The fourth science
In recent blogs I have covered a range of curriculum subjects: Mathematics, English, and English as an Additional Language (EAL). Going forwards, I wanted to provide a greater insight into how we teach sciences, ensuring that our students are able to see value in the knowledge they acquire and the skills they develop, and to see the breadth of opportunities beyond school that the sciences can lead to. In addition to the traditional sciences (Biology, Physics and Chemistry – about which I will write more in a future blog), we are now seeing Computer Science regularly referred to as ‘the fourth science’.
Computer Science is becoming an increasingly vital subject in today’s world, with our increasing reliance on IT systems and, consequently, the problems that occur when they fail (for instance the very recent NHS ‘hack’). Computer Science lessons are clearly beneficial to those who have identified a desire to enter the incredibly fast-growing UK computing industry.
Computer Science as a subject is also enormously beneficial for young people not specifically pursuing a career in the computing industry. The skills learnt are excellent preparation for roles that require computational thinking and analytical skills, particularly in any of the STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Additionally, today’s young people will be using technology every day, in both professional and private contexts – for instance utilising Artificial Intelligence in sectors ranging from manufacturing to care – and so even without a desire for a career in tech, they will need to be prepared to be responsible digital citizens who are aware of the consequences of their actions and the wide-reaching effects that they may have.
In reality, many of those who left school more than a few years ago (and who have not since trained or worked in technology-related fields) will probably not be sufficiently au fait with technological capabilities to thoroughly understand the opportunities and threats posed, or to effectively interpret the potential ramifications to individuals and societies. Yet it is up to us as educators and parents to equip our young people so that the same is not true for them as they leave full time education and enter the workforce. They will need to be fully aware of the (enormous) benefits and opportunities, many of which had not even been imagined a generation ago, but also of the dangers, in terms of data breaches or losses, that computers and associated technologies bring to our lives. As innovation continues to advance with some pace, education on safely navigating the digital space needs to be relevant not only for today, but also to equip young people to be able to critically analyse, and adapt to, new trends with different opportunities and threats, as they continue to change.
It is in recognition of all of this that we have invested in recruiting our specialist Computer Science co-ordinators at both the Junior School, and at the Senior School and Sixth Form – and why I wanted to celebrate the excellent work that goes on in this essential aspect of our school’s science provision.
Mr Andrew Severy, Junior School Computer Science co-ordinator, wrote an extremely helpful article recently unpacking the different elements of the new (Junior School ) Computer Science curriculum – including how it is organised under three strands: Computer Science (programming or coding, and problem solving); Information Technology (using spreadsheets, creating presentations and manipulating graphics); and Digital Literacy (encompassing e-safety and teaching pupils how to select the most appropriate digital content). Mr Severy works with all Junior School pupils, from Reception through to Year 6, and wholeheartedly believes that successful Computer Science lessons should “stimulate discussion, foster collaborative working, provide a sense of achievement and, most importantly, be fun experiences that promote technology as valuable tools for learning and for life”.
Wherever possible, all three curriculum strands are linked directly to real-world situations within the girls’ experiences, and reference is frequently made to topical issues at an age-appropriate level. For example, claims about possible ‘hacking’ interference with the recent US election have been discussed with some of the older girls: how this might be achieved; how it can be guarded against, and so on. Work in coding lessons has been related directly to the enormous growth in ‘gaming’ (to become the multi-billion pound industry that it is today), and in terms of e-safety, online games, and particularly the chat facilities associated with many of them, have been highlighted as potential dangers. As Mr Severy explains, and which is true in subjects across the school:
“any link that connects the skills being learnt in lessons to the world outside the classroom helps pupils to see these skills as more relevant and meaningful, and greatly increases levels of interest, enjoyment and engagement”.
One of the highlights for Year 5 and Year 6 pupils this year has been a robotics competition that has seen a team from each year group attending challenge days organised by BT Education. The Year 5 girls took part in a series of practical sessions focused on programming ‘Crumble Robots’, culminating in a team competition during which the girls put their programming skills to the test against teams from 27 other schools – and they finished in fifth place. Year 6 girls attended a similar event, the CoSpace Virtual Robotics Taster Day, which was the first stage of the UK National CoSpace Championships, and also finished fifth (out of 75 participating teams), enabling them to progress to the second stage – the CoSpace Virtual Robotics Improvers' Day in January. The day included a workshop session on C++ programming followed by a challenge to program their team’s robot to compete against another team's. The two Year 6 teams finished in second and third places overall (out of 70 contesting teams), missing out on first place by just 20 points but doing what was required to progress to the UK National CoSpace Championships Grand Final next month.
Central to Computer Science teaching is developing an ability to solve problems. Mr Simon Clarke, Senior School Computer Science co-ordinator, who joined the school at the start of the Summer Term, explains: “our students turn their intellects to tackling complexity with clear thinking, to applying a structured approach to tough and often ambiguous real-world challenges. Structured problem solving is at the heart of Computer Science studies at our school and this is a modern life skill that can be transferred to any modern vocation”.
In the Senior School, Computer Science lessons form part of the core curriculum for students in Year 7 to Year 9. From their first term, students learn to program their computers, beginning with easy to understand tools like Scratch. The girls learn how to make their computers bend to their will; and they get to grips with the fundamentals of programming, which can be transferred later to more advanced programming languages.
As a result of popular student demand we introduced Computer Science as a GCSE option in 2012, enabling students to cover the physical elements of computer science and associated theory – such as computer systems architecture, memory, security and network topologies; algorithms, programming techniques, high- and low-level programming languages, computational logic and how data is represented in computing systems; and complete a 20 hour project in which they complete an individual programming task set by the examinations board, giving them an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned and demonstrate their ability to design, develop and test a solution to a problem or task using a suitable programming language.
Students in the Sixth Form are able to continue with their learning by taking the A Level in Computer Science. The girls study computing principles such as contemporary computer systems architecture, software and software development; how to write maintainable programs, designing solutions to particular problems, and how to test and run solutions; and the laws surrounding, and ethical issues that can arise from, the use of computers. Again students conduct an individual programming project, using their own ‘user-driven problem’, which helps them to gain an understanding of investigation and analysis; software design, development and testing; documentation; evaluation; and how to produce written reports covering these topics. As a result of study at A Level, we have girls keen to read Computer Science at degree level: in the Upper Sixth, Kelly Y. is planning to read the subject at Southampton University and in the Lower Sixth, Sasha D-B will be also following suit in due course.
By developing a firm foundation from the Junior School, in terms of skills as well as attitudes towards the subject and perceptions about where Computer Science studies can lead, we are able to nurture our students’ interests and support them as they consider whether these disciplines are of interest to them in the next stages of their education, and even beyond into the world of work. In addition to ensuring that lessons and excursions are engaging and relevant to the real world, we also show through careers events and by welcoming inspirational role models into school what the extraordinary range of real world applications can be for what our students learn in lessons – and by the time they leave our students have a level of computing skill that is in such short supply even amongst the most successful university graduates.