MSc tutorial ideas (updated 6/12/12)

Here are some possible tutorial topics to use with your MSc students. Feel free to use any/all/none of them.

They are a combination of Ross Reynolds’ and Robin Hogan’s original guidelines, along with a few new suggestions based on student and staff feedback (and the misleadingly titled “53 Interesting Things To Do In Your Seminars And Tutorials”). Suggestions are broadly split into the following catagories:

·         Introductory ideas. These are “ice breaker” type exercises, or subjects which need to be covered in the first few weeks.

·         General discussion topics. If the students are not forthcoming in suggesting topics for discussion, here are some ideas which could be used.

·         Specific discussion topics. Or “atmospheric fundamentals.” These are more academic discussion topics, which may well involve you, or preferably, your students working through problems at the whiteboard.

·         Transferable skills ideas. These are exercises which can help students develop various non-Met specific skills.

1.     Introductory ideas (first 1-3 weeks)

1.1 Introduction “rounds”

Get each student to introduce themselves to the group, where they come from, what their first degree was in, why they’re studying the course, particular meteorological topics of interest, etc. If you have overseas students, it can be interesting to get them to summarise the weather/climatology in their home country. The tutor can introduce themselves and briefly describe their research interests, courses they teach, etc. Some tutors have found that the initial meeting works better on an individual, rather than a group, basis. It’s also nice to give a general overview of the different research groups within Met, what an academic actually spends their time doing, etc.

1.2 Setting student expectations

Explicitly lay out what you hope students will get out of the tutorials and what you expect of them. This may include outlining that tutorials will be focussed on broader student development (the majority of students want tutors to answer course-specific problems, but some tutors feel this replicates the role of module problem classes. Regardless, how such problems should generally be approached/broken-down/answered is a good tutorial topic). Also that it is better if tutorials and the topics for discussion are to some degree “student lead,” rather than entirely imposed from above by the tutor. It is also important to ascertain what the students hope to get out of the tutorials.

1.3 Undergraduate project discussion

Ask the students to give an impromptu summary of their undergraduate project (or other equivalent research project). This can be particularly useful if one or more of the students is reluctant to actively participate in the tutorials. Students will put together short presentations as part of Research and Communication Skills, but practice in the tutorial small-group environment is very useful for building confidence.

1.4 Discussion of coffee room and foyer displays

Don’t forget to look at Ken’s summaries opposite his office; the evidence for climate change versus statistical uncertainty can be a useful stimulus for discussion. This should be in the first three weeks, before the field trip.

1.5 Introduction to hand held equipment for field trip

Equipment is left in lab for demonstration and trying out - Stephen Gill or Andy Lomas are usually available to help and it can avoid embarrassment to find out how to operate the equipment first! The equipment is best demonstrated in the car park, then get the students to estimate how much the pressure should drop at the top of the building (after the first week or two they should have covered the hydrostatic equation). Then go up to the roof via one of the spur staircases (you can use your office door key) and see if they were right using the pressure sensor. You can also show them the Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder, and get them to make a cloud observation. This should be in the second or third weeks as it is important for the smooth running of the Dorset field trip.

1.6 Career/project planning

Encourage the students to discussion their post-MSc plans and discuss the various career options open to them. Describe how second-term module and MSc project choices can help them towards any career goals they do have. Who in the department might be able to run a project in their topic of interest, etc. Beyond the MSc, would internships help?               

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2.     General discussion topics

2.1 Current lecture material

Assisting the students in getting to grips with the lecture material is one of the main purposes of the tutorials, so it can be a good idea to ask the students each week if there is something that they want to discuss or have explained to them. If you are not comfortable answering such questions on the spot, ask them to e-mail a few days ahead with questions/issues. This will give you time to do a bit of research or speak with the relevant module convenor. If they never come up with anything then it is worth probing their understanding with some of the questions in the “specific discussion topics” section.

2.2 WCD or departmental seminars

Ask students to outline the main points of the weekly WCD or departmental seminars, what they thought about them, what they did/didn’t understand, is there are jargon you can explain o them, etc. To get the most out of this discussion, it might be best to forewarn the students or your plans, so they can take notes (and turn up!). Encourage them to look past the nitty-gritty detail and try and focus on the bigger picture, what the underlying question is, etc.

