How to ask your employer for sponsorship

Picture of a man holding a piggy bank.

If you’re in employment and have a place to study on one of our programmes, you may be eligible for employer sponsorship.

Employer sponsorship is when your employer pays for all or part of your tuition costs. This is usually in recognition of the fact that your studies will benefit your work in some way.

For many of our students, a Birkbeck degree allows them to seek a promotion or to perform their role more effectively. Here’s how to discuss your educational ambitions with your employer.

Find out what’s available in your organisation

Before approaching your line manager about sponsorship, do your homework so you know what definitely is or isn’t available.

Larger firms may have established sponsorship schemes with an application process, while others may operate on a case by case basis.

If you can’t find anything on your company website, your HR learning and development lead will be able to help.

Consider your motivations for study

Take some time to think about why you want to study your chosen course. Will it help you develop the skills to perform a technical aspect of your role? Will it provide a theoretical underpinning to help you manage complex problems? Will you gain a broader understanding of how to differentiate your organisation in the sector?

Once you have a clear understanding of why you want to study this particular course, it will be easier to translate this into reasons why your employer should be interested.

Demonstrate the business case

To secure employer sponsorship, you will need to show the positive return on investment it will provide for your employer. Perhaps the skills you gain in the course will enable you to apply for a promotion and stay with the company for longer. Developing your knowledge of an area of the business might make you more efficient, enabling you to take on more responsibility. Link the programme description to objectives in your current role to show the direct value for your employer.

Show your commitment to learning and development

What have you already done as part of your continuous professional development (CPD) that can show your commitment to your career? It could be as simple as reading around the subject, attending a webinar or signing up for in-house training. Your employer will want to be confident that you will make the most of the opportunity that they are investing in.

What if I can’t get sponsorship?

Employers often have limited budgets available for staff learning and development, so don’t be disheartened if you’re unable to secure funding. Having demonstrated your commitment to your professional development and to the organisation, it is worth asking whether there are any alternative opportunities for you to develop your skills, such as shadowing another employee.

You can also find more information about what alternative financial support is available for our students on the Birkbeck website.

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Bringing our ‘whole selves to work’

Last year we spoke to Richard Morely, an MSc Computer Science student who took part in Birkbeck Future’s Ability Programme, a scheme that helps students and alumni with a disability, neurodiverse or long-term health condition connect with a disability-confident employer. Richard undertook a placement at, the insurance company, Azur where he was tasked with improving the company’s interface.

Richard Morley, a Birkbeck student who took part in the Ability Programme

Richard Morely

Richard Morley, an MSc Computer Science student with a hearing disability, applied to the Ability Programme and was given a place at digital insurance company Azur. Richard had been in contact with Birkbeck Futures before joining the scheme and applied to take part in the programme because he had been out of the job market for a while and doubted his ability after a few unsuccessful interviews. He wanted the opportunity to improve his existing skill-set and boost his wavering confidence in the job market.

At Azur, Richard was given the role of Software Development Intern and tasked with improving the interface of the company’s application called Magic. This entailed improving the colour scheme using the brand guidelines and working on developing animated features for the app. In a previous company, Richard had felt very pressured which he did not find conducive to progression. The positive atmosphere at Azur, by contrast, allowed him to develop his skills and confidence. He developed a good relationship with his team and said that: “I found the work challenging because I was doing things that I hadn’t done in previous positions, such as programming and creating animation on the app.”

One of Richard’s biggest challenges at Azur was delivering a presentation about his project. He noted that in previous roles, “I never did presentations. Even if I was given the opportunity, I would be reluctant to do it.” But after receiving support from a colleague in the preparation and delivery, he found it contributed to improved confidence around his skill-set and employability prospects.

Reflecting on the importance of the work placements for people with disabilities, Richard said: “It’s good because lots of employers think that people with disabilities might not be able to get things done because they have certain problems that get in the way of work.” Being given placements such as these “demonstrates that people with disabilities are hardworking and for me personally, that I can adapt to any situation despite my hearing disability.”

Richard’s placement culminated in a job offer which he will take up after he graduates. “It made me feel like there are more opportunities out there for me. It’s created more connections and made me feel more confident in my abilities. I have a bright future ahead of me.”

Many of the employers that took part said that the scheme was important in opening their eyes to the way they could attract and accommodate employees with disabilities or neurodiverse conditions, and encourage an open dialogue about the individual needs of the employees. Tom Armitage, Head of Talent and Performance at the Telegraph commented; “we were able to craft work experience placements that were really meaningful” and said that it challenged his team’s way of thinking.

It is the experience of Richard and students like him that show why schemes like the Ability Programme are necessary to break down stigmas attached to people with disabilities and in turn allow people to bring their “whole selves to work.”

Further Information

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Student life in the time of COVID-19

As the new academic year commences soon on 5 October, this blog summarises the current public health advice and information to remind students what they need to know before the university term starts.  

Birkbeck's main building, Torrington Square

Birkbeck’s main building, Torrington Square

Protect yourself, your university and the wider community remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’.

