About CSci

  • Adrian Oldknow
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Adrian Oldknow
Featured Profile: 
At A Glance
Licensed Body: 
Scientist Type: 
South East
First Degree: 
Emeritus Professor/ educational consultant
Works For: 
MA Mathematics, Oxford University MTech Computer Science, Brunel University
Pet Hates: 
People stating the obvious; heavily funded research to prove the obvious
Burning Ambition: 
To try to get an exciting and rational view of science and maths education out there – something that resonates with the younger generation
One of the real difficulties with education is everyone’s had one, and only one. I guess probably it’s this business of being able to put a preconception away and be open-minded and listen with open ears. If only people would be a bit more understanding and open-minded. I’d like to be able to wipe my mind
Big Picture
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 
Originally I wanted to be a barrister. I was lucky to attend a rather peculiar school (a normal state school with an ambitious head who liked his bright kids). From there I received a scholarship to city London school which paid my fees. Being at a Boys’ Day public school there was plenty of opportunities to argue and dispute, which I loved, and which made me think I might turn into a barrister
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist? 
In my case it was an extremely good Head of Maths called Cyril Knobbs who had a very, very engaging way. Also – the science we did was really quite interesting. We never did anything biological, it was all physical and chemical
What do you love about your job and being a “scientist”? 
I’m a mongrel type of character. I’ve never been a lab-based character. My science is maths. When I was a student this meant I didn’t have to be in the lab all the time, I could go out and row! I love being a problem-solver
What would you change? 
When I was at school in the early 60s, life was very different. There was very little career advice and there were competitive assumptions about going to Oxford. It was very difficult to think if you weren’t going to be a Maths don, what else were you going to do? I wish I’d known rather more about the career possibilities out there. I had this idea you’d be locked away in an office all on your own where people would occasionally throw sandwiches at you until you came up with the equation necessary for the independent suspension of the mini – I wasn’t sure I could do that on my own! I admired Herman Bondy, who was the government chief scientist in the early 70s. He was a relativist and took a very sanguine view about the top-down education system where you’re always trying to educate a smaller and smaller niche. He was president of the applied mathematicians’ lot. He did an analysis of how many PHD students you need to get post-doc qualifications to maintain staffing ratios at universities which cut across the ivory town establishment
What qualifications did you take at school? 
I was part of a generation of accelerated students – we took O’Levels in 4 years (in my case, Maths, further Maths, French and German, Latin, Physics, and Chemistry). For A-levels, I did Maths, Further Maths, and Physics
Why did you choose your first degree subject? 
My first degree, from Oxford in 1967, was called Mathematics, but was very much the methods of 19th century mathematical physics mixed with some “modern mathematics” – like linear algebra, and some modern science, like quantum mechanics. It also included classical mechanics, potential theory, and electrical theory. This was at a time when the first transistors were coming on to the scene
Do you have a Masters or PhD? If not, was it difficult to demonstrate Masters-level equivalence in order to achieve CSci? 
My second degree, an MTech from Brunel in 1973, was called Computer Science, but was really a mixture of systems design, engineering, computer graphics, applied mathematics, cybernetics, numerical analysis and modelling. At Oxbrige you’re able to buy yourself an MA in mathematics…so I was able to “upgrade” my Mathematics degree
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? 
I retired just before my 51st birthday and have now had over 12 years in retirement. The advantage of being self-employed is you to tend to get interesting jobs, but you also have too many deadlines. I tell people I advise ICT (information and communications technology) technology companies (i.e. Intel, Texas Instruments, HP). I advise these companies how to design products that will improve maths and science education or STEM. The strength of STEM is that it’s cross-curricular and can build on group talents
What is ‘cutting-edge’ about your work? 
My niche is to keep my ear close to what’s going on in the technological development side of the IT industry. I look at trends like the proliferation of toy gadgets for adults like the PDA, iPhones and iPods and see how that technology can be applied elsewhere. Laptops are now much more accessible to everyone now with a new generation of micro-processors and prices continuing to drop (we’ve seen the first $200 laptop). My job is to realize the educational potential of what’s out there and bridge the divide between what’s coming up on the consumer market and what could be made available to education. I’m working on a big project in the U.S. now called SimCalc run by Jim Kaput. It’s about the democratization of maths and science as well as the cheapness of devices, for example, £2 for a GPS chip. There is a lot of opportunity to widen access to maths and maths technologies in different countries like China and India
Describe some of the highlights of your average day. 
The first glass of nice cold wine in the evening, say a Chablis. It’s also never quite knowing what’s going to come up next. The frustration is always feeling I don’t have time to do it properly, but it does mean you don’t get bored. The variety is terrific
Describe briefly how your career has progressed to date. 
My work has been 95% routed in education. At the age of 63 I have given up the teaching career (schools, FE and HE) and until recently have been an educational consultant specialising in the use of ICT to enhance mathematics teaching and learning for students aged 11-21. My main mathematical interests (and research) have been in the fields of mathematical modelling (across the sciences) and geometry (including computer graphics). After leaving school and meeting my wife, the career plan of becoming an academic wasn’t on so I decided to go into school teaching. I planned to do a Diploma in Education (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) but in those days you could just go into school and teach. I started teaching in State schools in Surrey doing 6th Form Science. I went in during the first wave of expansion of computing (in late 60s, early 70s). I got involved in computer science and education about computing. This took me into further education in Berkshire. I moved into teacher training and was involved in helping prepare new teachers. I’ve done this for the majority of my career (mostly Maths and IT). I also got involved in post-graduate work, working with MA students, and curriculum development, writing and developing new courses (1990 Nuffield Advanced Mathematics). I also do my own research and made some of my own discoveries in geometry. One of the more exciting jobs I’ve done was to head up a Royal Society Group on the teaching of Geometry (a project over 18 months which was published in 2000). It was a big challenge and significantly varied viewpoints about education were represented. The other side of my work over last 10 years has been working with professional associations like the MA (Mathematical Association) and the IMA. I’m a member of council for both of those, I’ve edited IMA’s education journal, and chaired an MA professional development agency
How is your job cross-disciplinary? 
