A short conversation with a Year 10 girl this week made me realise something sad – most students have no idea what Computer Science actually is. The girl referred to a colleague from my department who does not have a PhD as “Dr _X_”. (Well not literally Dr X, that makes him sound like a Bond villain or something – just that I have omitted his real name.) When I informed her that Mr X would be very pleased to know he now had a PhD, she said something along the lines of “oh yes how silly, how could you have a PhD in Computers”.
I started to think about this comment a bit more carefully and I realised that the majority of students basically have no idea how their perception of “using a computer at school” translates to “a degree/PhD/useful qualification in Computer Science”. They have no idea of all the mathematics behind the subject, all of the logic, computation, design, systems analysis, everything good that comprises studying Computer Science at university – which makes me very sad. I remember turning up to my first university logic lecture (which regular readers will remember, was not trivial) thinking “eh, this isn’t what I signed up for”. That’s right, I admit it – I signed up for a Computer Science degree with absolutely no idea of what I was signing up for, other than the fact I liked computers and needed to do a degree. I remember wondering why I had to do Maths when that wasn’t what I’d signed up for and bitterly regretted not taking Maths A-Level. (Still do.) Happily though, I loved every minute of Computer Science!
Clearly what we are offering at the moment at school in KS3/4 is not getting this message across, and even though Michael Gove’s comment about ICT being “harmful” has been totally unhelpful and very skewed by the media, it may be the case if we are putting students off before they even find out about how exciting CS can be. One group of Year 9’s who questioned the value of what they were learning after watching some of the coverage during the BETT week were completely baffled when I pointed out that to create a video game you need Maths and Physics, as well as artists and designers – they just couldn’t see how the subjects were remotely related.
However, it’s not just students that need to know what Computer Science is really all about – it’s all the other people who have an influence on their life and their choices. Parents, careers advisors, form tutors – some of those people probably think studying Computer Science is the equivalent of (to borrow a quote from Bridget Jones’ Diary) “swanning in in your short skirt and fannying around with the press releases”. I don’t blame them for this, it’s just that most people either a) have no experience of what a Computing lesson is like because they never had them at school or b) have a negative experience from being taught ICT at school. Every adult knows what happens in a maths lesson, we’ve all had them, but very few know what happens in a Computing lesson – so how can we be expecting them to recommend the subject?