We’ve sold Computer Science, now we have to sell what it means to be a Computer Scientist…

Last week was an exceptional week for computer science education in the UK: Google donating 15,000 Raspberry Pis to UK schoolchildren, Microsoft calling for computer science to be taught from primary school, the Department for Education including computer science in the EBacc as the “fourth science” and UCAS 2013 entry statistics showing the highest increase in total applications for Computer Sciences (up 12.3%). This follows on from the launch of the CAS Network of Computer Science Teaching Excellence in September, the publication in November of the draft ICT Programme of Study for England and the announcement in January of a review of the ICT curriculum in Wales, reporting back in June.

So it appears we’ve sold the rigorous academic discipline of computer science; but not to simply increase the supply of programmers for the IT industry or to get more people to study computer science at university — the rationale has always been based upon computer science being of wider educational value to everyone, in the same way as we value physics and mathematics. But after a discussion with Pete Yeomans (@ethinking) at the CAS fringe event at Bett 2013 last week, it appears that we are now facing a more subtle and refined challenge:

This is the real (marketing?) challenge: to truly change the wider perception of the discipline, we now have to sell what it really means to be a computer scientist, how to think like a computer scientist and the universal potential of this mindset.

And everyone needs to understand and value this.


  1. One part of this, I think, is to decide whether to challenge, or to embrace, the idea of geekdom: on the one hand, the truth is that many geeks (Ben Goldacre, you, etc) have significant success in making the world a better place by embracing it.

    On the other hand, I suspect that there’s a negative perception of geekdom that puts some people off STEM.

    To make a proper decision, of course, one would need to properly evaluate the question: is there a negative perception of geekdom? If so, does it put people off STEM, for example, at school?

  2. The Geekdom thing is a tricky one…
    Various ethnic groups have embraced the offensive terms used against them and so whereas I refer to myself as a Geek, I am not so happy to be called that by someone who is not a geek because arts grads especially those in the media use it in a way as part of description that would end their careers if they used it against a race or faith group. Look at the stereotype of scientists and engineers on TV, imagine what wold happen to the whole management team of a TV station if that was applied to ?
    A program like the IT Crowd would cost the job of the DG of the BBC if it were about Jews/Moslems/Black People/Asians or whatever. Because Geeks don’t murder people, and “because it’s true” it is apparently
    OK to ridicule us. It even has a technically clueless woman.

    Geek also implies male. The BBC’s agenda pushes female “geeks” but since they are picked primarily because they are women, not because of a passion or aptitude for STEM, they don’t come across as
    credible. The actual female geeks I know are quite scathing, actually it’s quite interesting that although some of these female geeks are in the media, not one of them appears on the BBC.

    I’m told girls care more about images in the media than boys, so it is a neat (perhaps too neat) explanation of why IT is still overwhelmingly male.

    Thus the solution is not in our hands.

    1. The “rise of the geek” is indeed tricky (more so because I am quite comfortable with the geek label), but I think this is ultimately an education issue. Hence why we have to address perception, motivation and opportunities for STEM subjects (particularly Computer Science) from primary school onwards — this was the main point I made as a guest with Aral Balkan on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour a couple of weeks ago.

      There is also some excellent activity in this space e.g. #include, Manchester Girl Geeks, Geek Gurl Diaries and Little Miss Geek to name but a few.

  3. There’s many ways to sell a discipline: practical (actuaries earn lots of money), ethical (medical researchers save lives), respect (e.g. medicine and law) and so on. I find mindset to be one of the weaker arguments, and one of the harder ones to explain. Maybe knowing programming does change how you think but I’m not sure you can sell it that way without sounding naff. “Come learn programming, then you’ll see how to organise your socks better.”

    I think I would probably aim to promote CS on the basis of its applicability to many domains (bioinformatics, special effects, social networks, phone apps, computational modelling) — an importance that is only going to grow. I think that’s the best argument for promoting CS: like maths, it is useful in many other areas, so worth taking even if you don’t become a mathematician. I think ultimately the best practical thing to do is give all kids a taste of programming (mandatory CS at KS3?). That’s probably the best way for them to see if they would enjoy going further down that route, and to understand the sorts of things that CS involves. Not all will, but the same is true of all other subjects.

    1. Agreed — perhaps “mindset” was a poor choice.

      The examples you’ve listed above already give a indication of the wide utility of thinking like a computer scientist (for want of a better phrase); perhaps the very issues with terminology and attempts to concisely describe/bound the discipline indicate just how much it intersects other domains.

  4. One of the hurdles, I suspect, will be the term itself. While those other “three sciences” map directly onto potential future careers — physicist, chemist, biologist — you’re never going to see a job posting that starts “computer scientist needed”. That level of abstraction, I suspect, will put off some kids before they’ve even started.

    1. I’m not convinced: one could equally say, “you’re never going to see a job posting that starts ‘physicist needed'”, but in fact we do see those jobs: they’re for actual physicists, and we really do need those.

      But I think that one of Tom’s points is that computer science, and having (some of?) the skills of a computer scientist, isn’t just going to help one being a professional computer scientist, in the same way that a thorough, well-grounded knowledge of physics isn’t just going to help professional physicists:rather, both of those disciplines help with a general understanding of how the world works, and that can help in a wide range of things, from evaluating medical treatments as a layman to judging politicians when they use nonsense arguments in Parliament.

    2. Outside of academia/research, I don’t think that’s the case; here’s a good example: Quantitative Research roles at J.P. Morgan.

