Barbara Oakley Speaker

Barbara Oakley

Barbara Oakley is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, involved in multiple areas of research ranging from STEM education to Engineering education, to learning practices

Barbara Oakley: Biography highlights

Barbara is one of a kind. Highly energetic with terrific stories and a great sense of humour she always manages to get the right messages across to any kind of audience.

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Full biography of Barbara Oakley

Barbara Oakley’s background

Barbara Oakley, PhD, PE is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Her work focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior. Dr. Oakley’s research has been described as “revolutionary” in the Wall Street Journal. She is published in outlets as varied as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. She has won numerous teaching awards, including Oakland University’s top award for tenured faculty. Her book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), (Penguin, 2014) is a New York Times best-selling science book.

Dr. Oakley started studying engineering later than most – her original intention was to become a linguist. She enlisted in the U.S. Army right after high school and spent a year studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. The Army sent her to the University of Washington where she received her first degree in Slavic Languages and Literature. Barbara served four years in Germany as a Signal Officer rising to the rank of Captain. After she left the Army, she studied engineering so that she could “better understand the communications equipment [she] had been working with”.

Dr. Oakley has adventured widely through her lifetime. During her time in the U.S. Army, she was recognised as a Distinguished Military Scholar.

It was during her work as a communications expert at the South Pole Station in Antarctica where she met her husband Philip. They married when they got “off the ice” in New Zealand and, with her second degree (in Electrical Engineering) under her belt, Barbara spent three years working as an instrumentation and controls engineer. She worked briefly for the Ford Motor Corporation before beginning a career in consulting. She received an M.S. degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1995 and a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering in 1998. After her graduation, she was invited to continue on as professor at Oakland University.

Oakley also spent some time working as a Russian translator on board Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea, an experience about which she wrote in her book “Hair of the Dog: Tales from a Russian Trawler”.


  • Ph.D. in Systems Engineering, Oakland University
  • Master of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Oakland University
  • Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, University of Washington
  • Bachelor of Arts in Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Washington
  • Various courses on electromagnetic interference taught by Don White and Consultants of Interference Control Technologies. Other courses through Ford Motor Company on Statistical Process Control, Root Cause Analysis and Audio Systems Engineering.
  • NSF Optics Short Course
  • United States Army Signal Officer Course, Fort Gordon, Georgia
  • Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California

Awards & Honours

  • Appointed to Senior Member, IEEE, 2002
  • Naim and Ferial Kheir Teaching Award, 2002
  • John D. and Dortha J. Withrow Teaching Award, 2001
  • National Science Foundation New Century Scholar, 1999
  • Election as “Eminent Engineer” into Tau Beta Pi, 1999
  • National Science Foundation New Faculty Fellow, 1998
  • Excellence in Teaching Assistance, Oakland University, 1998
  • De Vlieg Graduate Fellowship, Oakland University, 1996-98
  • Mary Kay Davis Literary Award, Oakland University, 1994
  • Certificate of Merit for Outstanding Academic Achievement, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Oakland University, (two awards), Fall 1993 and Winter, 1994
  • First Place, Pacific Northwest Writers’ Conference Literary Awards, 1990
  • Graduation cum laude in Electrical Engineering, University of Washington, l986
  • Electric Energy Scholarship (two awards), Electric Energy Industrial Consortium, l985-86
  • Antarctic Services Medal, National Science Foundation, l984
  • Distinguished Military Scholar and Graduate, U.S. Army, l977
  • Graduation with Distinction in Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Washington, 1977
  • Association of the United States Army Award, 1976
  • All-Army In-Service ROTC Scholarship, U.S. Army, 1975

Further information

With her husband Philip, Barbara has two daughters as well as two adopted sons who are originally from Kosovo. She is also an elected Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.



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Watch Barbara in action

1/5 videos
Learning how to learn | Barbara Oakley | TEDxOaklandUniversity
Learning how to learn | Barbara Oakley | TEDxOaklandUniversity
Barbara Oakley | Learning How to Learn | Talks at Google
Barbara Oakley | Learning How to Learn | Talks at Google
Barbara Oakley on Greg Gutfeld's Redeye 7-28-2011
Barbara Oakley on Greg Gutfeld's Redeye 7-28-2011
Barbara Oakley
Barbara Oakley
Anand Satheesh: Interview with Prof. Barbara Oakley
Anand Satheesh: Interview with Prof. Barbara Oakley
Mental Health Academy Campus College

Barbara is a fantastic speaker, author, researcher, and educator. Her knowledge and enthusiasm are matched by her intelligence and hands-on approach to life. To top it all off, she is kind, friendly and funny. 10 out of 10!'

Pedro Gondim

'A good teacher will leave you educated. But a great teacher will leave you curious. Well, Barbara Oakley is a great teacher. Not only does she have a mind for numbers, she has a way with words, and she makes every one of them count.'

Mike Rowe
Creator and host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" and CEO of mikeroweWORKS
Harvard University

Praise for Pathological Altruism: 'What a wonderful book! This is one of the few books in evolutionary biology I've read in the past ten years that taught me something completely new.'

E. O. Wilson
Harvard University

Praise for Evil Genes: 'A fascinating scientific and personal exploration of the roots of evil, filled with human insight and telling detail.'

Steven Pinker
Johnstone Professor

Praise for Practicing Sustainability: 'Delightful...the chapters are gems of precision and insight.'

Michael Spence
Nobel Prize Winner in Economics
Library Journal Review

Praise for A (mind for) numbers: 'VERDICT: Superb not only for those who are struggling or who are expert at math, but for readers who wish to think and comprehend more efficiently.'

University of California

'A wonderful book! How do you come to love math and science, and how do you come to learn math and science? Read A Mind for Numbers. Barbara Oakley is the magician who will help you do both.'

Francisco J. Ayala, University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences
Princeton University

Praise for Cold-blooded kindness: 'Riveting and disturbing, an investigation into American-heartland pathos in which 'guilt,' 'innocence,' 'victim,' 'perpetrator,' come to seem almost hopelessly tangled. Barbara Oakley is to be commended for looking so hard and so closely at the motives, in some, that underlie acts of 'kindness' and 'altruism'-suggesting that things are not always as they appear, and the phrase killed with kindness springs from the absolute bedrock of folk wisdom.'

Joyce Carol Oates
Professor of the Arts
U.S. National Academy of Sciences

Praise for Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology: 'I am very impressed with the enormous dedication and skill that created this major, highly-original contribution. I know of nothing like it.'

Dr. Bruce Alberts
President Emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Co-chair of the InterAcademy Council

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