  • Wash your hands regularly 
  • The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing
  • We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings
  • Get a test and self-isolate if you develop symptoms 
  • Use the NHS Test and Trace app

Whether you’re a new or returning student you’ll no doubt have lots of questions or concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact your student life. Whether you are already based in London or moving to the city, you’ll need to know what actions you should take to keep yourself safe but also fellow students, university staff and the local community. This blog summarises the important public health advice and information to remind you of what you need to know before the university term starts.   

Public health basics  

You’ve probably been looking forward to starting or returning to university, your friends but it’s essential to keep the public health basics front of mind and always remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’. 

Your ‘household’ will consist of your family or flatmates that you share your home with or if you are living in university halls your halls of residence will let you know what makes up your household. 

Follow the student guidance and booking process for visiting the Birkbeck libraryWe will have very limited on-campus classes and events in the autumn term, but this is under constant review and we will update you as plans change.

The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing. We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings.

To stay safe while travelling try to avoid car sharing and using public transport at peak times. Walk or cycle when it’s possible and safe to do so. These basics will help protect you, university life and local residents, especially those that are more vulnerable. 

If you’re a student in the clinically extremely vulnerable group, having previously been shielding, and you have a particular health concern you should seek medical advice.

Moving to your university home 

Be sure to follow the government’s latest advice on coronavirus. London is not currently listed as an area with additional restrictions, but if you’re coming from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, remember that the rules and restrictions are different to those in England. It’s also a good idea to get up to speed on the overall advice on staying safe outside your home and find out your new local council so you can keep uptodate on local guidance.  

If you’re an international student coming to the UK from abroad, make sure you provide your journey and contact details before you travel to the UK and you know whether you need to self-isolate for 14 days when you arrive, and read the guidance on entering the UK safely.  

International travel restrictions and local restrictions can change quickly and without much warning so be sure to keep an eye on the latest guidance while making your travel plans.

What to do if you need to self-isolate 

If you test positive for coronavirus while at university, the rules on self-isolation remain the same. You must self-isolate for 10 days and follow NHS guidance. Your other close contacts that will be informed by NHS Test and Trace if they should self-isolate. 

If you’re living in university accommodation where someone in your ‘household’ (as set out by the accommodation management team) has symptoms of coronavirus or tests positive you must let the management team know. 

Wherever you live, you should self-report on My Birkbeck so the university can offer any extra support you might need for your course 

NHS Test and Trace 

Make sure the university has your latest personal details to ensure the NHS Test and Trace can get in touch if they need to – you can update your personal details on you’re MyBirkbeck profile. 

If you or anyone you’ve had close contact with test positive for coronavirus, you’ll be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and asked to self-isolate. If you are contacted, you will be asked to provide them with information they’ll need to help stop the spread of the virus. 

The NHS Test and Trace app is part of the national effort to get us back doing the things we love and every person who downloads the app will be helping in the fight against coronavirus. The app will help you to report symptoms, order a coronavirus test, check in to venues by scanning a QR code and help the NHS trace those who may have coronavirus. The app will do all this while protecting your identity and data security. The app will be available shortly so do the right thing and download it and encourage your student household and friends to do likewise.

Got symptoms – get a test 

Make sure you are clear about the symptoms of coronavirus and when you should get a test. If you have any of the following symptoms you should get a test: 

  • a high temperature 
  • a new, continuous cough 
  • a loss of, or change to, your sense of smell or taste

You can book a test on line at GOV.UK at https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test or by phoning NHS 119.

If you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, you can self-report on your MyBirkbeck profile.

Be mindful of your mental health 

Recent months haven’t been fun or easy for anyone not least of all students. The new online resource at Student Space has a variety of useful mental health and wellbeing materials that can support you. Public Health England has also published general guidance on mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19.

Your role is crucial 

By following the guidance on washing your hands; keeping your distance; not socialising with more than 6 people; wearing a face covering; using the NHS Test and Trace app, self-isolating and getting a test if you have symptoms you are helping to save lives. Respecting the rules will keep you, your friends and family healthy, and your university town a safe and enjoyable place to live. 

We will continue to post updated on Birkbeck’s coronavirus information page, and in the weekly email to students.  

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Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation module is now live and Library study space is now open

As we prepare for the new term Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar, at Birkbeck shares some essential tips to get you started at the College.

Today the Welcome To Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module is launched and available to all enrolled students. It’s full of relevant and useful information including the fantastic Freshers Week programme offered by the Birkbeck Students Union. From Monday 14 September the Birkbeck Library will be open with almost 200 bookable study spaces. As the new academic year commences on 5 October you need to enrol as soon as you can to gain access to all these resources to get you orientated and study ready.  

Complete the Welcome To Birkbeck orientation module 

strongly recommend that you work through each of the sections in the Welcome to Birkbeck Moodle module, ahead of the beginning of term. Each section outlines key information including how to approach learning online, effective study skills along with an introduction to the Birkbeck student community, the personal tutor system, student services, careers support and the Birkbeck Library. All of this will help you make a success of the year.  

