David Evans, BCS government relations, looks at what it could take to convince kids that the hard stuff is worth doing.

It is easy to get depressed about science and maths education, and even more so with IT. The level of interest in academic subjects that are close to our BCS hearts is waning, despite valiant efforts to prevent a decline in student numbers.

Almost all computing departments are struggling to get students, particularly those that are well qualified. Even the universities high up the pecking order dream of the day when they can make A-level mathematics a requirement for students - and stop having to teach relatively basic maths for a significant chunk of the courses.

Recruiters for the IT industry are having to cast their nets further afield to get the right number of new staff. That said, this does have one good outcome because employers are now considering those with non-traditional backgrounds (such as vocational education, changing career streams, and so on) that have long been a rich but untapped seam of talent.

Yet most of all, I think we're collectively more than a little bit upset that people can't see how exciting our various disciplines are, and can be. Whether you're a software engineer or an IT consultant or a computer scientist, it can be fun, engaging, satisfying - all the things that people want in a career. It's often pretty well paid too, which is nice.

As with most things it can be dull and uninteresting, but there is an element of choice; you can choose to just sit back, strive to own the world or control the world, strive to change the world and so on, according to taste.

So why don't people see IT in that light? Lots of reasons; many, many articles worth, and many have been written on that subject. 

What is BCS doing? The question that many ask is: 'What is BCS doing about this?', and facetiously I often reply with another question: 'Who is "BCS"?' The answer is that BCS is doing quite a bit, but in most cases it is not some corporate body that is making it happen, but gifted and passionate volunteers.

Around two years ago, Nigel Shadbolt assumed the presidency at the BCS, and he issued a rallying cry for those worried about this problem to get involved. He also undertook a long programme of events to raise awareness and excite young people, along with a great deal of behind-the-scenes cajoling and arm-twisting to get other people to do the same. All this he did as a volunteer, making use of his position, abilities and influence to further a cause he is deeply passionate about.

BCS is one of several organisations that support the Computer Science 4 Fun (CS4FN) magazine and website www.cs4fn.org - that has been extremely successful in engaging children and teachers, moving them into a higher level of awareness of what powers the modern world.

CS4FN is the 'baby' of Peter McOwan and Paul Curzon, both at Queen Mary, University of London. Peter and Paul are both professional computer scientists with a talent for communication, and CS4FN was the outlet for their frustration that kids were missing out on the fun.

They have faced many obstacles - even early scepticism from some colleagues - in getting to the stage where their success is self evident. Their initial work on CS4FN often took place in the quiet hours late at night, writing articles, stuffing envelopes, updating websites and the result is quite a following and a firmed up financial footing thanks to EPSRC support.

Another approach was undertaken by Dave Cliff, who visited five universities with invited school audiences over the course of 2007 to talk about the excitement of IT and computer science on behalf of the BCS.

As a highly successful researcher, and one of the people behind automated trading algorithms, Dave has seen his work change the world in small but significant ways, and his obvious enthusiasm is contagious. He took time out of his hectic schedule, as a volunteer, to travel across the UK to stir up some excitement about the subject he loves.

Science path

November saw the launch of a new project from the Science Council called FutureMorph. BCS is one of a gang of scientific organisations supporting the project, and is eager to see it take off.

With a significant amount of thought, research and effort, this is aimed at showing children, teachers and parents how a science education can affect the path they take - not to take up a career in science per se, but how a science education (in the broadest sense) can open up new doors in a range of interesting careers; some are more obvious than others.

The website contains a great deal of material, but it needs to gather more case studies and information from volunteers with a science education on how they have got to where they are. The only way we can make sure that IT is properly represented is if companies and individuals offer their own stories as case studies.

All academic?

If all this looks a bit focused around the academic and around computer science (or indeed, generic science) rather than the wider IT industry, there are two reasons for that. Firstly, all technical disciplines are in the same boat - we need more children doing science and mathematics at A-level and then in some form of further or higher education level.

It almost doesn't matter what inspires them, as long as something inspires them. Secondly, it is the talented computer scientists within the BCS community that have been most active in getting out there and doing something. That hasn't stopped them promoting the entire sector, but their 'home' area will of course be prominent.

This is just a sample of what BCS - in the form of active volunteers - has been and is doing. However, the real message is that BCS is the sum of its volunteers.

See below for ways you can get involved. Further information can be found at:

www.cs4fn.org
www.futuremorph.org 

The first 'BCS Debates...' video also discusses some related issues. Visit: www.bcs.org/video

Ways you can get involved

Here are some of the ways that BCS members can get involved:

  • Start something through your local BCS branch, and build some relationships with local schools and other educational establishments.
  • Find out what your firm is doing for local outreach, and volunteer to help out.
  • Become a BCS Ambassador - promote computing to teenagers through an organised UK-wide programme.
  • Become a case study for the FutureMorph project.
  • Propose a BCS member to take part in local science festivals.
  • Participate in the IT Shadowing for Girls' initiative, where female BCS members invite teenage schoolgirls from local schools into their work place for a day.

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