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Professor Nicholas St John Braithwaite

Profile summary

  • Central Academic Staff
  • Associate Dean (Academic Excellence)
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • School of Physical Sciences
  • n.s.braithwaite

Professional biography

I joined the Department of Materials Engineering at The Open University in 1987 to help prepare teaching resources on 'electronic materials': bringing a physics perspective to an engineering community. This was a convenient complement to my research on plasmas for semiconductor processing. As time passed I became more and more involved in courses on engineering and materials, meanwhile the subject of "technological plasmas" became a fundable research theme.  

Looking for new challenges in 2004, I transferred to the Physics & Astronomy Department (August 2004): bringing an engineering perspective to a physics community. By 2010 I had become excited by the prospects of teaching practical science via the internet - and that led to the award winning Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory. Throughout this period technological plasmas provided sufficient stimulation to keep my research team busy - still related to the processing of semiconductors but also looking into plasma loudspeakers and co-authoring a CUP research text: "Physics of Radio-Frequency Plasmas" (now also available in Chinese). 

In 2012 the Physics & Astronomy Department merged with our planetary and space colleagues to become the Department of Physical Sciences: more plasma processing and more practical science. In 2014 I became Science Director of the OU centre for STEM pedagogy: eSTEeM. In this capacity I secured HEFCE-funding to create the award winning OpenSTEM Labs. This latter undertaking houses the original OpenScience Laboratory alongside new wings dedicated to the OpenScience Observatories, the OpenEngineering Lab and on-campus teaching labs with integral ‘labcasting’ facilities.

Further reorganisation reconnected me with engineering colleagues in 2016 when we formed the Faculty of Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics. I became Associate Dean for Academic Excellence in the new Faculty.

Last updated Jan 2018

Research interests

I enjoy the challenge of teaching in general and especially topics relating to classical physics, electronics, electricity and magnetism.  The preparation of OU teaching resources, including activities beyond the text, benefit from team based approaches, which provide a stimulating environment for work.  I remain an enthusiastic face-to-face teacher. Although I used to find residential schools an exciting place to be I have actively developed alternative models for teaching practical science.

In the Technology Faculty I worked on T201 Materials in Action and its successor T203 (another Materials course), and T356 Artificial Intelligence for Technology.  I also led the production of T354 Inside Electronic Devices and T207 The Engineer as Problem Solver. 

Since joining the Department of Physics and Astronomy, I have contributed to the production of SMT359 Electromagnetism and S189 Understanding the Weather. More recently I coordinated the production of five inter-related modules on practical science, known collectively as S288. I was currently Module Team Chair on SXPA288 Practical Science: physics & astronomy until 2016 and I worked on the early stages of a module in our Space Science & Technology Masters qualification. In 2016 focused my teaching activity into the work of the OpenSTEM Labs, supporting practical work across a range of science and engineering modules. 

Last updated Jan 2018

Teaching interests

I enjoy the challenge of teaching in general and especially topics relating to classical physics, electronics, electricity and magnetism.  The preparation of OU teaching resources, including activities beyond the text, benefit from team based approaches, which provide a stimulating envirnoment for work.  I remain an enthusiastic face-to-face teacher. Although I used to find residential schools an exciting place to be I have actively developed alternative models for teaching practical science.

In the Technology Faculty I worked on T201 Materials in Action and its successor T203 (another Materials course), and T356 Artificial Intelligence for Technology.  I also led the production of T354 Inside Electronic Devices and T207 The Engineer as Problem Solver. 

Since joining the Department to Physics and Astronomy, I have contributed to the production of SMT359 Electromagnetism and S189 Understanding the Weather. More recently I coordinated the production of five inter-ralated  modules on practical science, known collectively as S288. I am currently Module Tean Chair on SXPA288 Practical Science: physics & astronomy and I am working on the module team for a new module in the Space Science & Technology masters qualification.

Last updated Jan 2018

Impact and engagement

Following on from the S288 revolution which introduced on-screen practical science, we developed the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory (OSL) a platform for delivering curriculum engagements featuring a variety of on-screen practical work. In essence we aim to take laboratories/observatories/field sites to people by means of the internet. In 2014 the OSL won the THE Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year award, sponsored by Jisc.

