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The Owers Lecture 2009

Oracle HQ London December 2009

The 2009 Owers lecture, yet again, generated a lively discussion following an inspirational presentation on Robotics by Kate Sim.

 

SH MO KS SO Owers

Stephen Heppell, Mary Owers, Kate Sim, Stan Owers and a Robot

Kate Sim explained her work with robotics as part school teacher and part Open University lecturer. The audience were grateful that there are still teachers like Kate who have found their way around the many constraints of finance, curriculum and formulaic testing to inspire students to world class achievements.

Examples were given of girls employing systems and control technology to control robots. The clear message was that girls are attracted to computing and technology given the right environment and approach; more than that, they are outstanding when they are allowed to be. More on Kate’s presentation in a separate report to follow.
Professor Stephen Heppell responded and ignited the debate with some sharp observations about the condition of our current curriculum, methods of assessment and sadly, pervasive attitudes inhibiting our education system.

A question asked of Stephen Heppell when he proposed a computer science course; “Where will we get the teachers?” “Exactly”, was his reply.

The discussion started with low spirits both Kate and Stephen highlighted what many of the audience knew, that computing and technology education needed for the 21st century is damaged and under threat. However the fact that the system is under so much strain, and predicted by Stephen to eventually collapse, offers hope as growing pockets of innovation develop here and across the world. At a time when we are constantly reminded about the threat from terrorists, financial collapse and climate change it appears we should be grateful that there are subversives in education. They, Stephen argued, offered hope and pragmatic solutions.

The audience with representatives in all levels of education and various technology organisations soon generated a well informed debate punctuated with some revealing anecdotes.

Ian Sillet

Ian Sillet raised the problem of risk aversion  in education

Patrick Millwood explained that his university course group in Mathematics was 168 strong. More than half are female but many of them are foreign students. He also explained how his brother was an accomplished programmer but self-taught because his school did not offer that option. Interestingly his brother had connected with others for support including a Cambridge university lecturer. Stephen Heppell predicted that 40% of young people would not be in schools in ten years time.

The key points were focused around the inappropriate curriculum, testing and ‘quality control’ and attitudes communicated to girls in a variety of ways. Why is Lego in the boys’ section of ToysRUs? All of this restrictive mixture was considered to be compounded by a risk-averse culture.

Illustrations were given of ICT examination courses which supplant theory with practice and do not reflect the real world of computer technologies. Ian Sillet raised the issue of risk aversion which was taken-up by Richard Green director of DATA. Richard described how, very recently, a keen and capable young female teacher had carefully developed an interest and capability in systems and control in her school and approached her headteacher to ask if she could offer it at GCSE level. The headteacher refused on the grounds that it was a ‘difficult’ exam and risked the schools’ league table status.

Richard Green
Richard Green of DATA described how 'Systems and Control' was considered difficult and threatened league table positions

Kate Sim had earlier explained how she had only been able to finance her robotics activities by exploiting short term funding for the gifted and talented.

The debate continues but hopefully not too long before the country awakens to threat highlighted by Stan Owers and realises that to combat terrorism, global warming and computer dependent financial systems requires the practical, creative and problem solving skills of engineers.

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The Owers Lecture is sponsored by Oracle