By Rob Hogg-Thompson, University College London
Being the son of one of the founding members of the OPTIMAX summer school, I’ve been to every edition since its birth in 2012. Until this year, I’d never been with the intention of taking part. Rather I went because my dad would have an apartment in a desirable location for three weeks that I could crash on the floor of. This year was different, and not just because I didn’t fancy a holiday to Salford. I had an active role in providing English language support to all the students throughout their article-writing process. I also played dinner lady, but we don’t need to dwell on that.
As I was the only participant in the school completely detached from the subject matter, being an English Literature student, I was asked to write a reflective piece on my impressions of the three weeks. Without further ado, here it is.
In order to understand my impression, it’s first necessary to understand what exactly OPTIMAX is. OPTIMAX is a three-week summer school where students from all over the world conduct research projects in 5 or 6 groups on medical imaging with a particular emphasis on radiation protection. By the end of the school, they are expected to have written a journal article, which is published within a book; produce an academic poster; and give an oral presentation on their findings.
In any extended piece of group work, an ice-breaker is always necessary. In this, OPTIMAX does not disappoint. The students always arrive on the night before the school is set to begin for a welcome event, and this one had twenty Domino’s pizzas and a student-satisfying amount of beer. The latter of these was needed for the initial ice-breaker activity which was devised by Salford University’s Dr Leslie Robinson and her husband John – traditional Scottish dancing. As a veteran of the dance, she and John led a short class for the students before turning them loose on the dancefloor. Almost everyone got involved, allowing them to talk with one another and have a laugh. Me? I wasn’t able to attend, so unfortunately I missed the opportunity to don my kilt.
The first two days of OPTIMAX comprised of more ice-breaking/team building activities, led once again by Dr Robinson. First, they all took the ‘Myers-Brigg Personality Test’ to evaluate their personality types and see how best to set up their groups to minimise conflict and make sure everyone’s voices are heard. The students then undertake the ‘Egg Experiment’, wherein they must build a vessel suitable to protect an egg as it falls from a height. These activities allow them to get used to one another, establish their roles in their teams, and develop project management skills with the intention of this having an immediate and positive impact on their research and the associated team working.
Three days in, the ice has thawed and the research can begin. There is no set template to how the students’ work is structured. They choose who their group leader will be; they choose which roles need to be created to get the work done efficiently; and they choose the pace at which they will work. Some groups vote on disagreements, some discuss them. It’s completely down to their own management. Of course, an experienced tutor is assigned to each group to ensure they stay on task, but they are not there to provide the answers for every problem. Rather, they facilitate the research process and ensure every decision is made based on scientific data rather than on personal opinion. Even in cases where the research method had already been devised, they were never given to the students. This was the case in the study which reviewed whether the experience of an observer affected the reliability of the results when assessing areas of interest in ultrasound images. Willemke Nijholt from the Netherlands, facilitator for this study, commented that it is “difficult for tutors to take a backseat and allow students to reach conclusions on their own, even if they might be the wrong ones”. In a way, this form of teaching is a skill in itself, and a coveted one at that.
The teaching methods at OPTIMAX are so renowned that tutors from all over the world flock to observe and learn all they can. This year, Dr Robinson decided to turn this into a study using peer observation. Those coming to learn from the tutors were required to note down what they found to be most effective in engaging the students, and what affected the groups’ progress. The study was done once in the first week then repeated in the second with a separate set of observers to confirm the findings, which Dr Robinson called ‘astonishing’. These findings are to be published alongside all the other studies in the OPTIMAX book, and will be used in future years to help tutors to further improve their teaching methods.