Students who completed the module during user-testing took around 4-5 hours, and even continuing students in their final year told us that they learnt new things that would be of great value. You can complete it at your own pace and return to the sections as you wish. Completing the various sections will help ensure that you are ready for the new term. To whet your appetite you can Watch a brief overview of the Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module 

If you need help as you work through this Moodle module you can ask for help on the College’s ASK page by selecting ‘Moodle’ then ‘Orientation Module’ from the drop-down. 

Enhancing online course delivery

Over the summer over 500 colleagues have transformed our modules to be ready for online delivery, as explained in the Vice Chancellor’s message. All our content on Moodle has been produced and is being delivered by our research-led academic colleagues.  

The library has invested heavily in online e-books and digitisation to make sure your reading lists and course materials are available on your devices and computers. If you can’t easily study at home we have made COVID-19 secure spaces for you to study on campus if you need.  

Once you complete the Orientation Moodle module you will continue your studies in an interactive and online face to face medium. As soon as health and safety permits we can revert to in-person teaching on campus, and you will have the option to continue your studies online for the remainder of the year. Our coronavirus information will be updated regularly.  

Student protocol for attending the Library – September to December 2020

Birkbeck is committed to providing a COVID-19 secure environment whilst you study and use facilities in the Library. From Monday the 14 September the College Library in Malet Street will have almost 200 study spaces available for student use. The Library will be open from Monday to Friday from 12pm – 7pm To visit the Library, you will need to book a study space in advance. You can also use this link to make a booking if you simply want to come in and borrow items. There will be no access to the Library without a booking.  

Be sure to read the protocol for attending the Library before you travel.  

To keep our College community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic we all have a responsibility to follow these protocols. This protocol will remain subject to amendment and change depending on NHS advice during Autumn Term.  

Complete your enrolment

To access the orientation Moodle module and access the library and other Birkbeck resources, complete the process to enrol as soon as you receive your invitation. Don’t worry if you haven’t received your invite yet, invitations to enrol continue to be sent throughout September, and students who have had Summer re-assessments will not receive their invitations until all their marks have been agreed and processed.  

Birkbeck is a great place to study and now is a great time to be undertaking your Higher Education and getting a University of London degree. 

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A short history of Computer Science at Birkbeck

The story of the contribution of one department to the life of the College, the development of computing technology and to the computer industry.

The first official reference to computing at Birkbeck can be found in the 1947-8 College Annual Report, which says: “An ambitious scheme is in progress for the construction of an Electronic Computer, which will serve the needs of crystallographic research at 21-22 Torrington Square; it will also provide a means of relieving many other fields of research in Chemistry and Physics of the almost crushing weight of arithmetic work, which they involve.”

The origins of these computing efforts at Birkbeck are inextricably linked with the names of J D Bernal, the great crystallographer, and his new assistant, Andrew Booth. Returning to Birkbeck at the end of the Second World War, Bernal started building a new research group to study crystallography. He appointed four assistants, one of whom was Booth, who was to lead on mathematical methods. Booth began by building his first electromechanical calculator, the Automatic Relay Calculator (ARC).

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

A highlight of Booth’s early career at Birkbeck was an extended visit to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was accompanied by Kathleen Britten, who would soon become his wife. The trip allowed the pair to work with John Von Neumann, one of the most influential early computer pioneers, and convinced them that the ARC should be redesigned in accordance with what is now commonly known as a “von Neumann” architecture. Together, Andrew and Kathleen wrote a widely-circulated paper entitled “General Considerations in the Design of an All-purpose Electronic Digital Computer” which examined the options then available for building each component. The construction of their first electronic computer, called SEC (Simple Electronic Computer), was completed around 1950. Andrew wrote up the project in his MSc dissertation, which appears to make him the first computing graduate at Birkbeck and hence the Department’s earliest alumnus.

The couple’s best-known machine, APEC (All-Purpose Electronic Computer), was designed in 1949. In 1951, BTM used its hardware circuits as the basis of the design of their HEC1 computer, which evolved directly by the end of the 1950s into the bestselling British computer, with a total of nearly 100 machines installed.

Even in the days of cumbersome early machines, Andrew wrote about making computers available as widely as possible, securing a grant for a programme ofresearch on “desk calculating machines” as early as 1949. A copy of his reportevaluates the technical options for putting computers on, if not the desktop, at least the laboratory bench.

From the start, Kathleen was closely involved in the building and testing of the computers that Andrew designed. Getting these early machines to work involved a

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

combination of testing the electronics and then checking that the programmes executed correctly. In 1953, they co-authored their best-known book, Automatic Digital Calculators, which ran to three editions. As part of her software development work, Kathleen developed a very early assembly language for their computers and in 1958 she published a book on software entitled Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator.

