Why Computer Science is unlike other subjects taught in schools

by Richard Yorke

As part of our work supporting the NCSC’s Cyber Schools Hub Deep3 was invited to take part in a Dragon’s Den session at Wyedean School near Chepstow - incidentally the school that Harry Potter writer, JK Rowling attended. Emma Williams, Head of Computer Science at the school, asked her students (the majority of which are girls by the way) what they felt could be done to inspire the next generation of kids to take up Computer Science and start on a career path in cyber and technology. They decided to run a Dragon’s Den session whereby students from year 9 (13-14 years old) and year 12 (16-17 years old) would pitch to a panel of people from the cyber industry and attempt to obtain backing for their projects which aimed to inspire, excite and enthuse kids and thereby encourage take up of the subject.

What a morning it was! Being honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the session but as a someone working in the cyber and technology industry and a father of two kids who will be making their own career choices in the coming years, I came away feeling inspired, enlightened and also somewhat humbled by the experience.

I could write all day about the many things I learned from being there and I have many questions spinning around my head as a result. For example:

  • How has Emma been able to do what very few other Computer Science teachers (or companies for that matter!) have done and attract and build an all female team? I will be selfishly asking her for help and guidance on this as we strive to attract more female techies to work at Deep3.
  • How have Wyedean been able to inspire significantly more girls to take up Computer Science at GCSE? I suspect the answer has a lot to do with the all female teaching team but there must also be something in the content and approach of the teaching that is being delivered.
  • How did the kids learn to present so confidently at such a young age? They didn’t seem fazed by the event or the challenging questions being thrown at them. Perhaps me spilling coffee down my shirt in the preliminaries helped to break the ice a bit! Or, just maybe, it was down to the fact to the kids were confident because they were talking about a subject they were clearly passionate about and well informed in.

Important as these questions are, the overriding point I took away from the session was that Computer Science is unlike most, if not all, other subjects taught in schools. Take Maths for example, teaching methods may have adapted over the years but the fundamentals of the subject haven’t changed and won’t ever change. Pythagorean rules of geometry won’t be any different in 50 years time to what they were when the great man defined them back in 100 BC.

Computer Science is a different kettle of fish. Yes, the fundamental principles of how computers work (notwithstanding quantum computing) haven’t changed but the way the related technology is used changes at an astonishing rate. Therefore, in order for the subject to be relevant in the face of constant change and advances in technology, the curriculum has to be constantly evolving and adapting as well.

The subject also needs to have a creative focus, equipping future cyber technologists with the ability to think creatively about how future technological advances (that we can’t envisage today) can solve the challenges of tomorrow. As two 14 year old said, as they eloquently pitched and brought to life the benefits of using Virtual Reality in the classroom, “the technology of today could not have been taught in schools 20 years ago because it didn’t exist”.

It amazed me that so many of the 14 and 16 year old kids I had the privilege of meeting not only understood this issue but also had ideas for how to address it and were passionate about bringing the subject to life. However, they and their teachers need support to put these ideas into action. And so, after a great morning at Wyedean, it quickly became clear to me that to make Computer Science in schools relevant and ensure it prepares the technologists of tomorrow for the world they will face in 5 or 10 year’s time, industry must step up and play an active role in both shaping and delivering aspects of the curriculum. We must also support Computer Science teachers to help them keep abreast of advances in technology and help them develop hands on, repeatable content.

This is why Deep3, along with the other like-minded businesses involved in the NCSC Cyber Schools Hub are investing time and effort, working with Computer Science teachers and pupils to develop content and inspire the next generation.

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