Scratch that geeky image and underneath you'll find that computer scientists are in fact creative, outgoing and often rich individuals, Becky Octar reveals
In the late 1980s, an ambitious maths student seeking advice on his options was told by his tutor to avoid computer programming at all costs because there was no future in it. Fortunately, the student followed his instincts and is now professor of computer science at Bradford University. In stark contrast to the advice he received at college, Peter Cowling has a very different message for his students. "The things computers will be doing in the next few decades will arguably have more impact than anything else. This is an ongoing revolution. Pursuing study in the area of computing allows you to be part of it - to develop the next iPod, to find the next Google," he says.
But the field of computer science in the UK is in conflict. While computers beat world champions at chess, the numbers of applicants for computer science courses are dwindling dramatically. Between 2002 and 2005, numbers applying for degrees in computer science across England dropped from 21,289 to 13,289. This year alone, figures have shown a 10.3 per cent fall.
Across the UK, the pattern in recruitment to computer science courses is on a downward trajectory.
But certain departments are bucking this trend. Peter McOwan is professor of computer science at Queen Mary, University of London, and through a series of outreach activities to schools he is clarifying some common misconceptions about computer science at university and beyond. Two areas are often confused: information and communication technologies (ICT) and computer science.
"It is not dissimilar to having a car. ICT is like knowing how to drive a car, but computer science is having the ability to build it from scratch.
ICT teaches someone how to use Word, PowerPoint or whatever, while computer science enables students to create their own interactive web servers or artificial intelligence games for their mobile phones, for example," McOwan says.
Plagued by images of geeks in anoraks with minimal social skills, the computer scientist has long been misunderstood. But today, in addition to programming ability, a successful software developer needs first-rate communication skills to tailor the product to the needs of the user so that computers are integrated seamlessly into our daily lives. Geeks or not, computer scientists are indisputably on the make.
"Many computer scientists are personable, outgoing and creative, and many are rich. I suspect that most of those who have become wealthy through computing have used interpersonal skills as much as technical skills. Sure, there are some geeks, but due to work flexibility associated with programming, many have a wide range of hobbies and they have the time and money to support them," Cowling explains.
Nowhere is the need for creative flair more apt than in games programming, which is fast becoming the mainstay for innovation in computer science and offers hope of turning the recruitment issue around. John Sear, programme leader for the computer games programming degree at Derby University, wants to see games development become a medium in its own right. He sees games becoming the vehicle by which students engage with education.
"It makes a great deal of sense that we ensure students enjoy themselves while they're learning - sometimes it's better if they don't even realise they are learning. When students can see the applications of fundamental computer science techniques applied in a video game, their desire to understand how things work rises dramatically."