biggest resources for any immigrant. She ended up working two jobs in a profession outside her qualification. Tara discussed her challenges in trying to study in close quarters with her younger siblings. At a young age, she was wise beyond her years and I would often catch myself remembering how little she actually was. We put in the effort to developing skills to overcome the pressure and stress SATs bring to their young lives. We practised exercises to help retain focus in busy environments and relieve stress which included slime making and controlled breathing.

I really enjoyed discovering how the current education system uses new techniques to teach children. For instance, the way we would multiply was completely different! Thankfully our answers almost always matched! When they didn’t, I had to learn her system of understanding and convert my reasoning to fit Tara’s model so it would a) be correct/spot her mistake in her workings and b)make sense to her. I took this as a challenge and found this quite a fun exercise on most days.

Overall, I feel that I made some difference towards Tara achieving her goals and hopefully contributed towards making her STEM career aspirations a real option in her future. I would really encourage everyone to take up this as a rewarding experience to engage the future in any discipline and field you personally care about. Just be consistent and dedicate as much time as you think you can spare. Even a half-hour a week can help contribute to a young life that might need skills you might not know you have.

–originally posted on Neeshé’s blog

Just write it!

Reflection on my first paper writing experience
post by Natalie Leesakul (2018 cohort)

Citation: Urquhart, L., Reedman-Flint, D. and Leesakul, N. (2019), “Responsible domestic robotics: exploring ethical implications of robots in the home”, Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 246-272. https://doi.org/10.1108/JICES-12-2018-0096

As I was wrapping up my first study and starting to draft the paper, I thought this might be a good time to write a reflection piece on my first paper writing experience. Writing a paper can feel a bit daunting. There are always so many ideas to cover and it is so easy to get consumed by the findings and the need to make the paper perfect – and that is where I’m usually stuck at. So, I have to often remind myself that writing a paper is a journey on its own and it is going to take several drafts and many revisions before arriving at the final document, but even that is not the end!

When I was in my first year, my supervisor, Dr Lachlan Urquhart, invited me to join in on a paper that he was working with another Horizon student, Dominic Reedman-Flint, for ETHICOMP 2018 conference in Sopot, Poland. The motivation of the paper was to introduce empirical observation and conceptual analysis to present how responsible robotics should be built and what people think of life with robots. As the paper focused on exploring challenges and requirements for designing responsible domestic robots, it was very much aligned with my interest in robotics and the law, so I got on board.  Following the submission to the conference, we were invited to submit the paper to Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, and the paper was accepted and published in May 2019. Although it has been over a year since the conference, I still remember the feeling when I gave a presentation at a conference for the first time and the excitement when we found out that the paper was finally in the pipeline for publishing.

For paper preparation, we were working remotely prior to the conference – Lachlan was the lead on this paper while Dom looked at the exploratory study and my responsibility was to support and fill the gaps in some parts of literature review, data analysis and copy editing. We collaborated via email and used Dropbox to keep track of different paper versions and editing (the raw survey data was not stored on here). Through collaboration, the paper started to develop from a rough outline of the paper format to the final draft ready for submission.  Unfortunately, neither Lachlan nor Dom was able to attend the conference. Although it was quite nerve-racking when I found out I would be going to the conference and presenting the paper, this experience really set a good start for my PhD (I’ll save the details for another storytelling!).

After returning from the conference, we took into consideration the questions that were asked during the presentation and addressed this further in our paper. Some of the questions we received were around the main themes of the survey, how the questions were formed, and the general question on how robots can be used for other purposes such as helping those who are socially isolated. In this case, Dom and I were able to work together in person to revise the paper before submitting to the journal. It was definitely easier to collaborate in person as we needed to make some substantial changes to comply with the journal formatting requirements and criteria, decisions could be made faster this way. It took a few days of in-person meetings but intensive email exchanging between all three of us until we had the final draft.

After the paper was accepted and went through peer review process, we received feedback with a minor revision (adding an appendix that includes the statistical analysis). This part of the process allowed us one last chance to edit the paper before publication. It was a very crucial stage to ensure that the paper was airtight which only meant more revision and more back and forth emailing. As I mentioned from the beginning, having a final draft is still not the end of the journey. The paper can always be made better, but it is important to know when to stop. After reading over the paper several times and everyone double, triple, quadruple checked the paper, we then agreed on the final editing.

What I have learned from this experience is very valuable to my PhD journey. For practical skills, I personally think it is a good practice to maintain a record of each revision. I found the recommendation from Lachlan very useful for collaborative writing – so instead of everyone editing the master document, we created a copy of it to add our content to with track changes on. All the revisions must be uploaded onto a shared folder but then only one person compiles all the content onto the master document as this will prevent confusion and corrupted files. For personal development, although I was new to this process, I found that the key for successful collaboration consisted of being flexible and open to new suggestions, respecting each other’s opinions, being supportive, and having good communication, which both Lachlan and Dom have shown me 😊.  It was certainly a good first paper writing experience and a nice reminder to be patient with the process.

Engaging with the peer-review process

Post by Kate (Green) O’Leary (2016 Cohort) 

Ever since I started my research career at Horizon I knew that I wanted to make contributions throughout the PhD process. I have my name attached to two papers as a result of my previous work in education, however, I wanted to go through the process of writing papers and getting them to peer review and (hopefully) accepted.

Firstly, I have to confess that I wildly underestimated two things. The first being how difficult I would find writing academic research papers; and the second, how lengthy the peer review process is for journals. Although I could have submitted works to conferences (and I did), with my work sitting at the intersection between health psychology and human computer interaction, I was struggling to find conferences where my work on privacy fit.

