Under the spotlight Robert Collins, Senior Teaching Fellow in Education

We spoke with Robert Collins, who is a Senior Teaching Fellow at The Strathclyde Institute of Education, as well as the Course Director for the Bachelor's Degree programmes in Primary Education.

What's your Strathclyde story?
I started with Strathclyde while working in Glasgow City Council’s Education Improvement Service. I worked with the then Vice Dean at Jordanhill and the Scottish Executive Education Department creating national research publications into STEM and Digital Literacies in Scottish Schools. I went on to publish curricular materials in STEM and subsequently moved career to working at Strathclyde full time.

Like many of my colleagues, I started as an Associate Lecturer and eventually became a full-time Lecturer in UG and PG Initial Teacher Education and STEM in 2003.

After a period teaching in HE in the Middle East, I returned to Strathclyde and am now a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Strathclyde Institute of Education. I have been the Course Director for BA (Hons) Primary Education since AY 2017/18 and was responsible for developing the newest undergraduate Initial Teacher Education (ITE) degree.

Additionally, I oversee the Masters’ degree for the UK’s Primary Engineers programme and am a keen proponent (and School Leader) of Vertically Integrated Projects for Sustainable Development (VIP4SD) here at Strathclyde.

I am also a member of Senate, where I am a School representative and a member of its Estates Committee.

What initially attracted you to Strathclyde?
I really liked the energy of students, the innovative people I met and the chance to conduct research and influence teaching that would have a genuine social impact. I had enjoyed looking after STEM Education for one of Scotland’s biggest regions and Strathclyde offered the opportunity to influence at a national – and eventually international level.

Just before the pandemic, I presented at Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California – and even hosted some of their academics back here at Strathclyde in return - which was amazing. I still get excited when I see my contribution to research or practice influencing the way things are thought about and practised in teaching. I don’t think that attraction will ever change.

What inspired you to enter your field/profession?
My first love was Science and I am still a Registered Scientist with the UK Science Council. I come from a family of teachers though and so I did a postgraduate year to get into teaching as it seemed quite a natural thing to do. This was one of the best decisions in my life. I realised I had a genuine passion for teaching – especially STEM – it can have such a positive impact on society and on learners’ futures.

I went on to become a Chartered Science Teacher and even won Best Tutor in Faculty at the USSA Teaching Excellence Awards based on my Science teaching. I am a first-generation university graduate and I have a firm belief in how impactful great teaching can be on the lives of children and students – which is another reason I wanted to be at Strathclyde. I find the place inspirational in and of itself.

What advice would you give to anyone starting out in your field?
I was lucky. I found that I loved science and mathematics at an early age and then found I really enjoyed teaching it. I had a lot of support from family and friends who encouraged me to follow what I liked doing – which was research, teaching and writing - and even to work in one of the UK’s highest achieving universities. So, my advice would be to follow your instincts – teaching is definitely one of those vocational things where you find a job in something you love doing.

It is possible to go on to research and influence in the field – but you have to be prepared to work hard for it. There is a lot of satisfaction in that though. My VIP helps kids get into STEM study and careers too – that’s why I like it so much.

Recently a story in Inside Strathclyde about one of the first kids the project team met through VIP told how much she was inspired by the project and that she now studies at Strathclyde. So my second piece of advice would be that you’ve got to practice what you preach! Again, very much worth it.

What has been the most memorable moment of your career to date?
I have had quite a long career already and so finding only one memorable moment is difficult. I can still remember my first lecture at Strathclyde, my first research publication, being overwhelmed to win Best in Faculty at USSA’s TEAs a few years ago, getting to travel and present at Georgia Tech and USC, being involved in the University’s UN Green Gowns Award success was all great. Becoming Course Director was wonderful and being nominated to sit in Senate and in its Estates Committee was – and still is - just fantastic.

My best memory though is still my graduation at Strathclyde with my wife and kids in the audience – it was a great day. Very closely followed by dropping my own daughter off at her first lecture here at Strathclyde and watching her begin her Strathclyder journey. I think her graduation one day will undoubtedly top mine.

What current trends do you see influencing your field/profession?
Like most fields in teaching, I see the influence of the recent pandemic on STEM education. In a way, although dreadful, it has accelerated a move to online blended and hybrid learning. From what I can see, this hasn’t been received as something totally to the detriment of practical teaching activities in STEM – instead good teachers have had to become more creative and so the integration of the digital world into their repertoire has been generally beneficial.

It is all about balance – and innovation. Research and practice into getting this right is now the future in my field – which has been changed irrevocably in the last few years in my opinion.

What are your biggest professional challenges?
I think like everyone right now finding balance between work and life is a bit more challenging than it used to be. Like most colleagues I have talked with, I find working at home has its benefits and drawbacks. Same for our students. I definitely don’t miss traffic chaos on the Kingston Bridge every morning – but it is equally superb to be able to teach on-campus with the students again.

I am the Course Director for UG ITE – so the restrictions placed on schools are really challenging as we work closely in partnership with them. We have managed well so far though – so I’m keeping optimistic about the future.

Tell us about any research or projects you are currently involved in.
My most recent research and publications came directly from my work with VIP4SD at Strathclyde. I collaborated with two close colleagues, Stavros Nikou and Martyn Henry, investigating the impact of digital designed-based learning. We share a common interest in STEM Education, technologies and digital pedagogies.

Our most recent research in 2020 has offered insight into the importance of computational thinking in the physical representations of the Maker Movement. Crucially, it has also contributed a uniquely Scottish dimension to wider debate regarding opportunities in overcoming the challenges of teaching and learning algorithmic thinking and computer programming, placing pervasive computing at the centre of Computer Science education.

Any special thanks or shout-outs you'd like to give to colleagues who have helped or inspired you throughout your career here?
Graham White (Head of School: Retired) for giving me the chance to work at Strathclyde

Andrew Hosie (Now sadly deceased: for helping me become a proper researcher)

My VIP4SD Teams, Steve Marshall, Scott Strachan, Paul Murray, Alex Buckley and Louise Logan for organising VIP4SD and of course all my friends and colleagues who are my daily inspiration – you know who you are!

All library, porters, catering and cleaning staff at Strathclyde – you are all unsung heroes!

If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be?
That’s easy – I wouldn’t – I already have the job I always wanted. But if I had to choose, it would be Charlotte Hodgman’s. She’s the Editor of BBC History Revealed magazine. That has to be the best job in the world - nearly. If I hadn’t been a scientist I would have loved to have been a historian. (If only to get permission to use ‘an’ in front of a word beginning with ‘h’ – which really bugs schoolteachers!).

Or Speilberg. USC is near Hollywood – and has a Film & Cinema Institute. I was so near and yet so far. If I had the chance, I would make the ultimate science fiction movie.

What keeps you busy outside of work?
The standard chaotic family life of an academic. Also, I love walking for exercise. I started during the pandemic and haven’t stopped. I have lost weight and become far healthier. I am a regular Forrest Gump and can go out walking ‘for no particular reason’!

What is your guilty pleasure?
I am a complete sci-fi geek! Anything remotely related to science fiction – or actual science- I find irresistible. My family tell me I should have been Sheldon!

In one word describe what Strathclyde means to you.

Published date: December 7, 2021