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Why are fewer students pursuing computer sciences into higher education?

Robert Banks, sales manager at FUZE Technologies, discusses the lack of comp sci students at universities in the UK

In 2011, Ian Livingstone brought our attention to the world of computer sciences and the rising problem in the UK’s education system, that fewer and fewer qualified programmers were leaving schools to supply one of the UK’s most successful and lucrative industries. Almost eight years later and this is still a sentiment shared by many, though talk surrounding it is certainly quieter. Move forward to 2017 and even with a surge of support to encourage retention levels among studious minds, just shy of 50% of students cited that they were simply not interested in pursuing computer sciences (Royal Society Report).

So why is it that computer science still remains unattractive for the modern-day student? What factors may be preventing the spark needed to ignite these creative minds to produce the next big innovation in the world of technology? From my experience in the field, these are the points I hear echoed back time and time again from parents, teachers and students alike.

  1. Primary teachers are less likely to be supported

With qualified STEM teachers being in quite high demand, it’s often rare to find a dedicated computer science teacher within a primary school. More often than not, a school struggling to juggle resources will assign the task to a teacher, along with a host of free resources, which offer ease of access for teachers and students alike. The only difficulty with this is that quite often the core concepts of programming can easily be lost in translation as students simply tick the boxes of the activity, without being able to ‘open the hood’ as it were, and explore what makes the program function and tweak it to reward inquisitive minds with new results. This can prove especially frustrating for secondary teachers dedicated to the role of delivering computer sciences, because they often need to start from the basics and work their way up.

With qualified STEM teachers being in quite high demand, it’s often rare to find a dedicated computer science teacher within a primary school.

  1. Fatigue from using foundation resources for too long

Scratch is a fantastic tool for introducing the potential of coding and adding creative flare to it and with 38% of primary schools adopting it, there’s also no shortage of resources and commercial products available to support it. It’s a great way to introduce someone to coding, however we often see this entry level application used from early years all the way through to year 9, which is far too long. To equate this, this would be much like asking English literature students to practice Shakespeare using numbered building blocks, without the room to make errors through writing the words individually.

  1. Other languages are often deemed too difficult for students

Surprisingly, only around 10% of students stated that they found computer sciences to be too difficult to take on, yet quite often students are underestimated in their capabilities. The commonly seen pathway of progression in schools is a simple ‘Scratch to Python’ transition, yet this is quite a large gap between the two languages, with the latter often arriving too late for retention to be held. Our experience comes from teaching FUZE, which students from ages 7 all the way up to undergrads can quickly grasp in as little as an hour’s session, with code that’s written from the ground up. We see students using text-based coding with both a high degree of competency and a joy for the challenges unique to it. With a greater window for creativity, there also comes natural occurring ‘bugs’ or errors that can come from absent syntax (symbols, instructions) or spelling errors which take children out of the hand holding environment just enough to engage their problem-solving abilities.

  1. Less than half of our schools were offering it as an option three years ago

The secondary reason cited by students themselves for not wanting to take the subject, was that it wasn’t even offered as a choice at their school. In a world where technology is constantly evolving and with each new innovation or development in science, comes the possibility of new work opportunities requiring computational skills to access these roles which currently are among some of the highest in demand, with many occupations being outsourced to those outside of the UK.

Surprisingly, only around 10% of students stated that they found computer sciences to be too difficult to take on, yet quite often students are underestimated in their capabilities.

  1. Potential application not being translated into everyday purposes

When talking about computer science occupations, you might quickly conjure the image of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg. You may also turn to the video game industry, that Ian Livingstone himself represented. Quite often the professions suited to analytical and creative minds may seem worlds apart, so now more than ever it’s important to do our part in inspiring a variety of students to see the potential behind creating technology, rather than just using it.

The data can be read quite easily to find our answers:

  • Teachers and schools aren’t receiving the support they need to teach this vital skill.
  • Computer science is not being delivered with enough variety to retain engagement.
  • Students are being underestimated in what they can understand and process.
  • Schools simply aren’t offering it as an option.
  • We’re failing to inspire students and show them the potential found within computer sciences.

These are the same problems that we found almost a decade ago, with the problems still clear as day now as they were back then, so it feels to me that the question is less “Why aren’t they taking it?” and more, “Why aren’t we making the necessary changes to encourage students to pursue it?”