The first of its kind

In 1957, a Governors’ Resolution stated that Birkbeck’s Computer Laboratory was to be constituted as a separate Department under the headship of Dr Andrew Booth. As far as can be made out, the Department of Numerical Automation was the first department established to teach computing in a UK university; elsewhere the courses were still taught in Computer Laboratories.

Andrew and Kathleen Booth stayed in the Department until the summer of 1962, when they moved to Canada. Andrew continued his career in computing initially at the University of Saskatchewan and subsequently as President of Lakehead University, Ontario.

Over subsequent years, the Department crossed many milestones: adopting the name Department of Computer Science in 1963; awarding MScs to 29 students in 1968; and appointing a chair in 1970. The College Calendar for 1970-71 is the first to acknowledge “Computer Staff” as a distinct group, comprising two programmers, two operators and four computer assistants who prepared paper tape and punched cards. At this time, the College’s IT support staff reported to the Head of the Computer Science Department. This arrangement continued for many years until a separate College Computer Service was created.

At the turn of the century, Birkbeck gave its highest accolade, a College Fellowship, to two members of its community who had made distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing. Firstly, in 2002, to Dame Stephanie Shirley, who created a major UK software house, whose workforce for many years was composed principally of women working from home and who has subsequently done much to promote the responsible application of IT and other charitable activities. Secondly, in 2003, it awarded a College Fellowship to Andrew Booth in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

Left to right: Dame Stephanie Shirley and Dame Judith Mayhew

Dame Stephanie Shirley (left), on the occasion of her installation as a College Fellow in 2002 with Dame Judith Mayhew, Chairman of Governors.

The Department today

The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems’ research activities have continued to expand over the past twenty years, into advanced logics, computer vision, ontologies, personalisation, web technologies, and ubiquitous computing, with the appointment of several new members of academic staff.

In 2004, the Department set up the London Knowledge Lab in collaboration with the neighbouring Institute of Education. The Birkbeck Knowledge Lab established in 2016 extends this legacy, drawing on multi and interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies to investigate how digital technologies and digital information are transforming our learning, working and cultural lives.

The Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics was founded in 2016 to develop

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

interdisciplinary research in data analytics and data science between computer scientists at the Department and members of Birkbeck’s other departments, across the sciences, social sciences, economics, law and humanities.

The Department celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017, and the legacy of Andrew and Kathleen Booth continues to inspire generations of computer scientists. Each year, distinguished scholars and practitioners of computer science are invited to the College to deliver the Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture, which commemorates their pioneering work.

In 2018, Birkbeck became a founding member of the Institute of Coding, a national initiative established to address digital skill needs in industry sectors in key areas including data science, cyber security, artificial intelligence, and coding. Through our part time evening face-to-face model of delivery, Birkbeck is well placed to support those already in employment and has developed new full and part time programmes in Data Science to address the digital skills gap in this area. The Department has also established a relationship with industry through our partnership with the British Library and National Archives, where we jointly develop a PGCert in Computing for Cultural Heritage to help upskill their respective workforce and address the need for digital skills, such as programming, to manage the large volumes of digitised documents being made available for research and to the public as part of our digital economy.

The discipline of Computer Science is never dull. Rapidly evolving technology is always opening up new application areas, while new challenges from the real world drive technology developers to continually push the frontiers forward. We look forward to what the next 60 years will bring.

This article was adapted from the School of Computer Science and Information Systems: A Short History by Dr Roger Johnson, which was originally produced for the Department’s 50th birthday celebrations.

Department of Computer Science and Information Systems Timeline

1947      Andrew Booth and Kathleen Britten undertake a six-month US tour based at Princeton, where they work with early computer pioneer John Von Neumann.

Andrew Booth secures funding from the Rockerfeller Foundation for a computer to carry out natural language translation.

1948      Andrew Booth designs the Simple Electronic Computer.

1951      Andrew Booth is Birkbeck’s first computing graduate.

BTM’s HEC1, based on Andrew Booth’s Circuitry, is built.

1955       The Birkbeck Computer Laboratory gives a public demonstration of machine translation.

1957       The Department of Numerical Automation is officially established.

Andrew Booth is elected to serve on the first Council of the British Computer Society.

1958       Kathleen Booth’s book Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator is published.

1961       International Computers and Tabulators Ltd. provide the Department with an I.C.T. Type 1400 computer, worth just under a quarter of a million pounds.

1967       The Chair in Computer Science is established.

                George Loizou (now Emeritus Professor), joins the Department as a Lecturer.

1968       29 students are awarded MScs, seven with distinction.

1971       Betty Walters is appointed Department Secretary, where she will serve for over 36 years.

1973       The Department takes part in a College Open Day, offering specialist equipment demonstrations. The then Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher, is among the attendees.

1983       Dr Roger Johnson (now Fellow of the College) joins the Department.

1987       The Department plays a major role in organizing the Very Large Data Base Conference in Brighton, which will host 700 delegates from all over the world.

1992       Dr Roger Johnson serves as President of the British Computer Society.

2002       Dame Stephanie Shirley is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of her distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing.

