Computer Science – no one knows what it is

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?

8 thoughts on “Computer Science – no one knows what it is

  1. I share similar experiences and encounters with children, when they have struggled to explain what CS is.

    This is what inspired me to plan the Hack To The Future event to allow children to experience some CS and meet practitioners.

    Perhaps you would be interested in a H2DF event near you?

    On our wiki, there is a page for people wanting to visit a H2DF near them.

    1. I will have a look at the site – I have followed what you’ve said about it on Twitter. One question – why is the wiki URL so horrific? I’ve been put off clicking it before because it looks like some horrendous spam link!

  2. Are you aware of recent government statements to the effect that they regard the entire current ICT syllabus as unhelpful? It looks like they plan to develop a new three-pronged syllabus (IT, CS and Computer Literacy) with the aid of academia and industry. I am not aware what actions are currently being taken, but it is at least a promising acknowledgement of the current syllabus’ inadequacy.

    1. Yes of course – I mentioned the most publicised quote from the announcement week about ICT being “harmful” in the blog post and I’m aware of the Royal Society’s recommendations. However, even if this does happen we still all have some work to do to convince the adult generation that CS is a worthwhile subject.

  3. Haha… that sounds exactly like what one of my friends always says about the incoming freshman — “I want to do engineering. And I like computers! I’m going to do Computer Science!”

    Once you get past the coding classes and step into algorithms, automata theory, and all that other magic, you notice the herd begin to thin out. For me, on the other hand, going beyond if-statements and for-loops was what made me decide to pursue my own “PhD in Computers”. 🙂

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