From my first study, my supervisors and I identified two papers that could be made out of it. To this end, I started to draft these papers in early 2019 (one on privacy and another on social media use by online health communities) whilst looking for potential journals to submit to. The study was qualitative and rich with interview data, so I struggled to write robust papers without including lots of supporting quotes. It ultimately meant that my papers were going to be a bit longer than I would have liked. It also meant that the journals, with a respectable impact factor, were limited.

In May 2019 I had a paper accepted at the Digital Economy Network Conference which encouraged submissions of interdisciplinary works. The feedback was extremely helpful, but unfortunately the conference was cancelled and my paper was consequently not published in the proceedings. I decided that this paper could be re-imagined for a journal. “Towards understanding how individuals with Inflammatory Bowel Disease use contemporary social media platforms for health-related communications” was submitted to the Journal of Computers in Human Behavior in September 2019. I was ignorant, to say the least, about the submission process and the requirements for a cover letter and other various documents. I did some research on what a cover letter to a journal editor should look like and I shared mine with my supervisors for review before pressing submit.

In April 2020 I received reviewers comments which outlined how the paper needed some adjustments to clarify the purpose of the study. I was relieved with the feedback because I was more concerned that perhaps there would be some more pressing issues with the study and its outcomes. Taking the comments on board I made changes to the paper; I rewrote large sections pertaining to the research focus, as well as defending why qualitative interviews were adopted.

In the next part of the process, I had to make detailed responses to the reviewers’ comments, outlining what I have changed. In all honesty I was not aware that I had to do this until I was reuploading the paper to the system. I have learned that for next time, I should reflect on my changes concurrently with making them so that I can make this process more efficient.

In mid May I returned my revised manuscript and by mid-June I received a notification of acceptance! I am so thrilled to have my first paper accepted at a prestigious journal before submitting my thesis. I now await confirmation of what volume it will be featured in…

Overall I would definitely recommend that PhD researchers try to get their work peer reviewed. Having people review my work was really scary, but necessary to make sure that ‘good’ research is being published. Ultimately I am going to have to face two reviewers face-to-face who will be reviewing and commenting on my entire PhD thesis. Having at least some experience and practice in defending my decisions and accepting constructive criticism I think will really help me, not only to produce a more refined thesis, but also better prepare me for the viva process.

–originally posted on Kate’s blog

The Unbanked and Poverty: Predicting area-level socio-economic vulnerability from M-Money transactions

posted by Gregor Engelmann (2014 cohort)

Emerging economies around the world are often characterised by governments and institutions struggling to keep key demographic data streams up to date. The combination of mass call detail records (CDR) data with machine learning has recently been proposed as a way to obtain this data without the expense required by traditional census and household survey methods. The paper is based on the exploratory analysis of CDR and mobile payment (M-Money) data for Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, carried out as part of the PhD Research. It forms the basis for a chapter on the potential of mobile phone generated data to supplement traditional surveying methods for socio-economic analysis in urban and peri-urban areas.

The paper was written by N/LAB PhD student Gregor Engelmann in collaboration with the PhD supervisor James Goulding and the N/LAB Data Science Lead Gavin Smith. Moving from an initial analysis of the M-Money data and overcoming both technical and general paper writing hurdles to submitting and ultimately presenting the paper was a prolonged process that took nearly a year.

The major technical hurdle was adding a geographical component to, and cleaning the M-Money data. The dataset is comprised of anonymised logs of mobile payment transactions generated through mobile financial services usage of a Tanzanian Mobile Network Operator. While CDR data has been used in a wide number of areas from epidemiology to mobility and urban analysis with more than 900 papers using CDR data published in the last decade alone, the research on M-Money data is very scarce due to the high difficulty of obtaining such data sets from Mobile Network providers. Organisational hurdles included identifying an appropriate journal or conference venue, making sure that both abstract and paper are ready by the relevant deadlines, and raising enough funding for conference travel. The submission to the initially identified conference was ultimately delayed as the paper required more work before submission to IEEE Big Data in early summer 2018. Being based in the same lab made collaborating on the paper easier as we could have regular in-person meetings to review the paper. In addition to in-person meetings, we extensively used Overleaf, an online LaTeX platform, which allows for both collaborative writing and editing. LaTeX has the advantage of being able to handle equations, figures, indices etc. better than traditional writing software such as Word. LaTex (and by extension BibTex) also offers more effective bibliography and reference management while allowing for changes in formatting and style with a few simple lines of code.

Gregor Engelmann presenting at the IEEE Big Data 2018 conference in Seattle, WA

The reviewers’ response to the paper was positive and it was ultimately accepted as one of 98 regular papers (acceptance rate 18.9%) without the need for major changes. In addition to funding from the Business School and CDT, the paper was successful in securing one of the limited Student Travel Awards offered by the conference organisers to cover travel and registration costs to Seattle. The paper was presented to a mixture of academic and practitioner audiences as part of the Big Data Applications: Society track at the IEEE Big Data 2018 conference in Seattle, WS in December 2018.


N/LAB PhD student Gregor Engelmann’s paper: The Unbanked and Poverty: Predicting area-level socio-economic vulnerability from M-Money transactions, accepted and presented as a regular paper into the IEEE Big Data conference 2018 is available online via the publisher (paywall) https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/8622268/figures#figures and Nottingham University eprints http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/55720/