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The Revolution Will Be Computerised

29 August 2016

Welcome to the infotronics age. We now all have computers in our pockets more powerful than those used by NASA to put man on the moon. Our phones, watches, TVs and homes are becoming smarter than ever before; aware of us and what we want before we are. They are processing an unprecedented amount of information and making ever more complex decisions for the purpose of making our lives easier.

Talented, fresh faces are being presented with more opportunities than ever before to innovate. For example, tiny start-ups are taking regular objects like doorbells and padlocks and turning them into smart tools for a modern life, complete with their own mobile apps. Finding financial support through crowdfunding, these small companies are achieving great success in so many varied areas of the booming modern tech industry.

It is through the power of programming that these innovations have occurred and coding is now being called the literacy of the 21st Century. Such is the appeal and accessibility of learning how to create the technology of tomorrow, many young people are taking the initiative to educate themselves in programming in order to start their own tech empires. Taj Pabari, a schoolboy from Queensland has done just that, starting his own company, Fiftysix, which sells DIY tablet-building kits to teach others about tech. At just 16 years old, he is not even old enough to run his company, yet has already carved out a bright future in the thriving technology market.

As awareness and interest in programming have grown, prompted by the success of people like Taj, so too have enrolment numbers in the University of Melbourne’s introductory Computer Science (CS) subject Foundations of Computing (COMP10001). From a mere 286 students in 2014, to 455 in 2015 and 613 in 2016, students taking the subject have more than tripled in just two years. Coordinator and Lecturer Professor Tim Baldwin says “the growth has been very exciting, as has the growth in the number of students going on to further CS studies.”

Baldwin believes this increase is due to a number of factors: “increasing awareness of the importance of computation in all sciences… popularisation of the field and a growing realisation that CS isn’t the exclusive domain of uber-geeks; more and more sophisticated development tools, lowering the bar to entry to develop apps; growing awareness of the incredible potential of CS in the start-up space; and the realisation that the local IT industry is bursting at the seams with jobs of all varieties.”

Proving Baldwin’s point that not all CS students are ‘nerds’, first year B-Sci student Rebecca Vincent took the subject in semester one of 2016 to test the waters.

“I chose to study COMP10001 mainly due to pure curiosity. I simply wanted to know what makes computers tick, and how different programs and computer games are created”, she says.

“At the moment, I do not plan on taking any more computer science-related subjects in the future. However, I am glad that I took the subject because I learnt new things, and it challenged me greatly. I ended up achieving and producing things that I previously thought I did not have the capabilities to.”

Vincent notes some difficulty experienced in adapting to the kinds of creative problem-solving required in the subject but says she has no regrets taking it and recommends it to others.

“If you have any interest in computer science at all, no matter how big or small your interest is and if you have good time-management skills and diligence, as this subject really calls for it, then I encourage you to take this subject.”

With the realisation that programming is now equally as relevant to life in the modern world as subjects like Geography, Biology and English, the face of Computer Science education is changing. President Barack Obama appealed to students in 2014, telling students not to “just play on your phone but to program it.”

This also made the point of programming being a creative and constructive pursuit as opposed to its dull, solitary stereotype. Steve Jobs once called the area a “liberal art” that “teaches you how to think”, an opinion many CS advocates like American not-for-profit, code.org, are harnessing in an attempt to have programming taught in every primary and secondary school.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb concurs, saying that Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM subjects) are important for the future, stating that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations now require STEM skills and knowledge.

“If the digital economy is an arena, then the skills you need to play include computer programming and coding.”

Professor Baldwin also agrees, “it’s critical that students get the ‘right’ exposure to CS early on, in terms of learning about computational thinking and learning real coding, to learn about the incredible potential and scope for creativity that comes from basic coding skills.”

Indeed, there has been a response to these calls, with the government’s National Innovation and Science agenda placing an emphasis on the ‘ideas boom’. The program provides $1.1 billion in incentives to encourage innovation, a portion dedicated to teaching STEM in schools and funding programming activities for students. The primary school curriculum has recently been updated to include ‘Digital Technologies’ from K-10, targeting ‘computational thinking’ but stops short of teaching coding. With many passionate people campaigning for better CS education, it is clear that this issue will continue to develop in the coming years.

So why should you get into the booming field of Computer Science? According to Baldwin, “You can get so far with so little but the deeper you delve into CS the more challenging and rewarding it gets. There is an incredible wealth of cool data sources to play around with and develop genuinely useful apps or unearth truly novel insights and what it is possible to achieve on a commodity device using public tools is phenomenal.”