The next phase of the developments in onlie prctical science has been a broadening to the OpenSTEM Labs which is increasing the amount of remotely accessed robotic equipment for online practical work in STEM qualifications. The OpenSTEM Labs house the original OpenScience Laboratory alongside new wings dedicated to the OpenScience Observatories, the OpenEngineering Lab and on-campus teaching labs with integral ‘labcasting’ facilities. A STEM Capital allocation of £2.8m from HEFCE, matched by a further £2.8m from the OU funded this phase of development which has provided a step change in the quality and quantity of on-line practical work across many of our STEM qualifications.  In 2017, the OpenSTEM Labs project won the THE Leadership and Management Award for Outstanding Digital Innovation, sponsored by Jisc.

Last updated Jan 2018

Research Activity

Research groups

NameTypeParent Unit
Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR)CentreFaculty of Science

 

Externally funded projects

Internet of things- Smart Remote solar PV lab

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Co-investigator13/Mar/201730/Nov/2017Royal Academy of Engineering
Over the last few decades, the applications of photovoltaic systems have grown rapidly and they are on their way to become a major energy source for India and Europe. Over the past few years the installed capacity increased 200 to 400% in Asia and Europe.. The year 2016 was another one for the books for solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, as it has experienced remarkable growth over the past decade and is on the way to becoming a mature and mainstream source of electricity. For the second year in a row, in 2017 PVs were the top new source of electricity generation in the European Union. The capacity of the systems installed during this year is sufficient to cover the annual power supply needs of over 40 million European and Asian households. Each year these PV installations save more than 36 million tons of CO2. It is thus argued that reducing the EU's and Asias current rate of fossil-fuel combustion can be assisted greatly by introducing coherent, comprehensive and coordinated energy education policies. PVs continue to prove their ability to compete in the energy sector as a mainstream power generation source. However, even if the most pessimistic scenario is taken into account, PVs will continue to increase their share of the energy mix in Europe and around the world, becoming a reliable source of clean, safe and ceaseless renewable energy for all. It has been suggested that education on solar systems must be one of the priorities of the energy policy, to promote the solar energy applications for sustainable development. It is impossible to successfully promote solar systems without appropriately educated people who will be involved in their design, sizing, and installation. The main part of a PV system is the PV panel itself, as it is the part responsible for the conversion of solar energy to electricity. Thus, the theory of PV panels has been included in the curriculum of most educational institutes with an engineering course. However, it is well known how important the role of hands-on experience is in engineering education and hence, the theoretical study should be combined with experimentation in order for the students to be able to apply the theory of a specific device in actual conditions. Nowadays, the traditional approach of educational sessions in real laboratories is changing, with the virtual and remote laboratories gaining ground. This is attributed to the rapid developments and adoption of computer, internet and control technologies. A remote laboratory offers the ability to perform an extensive set of educational experiments under real conditions through the internet and within a very short time. At the same time, the student can have a live view of the systems through a web camera, offering him/her a sense of personal presence in the place where the experiment takes place. This project suggests the development of an open access remote PV laboratory for educational purposes. The remote PV laboratory, which will consist of specialized PV equipment, sensors, monitoring and control hardware, will be installed outdoors at the facilities of the OU, and allowing the users from India to perform real-world tests and experiments with photovoltaic panels over the internet, in real time. The system should be accessible by everyone on the planet with an internet access . It also should be accompanied by appropriate educational material, for several target groups, such as students, postgraduates, professionals and educators, allowing it to be used by a broad variety of users directly. The design should also be modular, to be easy to modify and or upgrade.

Ogden Science Officer / Citizen Science Research Fellow

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Co-investigator01/Sep/201531/Aug/2018The Ogden Trust
The Ogden Trust is providing matched funding to a maximum of £75k for 3 years for an 0.5 FTE outreach post, that we can add to the ASTERICS post and can therefore recruit a full-time postdoctoral research assistant.

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