'It's more than just computers'

Gail Cardew, the Ri's Professor of Science, Culture and Society, explains how the Computer Science Masterclass community is nurturing tomorrow's talent pool.

  • Students taking part in a Computer Science Masterclass

    Students taking part in a Computer Science Masterclass

    Credit: UCL

I recently had the privilege of speaking alongside Phil Brown, CEO of Causeway Technologies, at the British Application Software Developers Association (BASDA) annual summit about the Royal Institution’s new Computer Science Masterclass network.

It was a privilege because we were able to share our commitment to inspiring the next generation of computer scientists with the current generation of professionals and we were delighted with the overwhelmingly enthusiastic and supportive response we received. Clearly there is a groundswell of support from this industry for our approach and we look forward to seeing these relationships grow.

Royal Institution Masterclasses are extra-curricular hands-on sessions for children and young people which run on Saturday mornings across the country in 140 locations from Inverness to Jersey. Led by experts from academia and industry, the sessions aim to open the eyes of young people to the beauty and potential of pure and applied mathematics, engineering and as of 2015, computer science. They exemplify the Royal Institution’s mission of encouraging people to think more deeply about the wonders and applications of science.

Over the course of six to eight Saturday morning sessions, young people, who have been nominated by their teachers to attend, have the opportunity to meet different people from academia and industry who all share an expertise in computer science but who apply it in an incredibly diverse range of ways in their chosen career. Speakers in the Ri Computer Science Masterclass network so far come from Thales, Episteme Capital Partners, Selex, Boston Consulting Group, Imperial College, the University of Manchester and many more I could name. Just a snapshot of the concepts and applications these speakers investigate in their sessions include logic, networks, big data, security, robotics, optimisation, human computer interaction and computer animation.

There is no such thing as a typical Masterclass and it is this diversity of speakers and topics which makes a Masterclass series such a fascinating and challenging undertaking for the young people. The sessions offer a glimpse into how and why computer science is used and applied in the real world and so highlight the vital importance it has to play in shaping modern society. Here’s some of the feedback we’ve received from attendees so far which indicates the success of this approach in breaking down the narrow stereotype computer science often suffers from:

“Computer science is everywhere and I want to study it.”

“Computer science is very mathematical with many mysteries, it is everywhere.” 

The comments also show that the most rewarding feedback is often the simplest:

”It’s more than just computers.”

Why are Computer Science Masterclasses needed? 

Carl Sagan said: "We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster." And nowhere is this more true than for computer science.

Technology is advancing at a faster pace than ever before and virtually every industry and every business in our society relies on technology in one form or another to function. Beginning a career in science or engineering today is now impossible without a solid foundation of computer science understanding.

We also need to inspire our young people to want to develop the breadth and depth of understanding in computer science needed for the modern world. 

We cannot rely on simply imparting the knowledge we have today because we have to prepare them for careers in the near future that don’t exist today. Instead we have to ignite their natural curiosity in the world around them, encourage them to think creatively and analytically in order to solve problems and build their confidence so that they want to dive in and play an active role in this era of phenomenal technological advance.

Our five year partnership with Causeway Technologies is a strong and exciting one because they share our belief that nurturing tomorrow’s talent pool cannot be achieved by many organisations working in isolation and nor will it be achieved overnight. To achieve a genuine lasting legacy we have to galvanise the entire computer science community and work in collaboration with each other, drawing on the different talents, skills and ideas each person and organisation in such wonderfully diverse community can bring.

In partnership with Causeway Technologies we want to grow a national network of Computer Science Masterclasses, working closely with local businesses, schools, universities and community groups, to ensure that young people, wherever they may live, has an equal opportunity to discover, explore and enjoy computer science – and to use this experience as a springboard into any career of their choosing.

If you share these aims, please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

View Gail's BASDA annual summit presentation on 'Nurturing tomorrow's talent pool' here:

Gail Cardew is Professor of Science, Culture and Society and Director of Science and Education at the Royal Institution.

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