Case study: reaching out for the stars

October 13, 2006

Computer studies at Queen Mary, University of London, has received an 85 per cent rise in the number of applicants over the past year, contrasting starkly with a countrywide fall. Much of the credit for this can be attributed to Peter McOwan, professor of computer science, and his colleagues.

McOwan and his colleagues decided to build up a series of outreach activities directed at GCSE and A-level students interested in studying the subject at university.

"We found ourselves up against the same barriers all the time. Today, science is often seen as too hard and not glamorous. We tell students that the ability to program can be very liberating - you can start at home in your bedroom and end up changing the world," he explains.

Through outreach activities, talks, school visits and workshops "we try to dispel misconceptions, moving away from the geek-and-a-keyboard image of computer science to show that the subject is creative and also about people. We also run a schools magazine".

McOwan believes young people need to know that the days of pure theory-driven teaching are changing. "It's like a funnel opening up to opportunity. In the early years, computer science was the theory-driven offspring of many a university maths course, but today the focus has shifted towards the development of applications, where the theory remains essential but becomes entwined with other broader issues such as usability and integration with business, which enables students to develop entrepreneurial skills."

In the virtual world often created by computer programming, outreach uses the internet as a medium across which virtual communities can be built. The Sodarace website is one such community, set up by McOwan and his partners at Soda, a collaborative group with digital art, learning and play specialists. Sodarace is a simple program that equips people to create robots by drawing lines between points to form a muscle-and-mass construct or, in effect, a robot. These relatively simple constructions then form complex models that move across the screen and can be pitted against other robots built by artificial intelligence in a virtual Olympic Games. Sodarace is one of the first projects to open the possibilities of AI to children, students and adults.

"It represents a space where people can come together to learn through play. At one level it is just a fun game, but to get better at playing you can dig down into it and start to pick up all manner of useful knowledge, such as Newtonian mechanics, ideas about software development and lots of useful mathematics," McOwan says.

Such initiatives speak to those wanting to pursue a career in computers. "The discussion forums that drive Sodarace give people the opportunity to communicate with those studying computer science, providing positive peer support and role models. We have seen a few cases where it has inspired people to pursue this interest at university."

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