2003       Andrew Booth is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

2004       The London Knowledge Lab is established in partnership with the Institute of Education.

2008       The first degree programmes are offered on Birkbeck’s Stratford campus.

2009       The School of Business, Economics and Informatics is established. The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems becomes one of four in the School.

2016       Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics is founded.

2017       The Department celebrates its 60th anniversary.

2018       Birkbeck is a founding member of the Institute of Coding.

2020       The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems offers twelve scholarships to the PG Cert Applied Data Science for black and female candidates in order to widen representation in computing.

Further Information

 

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“Birkbeck was the only university offering the exact course I wanted to do”

A desire to specialise in innovation and electronic business led Nigerian, Ayomide Disu, to enrol on Birkbeck MSc Business Innovation with E-Business.  In this blog, the recipient of one of Birkbeck International Merit scholarship, tells us about his background and life in the UK.

Ayomide Disu

Ayomide Disu, MSc Business Innovation student from Nigeria.

Tell us about your background. What were you doing before you started studying at Birkbeck?

I am originally from Lagos, Nigeria. During my teens, I came to study at a boarding school in Gloucestershire in the UK. Following that I went on to the University of Central Lancashire and Cass Business School for my BSc and MSc respectively. Prior to Birkbeck, I was working as an independent consultant/advisor to a non-profit organisation in which I collaborated with C-Level executives and other stakeholders to gain an understanding of the business process which lead to bridging the communication gap between management and employees. I also suggested, pitched, trained and implemented the use of software such as Slack to increase productivity and pitched and developed a new website and algorithm for organisation operations.

Why did you decide to come to Birkbeck?

Studying management twice has its pros and cons, the understanding of different functions and different models of business are some pros, but the drawbacks are the overlap in knowledge and a lack of specialisation.

I wanted to specialise in innovation and electronic business which is what has led me to undertake a second postgraduate degree in that subject. I could have studied at Warwick and Newcastle, but I choose Birkbeck because I wanted to be in London, and it was the only university that had the exact course I wanted to do.

I attended orientation and it was quite useful just to get a feel for the surrounding areas, the Library and all other facilities. Birkbeck is unique as it’s the only place that gives working professionals the chance to study and work simultaneously (not that I’m working). However, for me as a full-time student, it allows me to be flexible and manage my time as I don’t have classes till 6 pm. However, although we don’t have lectures until night-time, there is still plenty of work to do in the day, so managing your time effectively is a must.

What it is like living in London?

The UK generally and London feels very much like my second home as I have been coming here since I was two years old for holidays and family gatherings. For me moving was quite simple as I had lived here when I was studying for my first masters.

Transportation is quite straightforward and efficient, and I love London as it’s so multicultural and has one of my favourite places in the world (Ronnie Scott’s).

What have you found most challenging about your time in the UK so far? What have been your highlights so far?

The only challenge for me personally is the weather and lack of sun, but I think it’s all part of the experience and I’m grateful. In terms of actual study challenges, I feel that the university could do better in bringing together the full-time students, so a sense of community may be fostered outside of the classroom. My highlights so far have been taking modules such as intellectual capital, digital creativity as they are so unique and give me a fresh perspective on how I approach business. Also, the friends I have made are lovely. I am looking forward to taking the block chain and entrepreneurial finance modules in the summer term, hopefully getting more sun and submitting my dissertation.

The advice I would give to prospective students would be to get involved in activities you enjoy, cultivate a habit of exploring different friendship groups outside your nationality and bring an umbrella.

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Blended learning: Improving access to higher education

Dr James Hammond, Reader in Geophysics, shares his thoughts on online learning, reflecting on his experiences of delivering both face-to-face and online teaching in Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

The ongoing pandemic means that new university students are weighing up the impacts of a sudden move to online learning. Many are understandably concerned that this will negatively impact their university experience, reducing their ability to learn and engage with other students and faculty. However, my experience delivering both face-to-face and online education in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is that for a significant number of people, the opposite may be true. An online platform offers more access, and indeed for some, their only access to higher education. This can allow students to study for a certificate, degree, Masters or PhD built around their complicated lifestyle rather than having to fit their lifestyle around a university degree.

‘Traditional’ Birkbeck students

For almost 200 years courses at Birkbeck have been delivered in the evening, allowing those who work full time in the day to study part time, making higher education affordable and more accessible. When describing Birkbeck to colleagues at other universities, we are often asked to describe our students. This is not an easy task. Each one of our students is unique with a story to tell. At Birkbeck, we teach everyone, from students straight from school, carers who need to be at home during the day, those looking to change career or gain further qualifications, to retirees curious to learn more about the world, and many more. Each one of these students has challenges and responsibilities that affect their ability to complete a degree. Rising to Birkbeck’s mission of making education accessible to all these people is a challenge, but it is what makes the College truly special.