Perhaps this is the most surprising thing about OPTIMAX, that it honours the students’ work as much as the tutors involved in it. OPTIMAX, as far as I can gather, is completely unique in what it seeks to achieve. It gives students a real example of what it is like to be at the helm of radiographic research, and have their work valued. I know, from my own experience at university, that students can spend months working on a research paper and receive nothing but a grade for it. It can leave them feeling dissatisfied, like the hundred or so hours they put into the piece was worth nothing more than a small fraction of their degree. More often than not, they’ll never look at these pieces again. They are nothing more than a few hundred megabytes that’ll eventually be wiped from their hard drive, but OPTIMAX is different. The work is published in a book, honoured for what it is and how it has advanced knowledge in the field. This kind of encouragement can change someone’s whole life perspective and show them the immense good they can bring to their discipline, and how valued they can feel for the work they do.
Engaging in novel team-based practical research as an undergraduate is rare. It typically involves passive learning about the methods in a lecture hall and then conducting studies in their own time without close support. This model is by no means wrong; it is definitely on the right lines in terms of independent study. However, it has been proven time and time again that passive learning is not the most effective way to learn, especially with studies as complex as those explored during OPTIMAX. A standard lecture setting is not ideal in learning how to properly conduct research methods, nor does it inspire students to conduct research later in their careers. Research is often a practical activity, and so should be learnt as one. The steering committee members of OPTIMAX know this, thus set up the school accordingly, with every part to the research process learnt actively.
Aside from the scientific work, there’s a huge social element to OPTIMAX. The welcome and farewell parties are the biggest events, but they aren’t the only ones. All the students go for nights out, and very often the tutors join them; they all eat lunch together (prepared by yours truly); and there are various smaller nights which are organised ad hoc, such as the Chinese meal on the last week. Professor Peter Hogg describes this element of OPTIMAX by saying:
“It’s fun, social and allows the participants to learn first-hand about other religions, countries and cultures, through formal presentations and informal interaction.”
There’s no better way to learn about other cultures and countries than through interaction, and this is a huge focus throughout the school. By the end, social bonds have been made between the students and tutors which buffer their professional relationships. Many of the students have been given opportunities to attend events, study abroad and set up internships, all because of OPTIMAX. Furthermore, the tutors’ interactions allow them to set up formal links between their universities, whether for research or student exchange schemes.
According to Professor Hogg, there’s a huge worry in Radiography in regard to research. Currently, very little is being done. Not to be biased, but he has done a huge amount for his field, as have all those involved in OPTIMAX. However, there are a small number of people engaged in this sort of research. In one sense, OPTIMAX is way of ‘passing down the torch’ to future generations of researchers, inspiring them to continue the great work that’s being done. Having spoken with many of the students, OPTIMAX has done just that. Every single person I asked about how the school had influenced their future career plans told me they now had every intention of doing research, where they hadn’t before; and those who could said they’ll undoubtedly be attending next year.
OPTIMAX is self-sustaining. Every student pays a small fee, as does every tutor. It’s kept alive by those who are passionate about its goals. Of course, the universities involved allow for their equipment to be used, but they don’t fund it. Erasmus funded the first two years, but since then it has been funded by those involved. Although this makes it harder to run in some respects, it’s also a positive aspect. For the past two years, it has run as smoothly as ever, with enough revenue for food, drink and social events. The steering committee are free to organise the school as they see fit, as they don’t need approval from any corporate backing. This means that they are in complete control, and so far it’s worked out perfectly. They intend to keep it alive for many years to come, and are always thinking of ways to expand. It began with only five countries involved, but that number has now grown to nine.
Before being fully engaged in OPTIMAX, I only ever attended to camp out and see the cities. However, next year’s is in Oslo, Norway, and I’ve always wanted to see a few Fjords, but I won’t be able to because somehow I too have fallen into the trap of believing in OPTIMAX. So, instead of seeing stunning landscapes and pretending to be viking, I hope I will be scanning through articles looking for spelling mistakes. I’m loathed to say it, because I know the steering committee will all get a copy of this article, but I’m extremely proud to have been a part of OPTIMAX. I sincerely hope it lives on way after they’re all too old to do research anymore.