Students have lost interest in learning about IT – largely thanks to an education system that has been teaching office skills to children and calling it computing.
But with England’s IT curriculum facing the chop, it will soon be up to teachers to decide how to make computers interesting - so here’s how to show students (and grown-ups) that (computing is fun) = true.
Make programming easy
Sitting down and learning the programming vernacular, the nuances of variables, methods and objects, can be daunting.
But there are a plenty of ways to learn programming that are gentle on beginners, such as tools that allow users to create programs by using drag and drop or tile-based interfaces. Examples include MIT’s Scratch, Microsoft’s Kodu, Alice and Gamemaker.
These provide a simple way for tech amateurs to learn about behaviours like changing variables and creating branching programs without having to get their hands dirty with code.
While tools such as Greenfoot provide a programming environment that helps novices get to grips with Java and object-oriented programming using a simple GUI.
If none of these tools hit the spot then there’s forthcoming Raspberry Pi, a $25 Linux computer created with the ambition of making it easy to learn coding, which can be set up to boot straight into programming environments for a variety of languages, such as Python or C.
Computing at School, a group dedicated to promoting good IT teaching, also provides links to many other useful free resources on computing.
Break out the robots
If coding simple games doesn’t kindle the kids’ interest then how about having a robot at their beck and call. The Lego Mindstorm platform allows kids to build robots allows and learn both about electromechanics – how to use servos, motors, sensors and the like to create a moving robot, and also how to control them using a relatively simple programming interface.
Alternatively there’s the Arduino, an open source platform that allow users to build their own DIY electronics. Arduinos are essentially small, cheap, programmable microcomputers that can be combined with input and output devices like sensors, LEDs and microphones and controlled via a custom, easy to use programming language. Arduino users have used the platform to create everything from a kettle that only boils when it isn't watched to a motion-sensing teddy bear.
If you just want to tap into the ‘wow’ factor why not let kids tinker with the SDK for the Microsoft Kinect, the vision and speech recognition system for the Xbox 360 and PC. Hobbyists have already taught Kinect to recognise real-life objects and speak their names and to create a 3D scan of a room.
Delve into computing’s past
If you want someone to learn the principles of how a modern computer works then show them the very first room-sized number crunchers. Crack open a computer case today and the chips and circuitry offer little clue to what makes computers’ tick, but in the days of the first electromechanical and electronic computers the inner-workings of information processing were writ large in the punched cards and red hot valves.
Take kids to the likes of the National Museum of Computing to see the Colossus, the valve-based machine that helped crack Hitler's Lorenz code in WWII. Show them how punched cards were used to program the Jacquard Loom or to rapidly count data in the Hollerith Tabulating Machine, and help them understand the evolutionary link between the iPhone and the 1940s electromechanical computer, the Z3. What better way to teach them about the building blocks of computing that today have vanished from view.
Get cracking with codes
Cracking codes may seem to be a far cry from coding, but writing algorithms to carry out pattern recognition and extract relevant information from data are key skills when both breaking ciphers and programming. Not to mention that cracking codes is fun.
The UK intelligence agency GCHQ certainly sees the link, recently running a code-breaking challenge campaign to find cyber security specialists that required entrants to use methods including obfuscation mechanisms and reverse engineering of malicious binary code. Obviously a classroom codebreaking session would be significantly less challenging, but would still provide a useful and rewarding way for kids to learn skills relevant to computing.
Game the system
If universities want more teenagers to study computer science courses then why not enlist the help of the video games industry. Colleges should work with major games publishers to create scholarships, extended work placements and professional mentoring for computer science undergraduates. Providing a clear career path from studying computer science into the video games industry would encourage more teenagers to choose to pursue a career in computing, and could also reduce numbers of computer science graduates who choose to work outside of IT after leaving university.
Explode the jobless myth
The prevailing wisdom is that tech graduates will struggle to get a job, and that’s something that needs to be addressed. There’s a lot of misleading information out there - figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), appear to show that “Computer Science” graduates face the highest unemployment rates of any university leaver in the UK. However the employment rates for computer science graduates are higher than the Hesa stats suggest, as those figures include rates for graduates of non-degree level applied and vocational IT courses, where competition for jobs is much higher.
And other reports show demand for IT skills in the UK is strong: the e-skills UK Technology Insights 2011 report found that “employment in the IT industry is predicted to grow at nearly five times the UK average”. Teachers and careers advisors should get the message across to kids that a career in IT offers good employment prospects, decent pay and the chance to work at companies making games and apps, and developing the computing technologies that will shape our future.
Can you think of more ways to make IT – and careers in IT – more attractive to the next generation of workers? Let us know your thoughts.
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.