Fitting a degree around your lifestyle

Within the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences we have been making efforts to understand our students and make our courses more accessible. While evening teaching allows those close to London to take advantage of our courses, it does not help those outside London who seek higher education, but for who traditional university is not an option. To combat this, in the late 1990’s we decided to embrace distance learning, making our courses available to students at home as well as in London. In the early days this involved posting out boxes of CD’s with all our material, but today we use a state-of-the-art online platform that allows our students to live stream lectures, join in class discussions and practical sessions from home and chat to lecturers one-to-one. Students can ‘view’ a microscope image from their offices, conduct research projects from their lounge and present their results to leading researchers from their bedrooms. All lectures are recorded and made available offline, meaning they can be watched at a later date to suit the student.

Our ethos in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is to make our degrees flexible and each student is free to choose how they participate. Many attend each class in person in London, more combine a mixture of face-to-face and distance learning, so called ‘blended learning’.  This allows students with shift work or caring responsibilities to participate, or students who can come to London once a week, once a month or in many cases not at all to complete a University of London degree.

Blended learning is here to stay in our Department

While we all hope that we can soon get back to our classrooms, delivering in person teaching to those who choose to come to London, we in Earth and Planetary Sciences will continue to develop new and innovative ways for distance learners from all over the UK and the world to join our unique community at Birkbeck and share the College’s 200 year vision of making education accessible for everyone.

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Locked down, yet together!

In this blog post, we hear from MA Screenwriting student, Omneya Okasha on the support of peers and tutors at the virtual screening of her new short film

Omneya Okasha

As a Birkbeck student and an independent filmmaker, I’ve had the double pleasure of sharing my short film, “Lippie aka Sheffa” with my tutors and colleagues via the virtual screening event that was organized by La Young Jackson from International student administration on the 17th June 2020.

The event was originally planned to take place mid March, in the vicinity of Birkbeck’s Iconic cinema. I was excitedly looking forward to sharing my directorial debut on the large screen with Birkbeck’s community, but unfortunately as we know, we all went through a global crisis and the historical event of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hopeful as we were then, the event was postponed ’til the summer term, expecting the university buildings would reopen by then. Not too long into lockdown, it was evident we would not be returning to the University this year, and I was regretful I hadn’t held my event sooner in the year.

However an email from La Young in June gave this event another opportunity,  as she suggested that we could hold a virtual screening of my film followed by an online discussion. I was thrilled at this chance revival, though I was a little concerned that the online screening of an international short film may not draw an audience. To my surprise, many registered to the event and showed quite the enthusiasm to attend.

On the screening day, I was delighted to see my professor, classmates, and attendees who I was first acquainted with during the event. La Young has kindly introduced me and I gave a brief presentation about my background as a filmmaker, and about the film. After the introductions, we all watched the film together, then the space was given for a Q& A, which La Young moderated.

The audience’s engagement was incredible, and the discussion was highly intellectual, and I was elated to receive the audience’s questions and gestures of support for my film. It was truly rewarding for me as a filmmaker to welcome such encouragement from an amazing crowd of highly talented professionals and fellow students.

I guess we have all got accustomed to the new normal of the current situation, and it was refreshing on many levels to know that we can still go through such difficult times, making the most of them, with each other’s support. Looking back on this experience, I feel recharged with hope and drive to work hard on my upcoming project, thanks to the support and sense of unity I have received, to which I am deeply grateful.

 

A photo of the poster for the movie Sheffa Aka Lippie

Sheffa (meaning Lip) follows the story of a 10-year old boy and is so-called for the scar he bears. His mother scolds him and uses him and his friends to sell weed on the streets. Her ambitions are threatened when Sheffa gets a period, revealing that in fact Sheffa is a girl being raised up as a boy.

Watch the trailer for the film Sheffa aka Lippie here

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Finding balance and fulfilment through the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA

Before she found the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA, Jennifer Chen felt that a business degree would not be a good fit for her background as a creative. Now juggling the roles of design researcher, charity trustee, Royal Society of Arts fellow, start-up mentor and mum to twin toddlers, she’s embracing new challenges and learning to balance all areas of life more than ever.

Picture of Jenn

My background is in design and advertising. As a creative, I found the work interesting, but from time to time felt a lack of control to make greater impact with my work. The agency setting I was in was rather fragmented and figuring out the why of the projects I was working on was usually someone else’s job. There were times when I would be given a task that didn’t feel quite right, but I did not have the capability or confidence to challenge it. My role was sometimes limited to form-giving, styling, making things look pretty – there is a lot of skill to that, of course, but I knew that I wanted to do more.

I began by searching for Masters programmes in innovation. I didn’t consider business programmes at first because I didn’t think they would be the right fit for me: of my friends with MBAs, as successful as they were, none of them had a job description that sounded like something I’d want to do.

I was delighted when I found out about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. Working in the design community, I had always known about UAL, but Birkbeck’s strong research reputation gives the MBA more credibility in the business world.

From the very beginning, we were told that this was a safe space to share ideas, and that there were no stupid questions – I don’t think this is common practice in traditional MBA programmes. We learned from a team of excellent lecturers and industry leaders, but most importantly, from each other. As a more mature cohort with work and family commitments, we learned to plan for contingencies, to make sure colleagues could contribute to group projects regardless of their personal circumstances, and to be empathetic towards each other’s situations. We operated under the assumption that everybody wants to do their absolute best, but a bit of flexibility may be required here and there.

