Visiting Microsoft Research in Cambridge

MSRCambridge Yesterday was a great day - I’d been looking forward to it for a while, because I went to visit the Microsoft Research offices in Cambridge – our European centre for research linked to universities across the whole of Europe. The meeting (for colleagues from UK education team) was hosted by Andrew Herbert who’s Managing Director of the UK side of Microsoft Research (MSR). To put it simply, I was feeling like a child back at school – all of these great brains in the building, a certain feeling of awe, and an expectation of learning great things. And the day didn’t disappoint.

Microsoft Research has around 1,000 researchers worldwide – the main labs in Redmond house 400, and Cambridge (the first overseas lab) now has 140. There are also international labs in Bangalore and Beijing. And in Beijing, they are actually recognised as a PhD awarding institution – in effect, being seen as a research university, not simply as a commercial organisation.

We started off talking skills. One of the things that surprised me is that in Computer Science at university level, computing qualifications are not as critical as mathematics ones. At Cambridge University, for example, you need maths and higher maths to get into computer science, not computing qualifications. Whereas IT skills are important to employers and in daily life – things like email, searching, data handling. Generally the deeper IT skills - eg programming - are less well covered through schools today.

* Declaration: I learnt IT in an age when “J>103” meant something to everybody in the IT classroom. (Just lost all people under 38 and international readers!)

Which means that some of Andrew’s work involves reaching out to schools, through a series of projects:

  • Raising the profile of computing science. For example, one of the researchers from Cambridge will be giving the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, to be broadcast on TV in December.
  • Annually, the team run a lecture for sixth form students from schools in Cambridgeshire – this year for 500 students. Essentially it’s at the same level as the normal Research Lectures the team give, only marginally modified from the material that they would present to an academic conference. The event involves researchers from the Microsoft team, and a number of other universities’ researchers.
    There’s a DVD from last year (which I haven’t yet seen). Let me know if you’d like one, and I’ll see if I can get one for you.
  • A group of teachers from local schools are engaged in a project to develop a deeper computer science course to run alongside IT skills from the mainstream syllabus. Not just for students, but also to help teachers build their own confidence in how they can stretch the curriculum boundaries. 

If you want to know a little more about the work of the Microsoft Research team, take a look at their nice brochure (PDF)

But I bet whilst that may be interesting, it’s not fascinating. I bet you want to know “What cool stuff did you see Ray?”.

  • The good news – I’ve got lots I can tell you about.
  • The bad news – you’ll have to wait until tomorrow when I get a chance to write some of it here…
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