Falling in love with computer science

Causeway Associate in Computer Science Ben Dornan explains where his love for computer science started, and why he's excited about the Computer Science Masterclasses.

  • BEN IS COOL
    Credit: JSBEEB

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Although the exact details are lost to the mists of time, I’m fairly sure that this was the first computer program I ever wrote. I was part of the last generation to have the wonderful BBC Micro in the classroom (for those not familiar with the BBC Micro, you can recreate my first forays into programming by entering the above commands here: http://bbc.godbolt.org/). Once I reached secondary school it was all Windows desktop machines and the ICT curriculum, and I lost the thread of computer science for the best part of ten years (although if you want to know anything about the Data Protection Act, I can probably still quote it verbatim). About 5 years ago, computer science re-entered my life due to a number of factors. Firstly, I entered the world of human brain imaging research and found myself exploring a world defined as much by algorithms and computation as the psychology and neuroscience that led me there. Secondly, I developed an interest in the emerging maker movement which saw me spend a significant amount of time tinkering at the interface of electronics, engineering and computer science. Through these avenues, a whole new world opened up for me, and it’s one that I’m sad to have lost for so many years.

Thankfully, computer science is reappearing in schools as of this year in the form of a new computing curriculum that extends from the beginning of primary to the end of college. It’s heartening to know that students will be gaining the skills that are so important to supporting the flourishing digital sector in the UK, and getting the opportunity to explore computer science and its relationship with other fields in a way that only came to me much later.

This is the backdrop against which I joined the team as the Causeway Associate in Computer Science in November 2014 and launched the Ri Computer Science Masterclasses this January.

The Masterclasses give students with a particular enthusiasm and talent for Computer Science an opportunity to explore the subject outside of the bounds of the curriculum. Over a series of Saturday mornings, the students engage with professional computer scientists drawn from the cutting edge of research and industry and get hands-on experience of what they do. These sessions serve a number of purposes: to challenge the students beyond what they could expect in school; to illuminate the students as to the applications of (and frontiers in) computer science; to illustrate career pathways and, perhaps most importantly, to inspire them to explore the field further by themselves.

  • Computer science masterclass photo

    A Computer Science Masterclass in action

    Credit: UCL

  • Computer science masterclass photo

    A Computer Science Masterclass in action

    Credit: UCL

  • Computer science masterclass photo

    A Computer Science Masterclass in action

    Credit: UCL

For me, this is an incredibly exciting opportunity. At the same time that my interest in computer science was reawakening, I became deeply engaged with science communication. Through work with a number of voluntary organisations in Sheffield (my previous adoptive home), I discovered that I enjoyed sharing science as much as I enjoyed doing it. Working on the Computer Science Masterclasses has been a fantastic opportunity to bring these strands of my life together.

It’s been amazing watching the students take the ideas they’re given in the Masterclasses and run with them. Over the last few months I’ve seen everything from a speed-house-designing challenge in 3D design software to a robot literally improvised from things lying around a classroom. Amongst 120 students in 4 series of Masterclasses so far this year, not one student has told us that they haven’t enjoyed and learned from the Masterclasses. Even more exciting is the way that the students talk about computer science after working with us: “Very mathematical with many mysteries, it is everywhere”, “That it is limitless”, ”More than just computers”. As schools are winding up for the summer, we’re moving into the second phase of the project: expansion. At the moment (literally, as I write this) I’m travelling the length and breadth of the country, meeting with likeminded people who are excited to get involved to support nascent computer scientists in developing an interest into a passion and beyond. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.

Ben Dornan is a Causeway Associate in Computer Science. Find out more about the Computer Science Masterclasses here, and email masterclasses@ri.ac.uk with any questions.

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