A National Australian Collaborative Graduate Education Program: Insights from the Academic Organising Committee

Earlier this year, instigated by Intersect’s Education and Outreach Manager Dr. Meiyun Chang-Smith, a high-flying team of Australian computational materials scientists coalesced with the vision of building a large scale national teaching collaboration to provide comprehensive exposure for Australian higher degree research (HDR) students and early career (ECR) scientists to state-of-the art approaches to high performance computing and data (HPCD) methods in materials design and discovery. Drawing on Intersect and NCI’s complementary expertise, the remarkable Collaborative Graduate Education Program was formed. 

After prior survey feedback and intensive planning, the highly anticipated inaugural collaborative course, HPC and Data in Materials Design and Discovery, launched successfully on the 3rd of September. The first truly national collaborative program of its type and scale, the course was purposefully designed and delivered by a brilliant teaching team of renowned professors from various research and science-related fields, located at a number of tertiary institutions across Australia.  As the facilitator and coordination hub, Intersect worked collaboratively and closely with tier 1 HPC facility NCI Australia, to provision the unique and well–structured program that delivered open access to comprehensive, high quality, advanced online graduate education for Australian HDR students as well as hands-on tutorials utilising NCI’s Gadi supercomputing platform.

Halfway through the semester, the course had received hugely positive survey responses from the student cohort. The feedback from that mid-term survey indicated that the average satisfaction score (out of 10, where 10 is extremely satisfied) was 9.0 for the lecture content, 9.2 for the lecture delivery, and 9.2 for course organisation/coordination, reflecting very high levels of satisfaction rate from participants. [1] Intersect sat down in October with some of the course Organising Committee members and got to know their motivations behind joining this fantastic program, and their experience thus far.

Professor Julian Gale of Curtin University obtained his PhD at the University of Oxford in the Department of Chemical Crystallography. He held research and faculty appointments at Imperial College London before taking up his professorship at Curtin University in Western Australia and now holds the position of John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Computational Chemistry.

Professor Tiffany Walsh of Deakin University gained her PhD at the University of Cambridge. She undertook postdoctoral research and held sequential research fellowships at Oxford university before taking a faculty position at Warwick University and subsequently her current position as Professor of Bio/Nanotechnology at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials.

“Sean Smith, the Director of NCI approached me about the idea of having this course, and I thought it was an excellent idea. I have had prior experience training students in Materials Modelling in France using a similar model of collaboration with other university professors, however, that was an in-person scheme. When I heard about this program, I thought it was an excellent chance to do something similar but in a distributed way to involve people across the whole country. The number of students located in one geographic area is quite small, for example, within the WA community in this field may be 10-15 people. To educate a large number of people across the country is certainly more efficient for each professor’s time and reach.”, Professor Julian Gale explained. 

In her recollection and reasoning for joining this initiative, Prof Walsh remarked “I first heard about the program when Dr. Meiyun Chang-Smith, the Education and Outreach Manager at Intersect got in touch with me. Through this introduction, I had a discussion with Sean (Director of NCI) about the idea of putting a national program together to help train early career researchers. The general nature of the Computational Science community is that it is dispersed throughout the country. To join forces with so many people who are fantastic in my field, and to be able to produce and deliver something that is more holistic and broader is amazing. It’s one thing to hear it from me and it’s another to hear it from many experts around the country. This offering allows students to not just connect with lecturers and tutors around the country, but to connect with each other. Peer-to-peer learning is a very important aspect of this experience, and it goes to the next level in exchanging ideas.”

Professor Gale elaborated his thoughts and support for the program further and commented that “Our role as academics is to be custodians of knowledge, and there is no point in keeping that knowledge to yourself. If you share expertise within Australia, it will help to achieve the best quality science possible, as well as building a national community. I think it worked particularly well at this point in time as both lecturers and students are working from home and are more flexible with how they do things. It is also easier for people to attend the online live lectures and ask questions of the lecturers to enhance their understanding. And, they don’t need to feel that they are taking time away from other activities, such as lab-time, given the current circumstances.”

Professor Walsh shared a similar perspective and strong support for the program by saying “I would really like to emphasise the importance of this program in terms of bringing a national training program to these early career researchers, particularly where these students have been working from home. In Victoria, students have barely had the opportunity to come to the lab in the last two years. The feedback that I’ve been hearing from my students so far is very positive. This work is critical, and I am so glad we did it. I want to provide something that will really help my community and I am really driven by that.”

“I’ve been very impressed by the students and the follow up questions asked after the lectures. They had the insight to see the issues, problems or challenges behind the [course] material presented, and they could see what the next steps would be. All through the course, there was a great level of questioning. I was very pleased with the level of feedback that we got from the students.” Professor Gale commented. 

Oct 29th 2021 Prof Julian Gale

Oct 29th 2021 Prof Julian Gale

He then gave praise to the teaching team and the course coordinator: “Additionally, so many academics have given their time when they were already committed to their regular teaching. The response from both sides has been great. This of course couldn’t have been done without Meiyun Chang-Smith, with her energy and enthusiasm toward creating this opportunity for Australian researchers.”

Although Professor Walsh’s two lectures were scheduled towards the end of the course in November, she shared some of the feedback and insights she learned: “I haven’t presented my materials thus far, but both students and postdocs have really enjoyed the material. They love it. People at all stages are getting something out of the program. I have seen early career researchers and more experienced academics attending the program. It is a testament to the fact that we can all learn more and gain more perspective. It also provides an opportunity for newer researchers. They have become aware of broader research activities that are going on around Australia. This is particularly useful as these students finish up their studies and want to see what other research activity is taking place. The feedback that I have had so far has been glowing.”

By end of the conversations, the insights gained from Professors Gale and Walsh affirmed that this innovative program has had significant beneficial impacts for participating students from the computational materials science community, accelerating their ability to expand their knowledge in their specialised research domains by using HPCD. 

This three-months long epic course wrapped up on 26th of Nov 2021. An eloquent summary of the varied contributions into the collaborative course over its 12-week delivery was provided in the final lecture by Sean Smith, Professor of Computational Nanomaterials Science and Technology from ANU’s Research School of Physics. The short video clip of the acknowledgement can be viewed below.

Intersect extends a big thank you to all the Organising Committee members, teaching team, NCI Director and its training team, and looks forward to being able to support this education program in related HPCD fields in the near future. 

The registration remains open for the computational materials science community and the course resources including video recordings and slides continue to be accessible for the registered cohort!

[1] Similarly, the feedback from that end-of-term survey indicated that the average satisfaction score was 9.0 for the lecture content, 9.0 for the lecture delivery, and 9.0 for course organisation/coordination.