SATURDAY, 7 MAY 2011The success of the film The Social Network reminds us that a programmer with a bright idea can land extraordinary opportunities. Veteran British games designer Peter Molyneux has just been awarded a fellowship at the BAFTA video games awards. From an economic perspective the value added to the EU economy from IT products and services was estimated to be around £480m each year. For those with friends studying computer science at university, you will find they are unlikely to be as worried about finding a job as the rest of us.
Yet computing is facing a serious supply problem; over the last ten years applications to university computer science courses fell by around 60%. In response to this, the Royal Society commissioned a study into the state of computing teaching in schools. There are a number of possible reasons. Some of these were certainly predictable. For example, the political planning and campaign on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) did not include computing explicitly as an area for focus.
An even larger issue is the way that young people are taught computing. School curriculums focus on menial tasks such as how to write spreadsheets, rather than looking at the more technical and fundamental aspects of how computers work. Without this understanding, students are not inspired to imagine what computing is capable of. It is this issue that those in the computing industry cite as being the most pertinent. The pioneering computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra neatly summed up this feeling by noting that “computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”
It is difficult to tell how things will go. The Royal Society is due to report back later this year, but no one expects things to change overnight. For comparison, the decline in school-level physics began in the mid-90s and improvements have only been seen in the last few years. It might well be that “a week is a long time in politics”, but when it comes to making lasting changes, a decade is not long enough.
Either way, it is difficult to dismiss this problem out of hand; a recent survey by the Science Council indicated that almost all science and technology jobs in the coming years will depend increasingly on computing. At a time where the economic future is uncertain and we look to science as the way forward, better computing teaching will surely take us a long way.
Anders Aufderhorst-Roberts is a PhD student in the Department of Physics.