Mathematicians at the University of Manchester are to use interactive video conferencing to boost the knowledge of students across the North of England.
The University, which has been instrumental in driving forward the Mathematics Access Grid: Instruction and Collaboration (MAGIC) project, will be the regional coordinating centre for the teaching of applied mathematics and statistics to PhD students.
The University of Manchester has been working closely with the University of Sheffield, which has been chosen as the regional coordinating centre for the teaching of pure mathematics
The ambitious project, which received £854,000 of funding from the government's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), brings together 13 universities from across the north of England, plus one from the south.
The impetus for MAGIC came following Sir Gareth Roberts' Review in 2001 (into the supply of science and engineering skills in the UK), but particularly the International Review of Mathematics in 2004.
The IRM report probed the state of mathematics research in UK universities in comparison with work being done internationally, and identified the three-year UK PhD programme as being short compared to those in other countries.
"This structure produces PhD students who are narrowly focused," said the report. "New PhDs from the UK usually have less breadth and experience than their peers from other countries."
The IRM report concluded that "the UK cannot afford to concentrate its advanced training in mathematics, which has to be nurtured by the most up-to-date research, in a small number of highly competitive universities."
It also encouraged universities with large and small mathematical departments to work together for mutual benefit.
The aim of the Sheffield and Manchester-led MAGIC project is to improve the teaching of mathematics postgraduate students, and see them finish their studies with a more balanced, broader and deeper knowledge of maths.
The first interactive lectures, in which students will be able to ask questions at any point, are due to kick off in February 2007, with a full programme expected to start in September 2007.
Teaching from the University of Manchester will be delivered from special Access Grid rooms, containing all the necessary sophisticated video conferencing equipment, including a huge projector screen, several Web cameras and desk microphones.
Researchers in other universities in the northern MAGIC network will be able to participate from similarly equipped rooms. Using this system, they will have full access to lectures not available on their own campus.
The technology will also be set up so that anyone, anywhere, can watch and listen with only a web browser, although full interaction may only be possible from an equipped Access Grid room.
Lectures will be recorded so they can be played back later by students who are unavailable at the scheduled times. Notes will also be made available in electronic format.
Those delivering the lectures will be able to present prepared material or write onto special tablets or boards and transmit this information to the students.
Dr Jitesh Gajjar, from the School of Mathematics at The University of Manchester, and co-leader of the project, said: "This is very ambitious and unique project, and it has been a big challenge to get all the universities to agree on a framework for participation and delivery.
"There is still work to do in terms of preparing the Access Grid rooms, installing and testing the equipment and familiarising people with the technology. But with funding in place and key decisions made, the original vision is now very close to becoming a reality.
"With The University of Sheffield, we have been instrumental in pushing this project forward. Once it is up and running, we believe it will give mathematics PhD students a much broader and deeper knowledge of advanced mathematics and help them compete with European and international peers for key jobs and positions."
Professor Neil Strickland from the University of Sheffield, who also co-leads the project, said: "While UK mathematics is generally very strong, our funding system forces our students to complete their PhDs much more quickly than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe or the United States.
"This makes it difficult for them to learn more background than they immediately need for their PhD projects. Many of our students are also in small departments, which do not have the resources to teach a broad range of graduate level courses.
"I am very excited by the MAGIC project, which will enable fourteen universities to pool their efforts and radically improve the teaching provision for our graduate students."
Aside from the University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield, the other universities that form the North of England consortium are Durham, Keele, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Loughborough, Newcastle, Nottingham and York. The University of Southampton has also elected to join the group.
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