Summer Half-Term – Academic Review

It is usual for my half-termly reviews to focus on new introductions and noteworthy differences to the College’s academic provision– a new essay prize, for example, or a new exchange partnership, or public-speaking competition.

Like previously, this has been a term of new introductions – unlike previously, these new introductions have been required of us by the unforeseen impact of COVID-19. The cancelation of public exams (announced in early April) prompted us to create two enrichment programmes: MC IX and MC XV (named to mark the ninth term, for the Hundred, and the fifteenth term, for the Upper Sixth). Programmes that, were it not for the 2020 disruption, would never have existed: crisis creates opportunity.

For MC IX, pupils chose four subjects (including those intended for A level) in which to extend their skills and subject knowledge. The Physics Department MC IX, for example, includes a module on problem-solving, a module on iterative modelling using Excel and video analysis using tracking software, and a module on 20th Century Physics (beyond the reach of the GCSE) including the basics of quantum mechanics and special relativity.

The MC IX programme also requires pupils to produce a Research Project (similar to the Extended Project Qualification, which is steeply growing in popularity at the College). Pupils are already demonstrating independence and purposefulness through these projects – for example, a pupil in Morris House (whose project is on the Hong Kong riots) has organised a Zoom interview with a one-time Governor of Hong Kong. Not a bad effort.

If MC IX is a choice of set menus, MC XV is à la carte; and the menu is long and eclectic. The six-week programme (which began after exeat) is split into three fortnights; for each fortnight pupils chose between two and five five-hour modules (from a list of over a hundred).

Modules are divided into three categories: Category A (to enhance pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the subject they intend to study at university), Category B (to enhance pupils’ cross-subject university skills), and Category C (to enhance pupils’ life skills and wider academic/cultural interests).

Titles include: Discovering Chamber Music, How to Write Well, A Brief History of History, The Movies of Jean-Pierre Melville, Art as a Visual Language, Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought, Complex Variable Theory, Modern Architecture in Europe and USA, and The Science of Baking (although I gather there is some concern regarding the availability of flour…).

It has been a term, not only of new introductions, but of maintenance – of maintaining the high quality of academic provision, both within the “classroom” and beyond, despite the move to a virtual school. I wrote in the Easter newsletter of our teachers’ adaption to Zoom, Teams and OneNote. Of equal importance, however, is the pupils’ adaption to the online way of working; unsurprisingly, they have embraced the challenges and opportunities with creativity and flair.

Last week I put out a request for examples of pupils’ work. I was very impressed by the submissions’ quality and range (both in terms of subject matter, and in terms of the medium). The virtual school lends itself to tech alternatives to traditional written assignments, and this was reflected in the work that I saw. Explanatory videos (complete with slick editing, zany captions, stop-motion animation and more), presentations given to a live audience (delivered as a Zoom “Share Screen” and recorded for posterity), group-work, podcasts, and a number of smart-phone apps for pupil presentation and editing (including FlipGrid and Padlet).

But there is no substitute for the written word, and there is no better pupil showcase of the written word than Beethoven in Lockdown. Edited by Honor Mills (EL L6) and Eva Stuart (MO L6), Beethoven in Lockdown is a collection of over fifty essays written by pupils and staff of the College, interspersed with glorious artwork by Nadia Johnson (CO L6), Finlay Stuart (TU L6), Sophie Smith (DA L6) and Mr Twohig. Themes range from suffering (The Effect of Pain and Suffering on Overall Musicality by Peps Haydn-Taylor) through to joy (An Ode to the Ode to Joy by Frau Reiner) via everything in between. I urge you to set aside an hour or two, and read it cover to cover.

And finally: talks and presentations. A rich and varied programme of lectures by visiting speakers is at the heart of the academic life of the College beyond the classroom, and so I am delighted that we have been able to retain normal service (albeit via Zoom, rather than in persons). The 8for8 lecture series in March (a lecture for every evening between site closure and the end of the Easter Term) provided “proof of concept”, and this term we have built on its success.

The programme has included a lecture by Claire Perry O’Neill on the history of climate conferences, In the Marlborough Night Garden (an astronomy talk given by Mr James and Mr Genton to coordinate with the publication of their book of photographs, with contributions by pupils of the College), and Janine Webber (who shared her fascinating, heart-breaking and inspiring story of time spent in the Jewish ghetto in Lwów in Poland during the Holocaust). Pupils have also been invited to Zoom in to the Marlburian Monday series (organised by Mr Lerwill), featuring lectures by OMs (including Frank Gardner on birdsong).

However, the highlight thus far of the term’s talks’ calendar was the 2020 Medawar Science lecture given by Dr Hugh Hunt (Senior Reader of Engineering, Trinity College, Cambridge). Named after Sir Peter Medawar (B2 1928-32) – OM and distinguished research scientist) – the Medawar has been a fixture of the College for many decades. We were incredibly lucky to welcome Dr Hunt, who specialises in the dynamics of vibrations, and has a particular passion and enthusiasm for toys: spinning tops, boomerangs, and more. Speaking from his rooms in Trinity Great Court, he took us on a fascinating tour of his toy cupboard, with demos, audience participation, and a joyful smattering of science (from the simple to the complex). The lecture can be watched online – it lasts under an hour, and is intriguing, enjoyable, educational, and thoroughly recommended.

Ed Tolputt
Deputy Head (Academic)

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