2.3 Topical/controversial issues in weather and climate.
You could point them to a topic or article (e.g., on or Meteosat image of the day) beforehand and then have a general discussion about it and the surrounding issues. Some tutors have found that controversial topics, possibly with you playing Devil’s advocate, can be a way to lure/bait students into participation!

2.4 Dorset debrief

Compare forecasts with data collected. Were observations within forecast uncertainty, did the point observations support the synoptic picture, etc.? Which weather issues/features are most important/interesting and might form a good focal point for the assessed report?

2.5 Course feedback

In week 10 (or the 2nd term), it can be useful to try and gain some insight into how the students regard the MSc course, what is/isn’t working, which aspects they did/didn’t enjoy, what they’d like more/less of, is the general pace about right, etc. Students do fill in feedback forms for each module, but this is a chance to get a more holistic view. And after spending so many hours chatting with you, they may be more inclined to open up and tell you what they really think!

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3.     Specific discussion topics


3.1 Back-of-the-envelope calculations
Many students are not comfortable with making order-of-magnitude estimates. Work through a few examples in order to convince them of the utility of such an approach. Some ideas include deriving then using the hydrostatic equation to estimate the mass of the atmosphere above a square metre of ground; the mean surface temperature of the earth be if there were no atmosphere (given a mean surface albedo of 0.13), etc. An alternative approach is take a range of orders of magnitude (e.g., 10-10 to 1020) and challenge students to find a physical parameter to match each. You could begin by encouraging them to estimate the kinetic energy in a typical cyclone, etc.

3.2 Lapse rate
Ask the students how the temperature varies through the troposphere. Why? How does this affect the calculation of scale height? What assumptions need to be made to calculate the lapse rate? Under what circumstances are these good/bad assumptions? Wallace & Hobbs (and, of course, Ambaum) have nice summaries of these issues.

3.3 Water vapour and humidity.
Many students struggle with issues connected with water vapour in the atmosphere. It can sometimes be best to start from basics, e.g., with a discussion of the mixing ratio and its relation to humidity, the concept of saturation/equilibrium vapour pressure, what would happen to a rising parcel of air etc. If students are happy with these qualitative ideas, then order-of-magnitude calculations can help to build in some more quantitative aspects, e.g., How much water is there in this room?

3.4 Planetary rotation
What are the consequences of a rotating, spherical frame of reference? How do the centripetal and Coriolis forces come about, over what physical scales are they important? How are they different from real forces (gravity, the pressure gradient)? And do these forces combine to form the geostrophic wind?

3.5 Reviewing past exam papers

This is particularly useful for the Atmospheric Physics module towards the end of the autumn term.

3.6 Weather chart analysis

Surface pressure maps, satellite imagery, current radar observations, tephigram analysis, etc., and how they relate to what we can observe from the office window.

3.7 Module choices for Spring term
Talk through the various options open to them on their respective programmes.  One thing they really appreciate is if you co-opt a recent graduate of the MSc programme (there are usually a few amongst the new PhD intake) to give them an honest opinion of the various modules.

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4.     Developing transferable skills

4.1 Exam technique

Many students need reminding about basic strategy such as timing, answering easy questions first, using bullets to get out the main points rather than using perfect prose etc. One approach is to give them half an exam question to do beforehand and then go over how it would be marked, and show them what a marking scheme looks like. A prompt to get students to check their answers are dimensionally and/or order-of-magnitude correct never harms!

4.2 Report/dissertation writing
Around weeks 5-6, students may have specific issues they want to discuss about writing their Dorset field trip report. In general, it is useful to talk about approaches to writing large scientific documents: How to break the document down into manageable chunks, what’s a good framework/order for chapters/sections, the kind of language to use, a refresher on referencing, etc.

4.3 Critical analysis of scientific writing
Depending on what particular aspects of science/writing you hope to discuss, you may want to choose what you feel is either a particularly good or bad paper/dissertation/project report. If you choose to use a student’s work, you should check they’re happy with that (or at least remove any names from it). In order to minimise the amount of extra on the students, it’s best to limit the amount they have to read (e.g., a paper from a letters journal, or just the abstract and figure captions). You may wish to focus on either the writing style or the underlying science, but either way, encourage them to be critical.

4.4 Write your own abstract
Give students a short journal article (e.g., GRL, ERL) to read, but remove the title/authors/abstract. Ask them to write their own abstract to the paper with a 150-word limit, then talk through the results as a group. This helps them learn to read and understand scientific papers, but also develops their ability to concisely summarise a larger work.

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