This was particularly true for me, since on the very first day of the programme I found out that I was pregnant with twins! It was almost surreal. My MBA cohort heard the news before some of my family. Birkbeck and UAL were very accommodating. To maximise my learning opportunities, Dr Pamela Yeow, the course leader, advised that I complete the first module, then helped me rejoin the programme a year later with the following cohort.

Picture of Jenn with her twins

Jennifer with her twins after rejoining the MBA in 2018.

Even then, balancing work and family life was not easy, especially as the estimated ten hours of reading per week turned out to be quite an understatement! Towards the end of the programme, we had all nearly become experts in information extraction and priority management.

The course was a transformative experience for me. Through theory and practice, I was able to develop my skillset as a design leader, especially in the areas of collaborative leadership, entrepreneurship and operations management. Having access to industry-specific knowledge and concrete, actionable advice from the teaching staff has really helped me get closer to achieving my goals: affecting change to the world through design.

Chris Cornell, our lecturer on strategy, who has worked extensively with the charity sector, helped me work out a clear action plan. I am now a marketing trustee for the Heritage Crafts Association, refreshing the brand to create a contemporary, engaging and relatable identity in order to attract a wider audience. I also mentor startups, helping their world-changing ideas cultivate the power of storytelling and develop clear communication approaches.

The MBA makes you ask a lot of questions about the work that you do, the work that you want to do, and the work that you can learn to do, in order to implement change and improve the world around us, and in doing so, enrich ourselves.

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Dr Clare Press discusses life as a scientist

Dr Clare Press reflects on her parents’ encouragement of her inquisitive mind, and her support for measures to increase the representation of women in science

Tell us a bit about who you are in a few sentences.

I’m a Senior Lecturer (Reader from October) in the Department of Psychological Sciences, and I’ve been faculty here since 2012. I’m also Assistant DeanPhoto of Dr Clare Press, Lecturer, Department of Psychological Sciences for Research for the School of Science. I run the Action Lab where we study questions relating to how we move around and perceive our world. We look at how someone behaves (e.g., close monitoring while they pick up a cup or press a button), and what they report seeing or hearing, and relate this to what is going on in the brain to allow them to act or perceive. Neither action nor perception are simple jobs for the brain even if they seem effortless to us. Once we understand how these systems work we can apply this understanding to individuals with various conditions who struggle with these basic tasks, to understand what may be different.

What has the lockdown period taught you?

That I am quite happy to be at home. I like my family (most of the time), enjoy my job, keep up with other friends and family over video, and I miss the other parts of my previous life less than I expected. Of course we need the labs to be up and running again as soon as possible but I can imagine working from home more once the offices are open again. I have found the period painfully exhausting, because we have three young children (ages 5, 3, 3) who have been ‘locked up’ at home with us. But if I look past the exhaustion and the fact I’ve had far too much to do, I’ve generally been quite content with it in a way I may not have imagined.

A person is either scientific or religious in their outlook…What are your thoughts on this?

I think the statement is too simplistic. Both science and religion aim to answer life’s big questions, and it is sometimes speculated that once science has an answer to a question there is no need for religion anymore. However, science is unlikely ever to answer everything because it requires that the system we are trying to understand is of a complexity we can fathom. This is unlikely to be true of everything as human intelligence is limited. We cannot comprehend limitless time or space, for example. Many also believe that higher powers relate to the underlying causes of phenomena understood via scientific methods (e.g., natural selection). The element of religion that consists of moral codes for life is of course not at odds with science either.

What or who influenced you to enter the field of Science?

I have always loved science, which I attribute mainly to my parents fostering such an inquisitive character and excitement to understand how the world works. They were both passionate about science and clearly enjoyed explaining underlying causes as I grew up. They did not believe in ever telling a child ‘because I say so’, believing that children should be discouraged from simply accepting what they are told and that children are interested in understanding and interrogating how things / society works. The fruits of their labour were clear by the time I was 5, when I told my grandma it was implausible that we breathed all the time – that may be true for her but certainly not me, and surely I would notice if I did. So it was definitely my parents who generated my curiosity in understanding how the world works, and I was certain by mid teens that I would study psychology or physics at university.

What have your experiences been, as a woman in Science, throughout your career?

I am passionate about science and would not trade the career. In few other professions do you have the freedom to ask whatever questions you fancy and the constant discovery is especially stimulating.

99% of the time I do not think of myself specifically as a woman in science. Being a scientist is a large part of my identity but being a woman less so. The data certainly suggest that people perceive me differently because I’m a woman. To use a collaborator’s words, “(I) am a short, blonde woman who laughs a lot and wears cardigans and jeans”, which will mean implicit biases stacked against me. For the most part I feel respected by people in my field, but I will not know if anyone secretly ascribes my successes to collaborators! I’d say my everyday experience is one where I’m perfectly at ease with my treatment as a woman, but at the daily level I am largely surrounded by people who have chosen to work with me (in my group or in collaboration).