I’ve always enjoyed the company of and conversation with colleagues in arts and humanities because mathematicians are often thought to have clearer views about structures and organization. I’m often asked to be on development groups for new degrees, and I also contribute to general issues about student issues and resourcing. I like the organizational side of things, as well as mixture of creative, analytic and sporting. At the moment I’m working with the Youth Sports Trust. There are ten of us looking at how sports can be used as a vehicle for making core subjects more interesting to students and get them more involved and improve their standards
What’s the most unexpected thing about your job? 
You never know what’s going to come up – education doesn’t stop evolving and life doesn’t grind to a halt because of a recession. Working for myself I’ve found the negative side is not having colleagues. I’m used to having a common room to go to where I’d interact with other people. Or access to another dept you could go to ask a question. I don’t bump into people. It came as a bit of a surprise. My advice is, if you can, build a small group of associates with whom you do joint projects. At least you’ve got some sense of proportion that way. Otherwise, for example, when you write something you don’t have anyone to run it by or critique it.
What’s the biggest achievement of your career so far? 
I like to take software systems that have been developed for serious problem-solving in sciences and see if they can be made successful for education. In order to do that you’ve got to give yourself a problem to see if you can crack it using those tools. My research has been along the lines of “let me take a problem I can’t solve and using new tools – putting money where my mouth is –end up in a better position to say something about it to the wide public.” One of my biggest achievements has been making a discovery in geometry with the tools that have become available which I don’t think would have otherwise been feasible. I’ve discovered a number of geometrical points (“fermat point”, “Aeuler liner”) which I’ve named after me and my friends. It was always there to be discovered – but the tools finally allowed it
What do your friends and family think about your job? 
My wife has a completely different background (English and drama). When I was made a professor the family thought that was a high achievement for someone coming from my background. When we go into the details of anything I do, their eyes tend to glaze over. My son did a Physics degree and specializes in intellectual property law – he now works Microsoft. We have a lot of conversations
What kind of hobbies or extracurricular activities do you do to relax? 
I do play proper tennis and swim a bit. I like going to theatre and concerts. We like travel particularly to France. I play the saxophone very badly
Why did you choose to apply for CSci and what do you value most about being a Chartered Scientist? 
There was period when nobody was chartered. I was on the IMA council when we saw through the introduction of the Chartered Mathematician status. It seemed to me this was a way of making sure that you’d done the appropriate professional development to be involved in the professional practice of your profession. I got Chartered Mathematician first because I’m a member of the British Computing Society (connected to Engineers). I then found I was entitled to apply to become a Chartered Engineer (because I’m a software engineer). It’s a way of providing access to a community more than just sitting on the fringe. Next I became a Chartered IT professional. Then the Science Council got started. Suddenly the route to becoming a Chartered Scientist came up. I’m one of the very few chartered STEMS – I’m a chartered scientist, chartered Information Technologist, Chartered Engineer and Chartered Mathematician. That’s where I see my routes…in the interface between those subjects
How important is CPD? What do you think of the revalidation process in ensuring that CSci is a mark of current competence? 
I don’t do courses anymore. Very occasionally I pick up a skill by phoning someone, but mostly I do CPD though professional journals and conferences. I get to three to four international conferences as year, sometimes as organizer or keynote speaker. My CPD is finding out who does interesting stuff in their field and sometimes doing collaborative work with them.
Advice & Reflection
What words of wisdom would you give someone interested in getting into your field? 
I was given very good advice when I tried to get developments going in the early days from a governor who basically said “find out as much as you can, as quickly as you can, don’t keep it to yourself, but publish it. Get your name known.” Some people may be luckier than others at finding niches where developments do happen quickly. If you’re eager for knowledge and excited for new developments and you can find someone to back your ideas…don’t hold back…go for it! But make sure you publish what you’ve done. And that’s what made the difference. If I hadn’t acted on that advice, I would have had a much easier but far less fulfilling career
How important is the mentoring process in your field and to you personally? 
It has been important to me both ways. I was lucky in my 20s and 30s to come across three or four individuals who encouraged me. I started off in teacher education where there was still the old HMI (Her Majesty Inspectors). I got involved in planning inspections and I still keep in touch with a significant figure (the Chief Maths HMI) from that generation. There have been a handful of people who have been enormously helpful to my career…in return I try to get younger people involved in either co-directing or co-chairing/authoring projects with me…to help them flap their wings and fly
How would you define “professionalism”? 
Professionalism is easier to define when you have a narrower client base. My professionalism is education. In the end it’s the good old Victorianism “do as you would be done by.” One wants both sides: people who feel fulfilled and have the opportunity to develop their talents and you also want society to be able to draw on the best contributions from its members. We don’t want everybody going off and doing drama studies
What would you do differently if you were starting out in your career now? 
I think I would probably spend a little more effort finding out what other people did and what they thought the good and bad things were about it
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