We need to teach children computer science

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning had a section on children not being taught computer science. so says a variety of employers who cannot find the staff they need. It seems entry to Computer Sciences degrees has been dropping over the years and the current ICT course at school are to blame.

I was at school in the first generation to get access to computers. I did Computer Sciences O level (1982 I think, it is a while ago) and we learnt about flowcharts, CPU, memory and programmed in BASIC on a teletype and sent 5 hole punch paper tape off to a local Polytechnic for processing and a week or so later got back a printout saying error on line 10 (and my staff today complain about their slow PCs!).  During the course we did at least move onto a Tandy TRS80 so it did get a bit more immediate.

My sister is 4 years younger than me, and one of the first group to do GSCE, she also did Computer Science, but in those few short years the course was already moving towards using a computer as opposed to programming/how it works, though she did have access to a BBC Micro I don’t remember her ever writing code beyond making a Turtle robot draw a box. This trend to consumption instead of creation seems to have continued onwards. My son who is 9 now uses a computer for many lessons, but only it seems to look things up.

On listening to the radio article, I agreed it is good to teach the ‘how it works’ for computing, just as it is reasonable to know roughly how my car works, though I have no real intention of trying to fix it. A basic understanding of any tools allow you to use it to its best advantage. However, the biggest advantage of Computer Science in schools to me, which they failed to mention, is it teaches logical thinking and fault finding in an unforgiving world. When coding if you miss that semi colon off nothing is going to work.

This sort of skill that is vital in most modern jobs. At Black Marble we have been involved in this area for years, such as being the corporate sponsor/advisors of  the 2007 UK Winners in Microsoft Imaging Cup with ‘My First Programming Language’. This aimed to teach junior school children how to solve logical problems and program. It also actually addressed one of the issue mentioned in the radio article, the lack of teachers with programming skills (you can’t rely in a keen maths teacher who had built their own computers as my school did on the 80s). It incorporated some AI technology to do the first diagnostic to try to fix the code the student had written before interrupting the teacher, think a complier that can fix the code and explain why the student’s code has failed to the student. This is important when the teacher has 20+ children to help so can only give each one a few minutes.

During this project, and other research work we have done, it showed that many people can benefit from knowing just a little on how to program, not just school children. A good example is the office worker who if they can write an Excel macro can save themselves 20 minutes a day. This adds up so they can save themselves around 60 hours a year and probably reduces there number of errors in calculation too.

I agreed with a recent point on a Herding Code podcast that many people of my age got into computing because they were typing in games from the front of magazines in the 80s With a bit of application you could see how your favourite arcade games worked. This is less true of todays popular games, an XBox title is more like a 3D movie when all you can create is a holiday snap, it is just too big to comprehend. However, the games on phones and PDAs are more accessible, a kid in the garage can see how they work and create their own games and applications with relative ease, it is back like being the late 80s or early 90s.

So I do hope there is a move back to a real Computer Science in schools. It is not as if there are no jobs in this sector.

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