Better communication is key to advancing Western Canadian research

By Andrew Yau, Professor & NSERC Senior Industrial Research Chair

Researchers and professors in Western Canada are simply unable to carry out the same types of collaborative activities as our counterparts in China, Japan, and even parts of Europe and the US. Given the vast distances between our major urban centres, and relatively small population density, we cannot conduct comprehensive research and training within a small geographic area, and must instead rely on remote communications support. This is where technologies like Cybera's videoconferencing facilities, called Cyberports, are really making a difference.

I am a relative newbie to the Cyberport, as I didn't start using it until this past year, but I am absolutely sold on it.

I am teaching the first of a four-part course on "space weather" in the Earth's upper atmosphere. The course is directed at senior undergraduate physics students, and is intended to provide an introduction to various facets of the upper atmosphere, and effects of space weather both in the upper atmosphere and on the ground.

My part of the course focuses on the "ionized portion" of the upper atmosphere — the so-called "ionosphere" —€” in which a number of important physical phenomena occur that impact our day-to-day lives. In the ionosphere, a small fraction of atmospheric atoms and molecules becomes ionized into ions and electrons. But even though the fraction is extremely small, it is enough to make the atmosphere behave quite differently than it does at the ground level, and as a result, it can enable radio communications over a large distance, but also disrupt GPS navigation and satellite communications.

A course of this detail would not normally be taught in any one Western Canadian university, as they simply do not have the resources or student numbers for this kind of specialization. It is therefore being offered as a joint course taught by myself and Professor David Knudsen at the University of Calgary, and Professors Ian Mann and Richard Marchand at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

What I enjoy most about teaching via the Cyberport is the high resolution of the video link. I have the ability to see the body language of the students at the other end of the videoconference — and I am sure the students there can see my own —€” as though we were actually only a few feet from each other. This removes the mental inhibition to speak our minds, which a less seamless communication technology sometimes generates.

The use of a smart board also means we can improvise and interact over a distance. This provides the best of both worlds: it allows me to use advanced lecture materials prepared at the last minute, as well as materials created in real time, helping ideas flow and giving students the best learning environment.

I think we are still in the first, baby steps of using Cyberport-types of communications technology for advanced education in Alberta and Western Canada. If we are to produce a sufficient number of world-class, highly qualified personnel in natural science, engineering, and social and health sciences that Canada will need to compete internationally in the coming decades, collaborative research and research training using tools like this will be key.

In my view, Cybera represents an enabling technology for this to happen, and I would encourage other researchers and academics to investigate how communication technologies could be benefitting them and their programs.

Andrew Yau is a Professor & NSERC Senior Industrial Research Chair in Experimental Space Science at the University of Calgary Department of Physics and Astronomy and Institute of Space Imaging Science