I occasionally notice treatment where I wonder whether life would be easier if I completely fitted the typical male scientist mould. For instance, without checking my background, people have occasionally explained to me – in great detail – theories and findings relating to my own expertise. The classic ‘mansplain’ – and I am without a doubt that this happens more to women. Some flag work from my lab, linking it only to male co-authors and not me. Not frequently though. With particular instances of behaviour you can rarely know the true underlying reasons so I try not to dwell on it. However, there is serious work to be done in overcoming these biases given we know most people hold them. It will presumably take a long time for implicit biases to disappear. They follow centuries of assumptions that men are better at science and structures resulting from those assumptions – where fewer women enter science, and when they do, they don’t always get the credit they deserve. I therefore strongly support measures aiming to counteract these biases, e.g., approximately equivalent ratios of men and women for conference presentations and grant awards. At the moment I see these as measures to counteract the belief biases but that changes to the beliefs themselves will take longer. However, we can hope that with time – if insightful women are equivalently represented in the highest positions – the biases will reduce and ultimately disappear. There is an extensive focus in universities now on these initiatives, especially given Athena Swan. I think it’s important to remember that the aim is never Athena Swan itself, but facilitation of the scientific enterprise by having all of the best brains onboard rather than a subset.

Einstein himself has credited a woman with helping him to formulate his general Theory of Relativity. Yet history has shown that female scientists have often been overlooked for their contributions to science, with men often receiving the credit for major advancements. Tell us about a woman in Science who we should know about.

My PhD supervisor, Prof Cecilia Heyes, is outstanding. She is the perfect role model of a scientist, preoccupied by the generation of empirically testable theories of cognition and slotting together all the pieces of the empirical jigsaw. She thinks long, hard and deeply about any problem, and carves theoretical reasoning at appropriate joints that can be interrogated via scientific methods. She also provides the perfect role model of a PhD supervisor. She didn’t appear to see PhD students solely as a pair of hands to help pursue her own endeavours, but people she should properly train in the skills of academia. She spent hours with us each week debating theoretical nuances and passing down her theoretical wisdom, as well as explicitly encouraging challenge. She says she attracted students who enjoyed that element of science, but the atmosphere was also one where every view was given time and deconstructed. She gave swathes of time to training us how to write and give talks – e.g., always listening to dry runs before conferences – and told us she would be a mentor for life upon completion. I lucked out having a supervisor who was both so sharp academically and so nurturing, and think Celia should be celebrated on both of these dimensions.

This month marks 100 years since the birth of our very own Rosalind Franklin. How far have women come since then, in terms of their contribution to the field?

Prof Angelica Ronald and Dr Emma Meaburn, both from Psychological Sciences, have recently been running events inspired by Rosalind Franklin – highlighting many of the particular contributions of women to science. Rosalind Franklin is a good example of the fact that women have been making huge contributions to science throughout history, but perhaps not always receiving due credit. Therefore it may make more sense to speak of changes in how women are treated. Certainly explicit biasing against women is unacceptable these days, but implicit biases are much harder to address.

What more can be done to encourage more young girls and women to become scientists?

I assume this will partly require developing a passion for science in girls from infancy – as with boys. Encouraging them to search for answers and not being afraid to challenge what they hear. We may think society is now more aware of biases in the way we raise children but it doesn’t always translate into behavioural change. Some teachers and nursery staff widely talk about particular activities that will appeal to the boys or girls, without thinking about the repercussions of their statements. I was told during maths at school that I would likely find 3D geometry more difficult due to being female (!). It just irritated me but assume many may be discouraged by this. We need to watch how we raise children and the beliefs we engender with our comments.

It is also important explicitly to promote science to girls and women. For instance, Prof Essi Viding at UCL has received a Royal Society award to raise the profile of women in STEM with workshops and other initiatives aimed at schoolgirls. These initiatives aim to address the reasons for girls dropping out of science during A level years – i.e., partly low confidence and partly because of concerns surrounding working in a male dominated area. Additionally, I am part of the ‘SOFAR’ network – led by Dr Trudi Edginton and Dr Gilly Forrester – dedicated to supporting women in research through their careers by providing expertise, advice and support through mentorship. If we provide girls and women with good role models and good support, then with time men and women will become more equivalently represented.

What do you see as the most significant impact of science on the world?

At the moment, the development of vaccinations against infectious diseases.

If you could be doing anything else, career-wise, what would you be?

At school I told the careers adviser that my two career deal-breakers were that it should be predominantly maths-based and involve largely working by myself. Their data-crunching exercise came back with the answer that I should be an Actuary. I disagreed, and in fact I can only really imagine working in another academic branch of science! Very unimaginative of me. I should also point out that I especially enjoy many of the social elements of academia now, even if the idea of lecturing to 250 students would have made me rule out this profession in my teens!

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