      But the more general point is that there appears to be a disconnect between what people think computer scientists study (and the skill-sets they develop) and what careers are available to them*.

      So, we need to sell the utility of being/thinking like a computer scientist.

      * 10 Amazing Jobs You Could Land With the Right STEM Education

      1. I’d say that there was a very definite disconnect, even within the industry. I’m an ex-software engineer of yore and have an undergrad degree that says “computer science” on the certificate. It’s not, however, a term I particularly identify with.

        I do wonder, and without evidence, if we are not responsible for perpetuating the image, to some extent. Some people embrace the Geek-Chic thing, and that’s great, but studies where we ask kids to draw a computer scientist, for example…. I’m pretty sure that I would still draw Moss from the IT Crowd and I work with computer scientists and married one. Maybe a more subtle approach to changing people’s perception of what a computer scientist is would be more effective than actually challenging perceptions up-front and in a direct manner. It’s almost as if we draw attention to it.

        I agree that it is going to be crucially important to educate people as to what ‘computer science’ as a discipline actually means. I’m a firm believer that this goes beyond the reformation of what happens in schools (although an obvious place to start). Adults need to be informed, too. Children are so often guided by the expectations and desires of the adults in their lives. Although I sincerely doubt it is the only factor, young girls are still being discouraged by adults from going into tech-based careers or study because of societal expectations of how their lives are to be mapped out. If people really understood the true nature of computer science as a discipline and the value in its wider applications, the skills that it develops etc., then perhaps more people (girls and boys) would feel supported and encouraged in taking it up.

    1. To government (and some teachers): the focus over the past two years has been on shifting policy.

      So we may need to rethink how we sell it to young people, parents, the wider public…

  5. As well as thinking like a Computer Scientist there is the subtle parallel of thinking like a Computer or Software Engineer — to make people realise that creating computer systems, whether hardware, software or a mixture, takes design, problem solving, planning and engineering skills.

    1. Are they not intrinsically related; perhaps it is a subset/subtype of thinking like a computer scientist?

      (N.B. I’m not trying to get into a holy war regarding the differences between computer science and software engineering, more that there exists this hugely valuable approach to problem solving…computational thinking?)

    2. I wonder if we could find a nice real-word soundbite that encapsulates that idea; that is, that while computer science and related engineering disciplines are both useful in their prime domains (for example, in inventing and constructing computer systems), each also provides lots to inform and help other disciplines, and indeed to inform and help daily life. Can we capture that idea succinctly?

      Maybe that question is just a slightly different phrasing of Tom’s original.

    3. Maybe we need to be thinking more along the lines of, as Tom mentioned, computational thinking. So that teaching Computing in school can provide the foundations or the fundamentals that allow an individual to, when presented with a problem to solve, to be able to set that problem in context, then to break it down into a set (intentionally not a sequence) of smaller problems to be solved and then to sequence them. I think that this ability, to see the overall picture whilst being able to identify the details at the same time, provides the mental structures and discipline that can be transferred to practically any endeavour.

  6. I think also we need to ensure that we do not frighten off our current cohorts of ICT pupils, buy rushing headlong into a Computing subject. There needs to be a transition period where the skills of problem solving, abstraction etc are learn, but in a way that engages learners, not frightening them off with too much too soon!

  7. Two quick points –
    – Computer Science is the most widely accepted term for what we do so we are stuck with it but it is misleading. What we mostly do is Software Engineering and related areas. It isn’t science, its engineering or technology. Even theoretical computer science isn’t science but based on mathematics, logic and even a bit of philosophy. But we might as well live with it and tell students its an object lesson in “beware labels”!
    – The geek label is another useful but misleading label. Lets accept it and say again “beware labels”! Some possibly useful to at least interesting LinkedIn groups – Girl Geek Dinners(mainly UK but offshoots everywhere), Blacks Gone Geek(mainly USA). Girl Geek Life (Italian), Girl Geek Coffees (mostly Australia), etc.

  8. This is a tricky one. In terms of selling the more general benefits of the field we might stress the advantage of providing a “Lego for thinking” – a medium in which we can create machines which actually execute ideas. Its worth reading the preface to (arguably) the greatest ever computing textbook “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” http://mitpress.mit.edu/sicp/full-text/book/book.html

    ‘Underlying our approach to this subject is our conviction that “computer science” is not a science and that its significance has little to do with computers. The computer revolution is a revolution in the way we think and in the way we express what we think. The essence of this change is the emergence of what might best be called procedural epistemology — the study of the structure of knowledge from an imperative point of view, as opposed to the more declarative point of view taken by classical mathematical subjects. Mathematics provides a framework for dealing precisely with notions of “what is.” Computation provides a framework for dealing precisely with notions of “how to.” ‘

  9. I’m a Computer Science graduate and often find myself being an advocate for my industry when responding to people who ask me, in a social setting, what I do for a living. “You must be a geek”, they often say. I always respond thus:

    “No, quite the opposite, in my industry we need people that are capable of translating complex business requirements into a specification that allows a team of developers to build a solution. This requires very strong communication skills, powers of negotiation and political savvy. It can be a very sociable occupation, with weeks/months at a time spend discussing and presenting ideas with large groups of people. I get to travel the world, speak to really exciting individuals and get huge satisfaction from seeing the fruits of my labour deliver real benefit to the businesses and people that I work with.”

    Something like that anyway.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s