Passion for play

October 13, 2006

Students can be kept interested through exposure to the latest tools and technologies, as David Grey explains

Students are aware of many of the latest trends in technology and quickly spot when the content of a course falls short of the state of the art. To remain credible as a high-quality provider of leading-edge computing education, it is necessary to expose students to the latest tools and technologies while ensuring they absorb a solid core of fundamental computer science theory.

Many of the modules offered by the computer science department at Hull University use the latest technology for practical examples and coursework exercises, while the theoretical side of the course explores the underlying fundamentals.

This approach has permitted the development of successful internationally renowned degree programmes such as MScs in computer games, programming and .NET distributed systems development.

The department has always prided itself on producing graduates with high levels of technical competence and a deep-seated understanding of and enthusiasm for information technology, instilled in its students through the course contents and extracurricular activities.

Offerings such as the Microsoft Developer Network Academic Alliance programme enable staff to provide all the latest Microsoft technologies for students' personal use. The department arranges extracurricular visits to technology shows (for example, the Visual Studio launch tour), technical training events (for example, the MSDN Technical Roadshow) and conferences (for example, SLIDE5), in partnership with a range of software vendors and technology companies, and makes these available to students at minimal cost.

In conjunction with several industrial partners, including Microsoft, the department recently established Seed Software, an in-house software development company that provides skills training and industrial experience to unemployed graduates and to students as part of their degree programme. Seed takes on commercial software development commissions, and the students participate fully in all aspects of the development lifecycles of these projects. This gives students first-hand experience of working in the IT industry and the ways in which the latest technologies can be applied to solve business problems.

Several active student computer societies exist within the department, including one established by students who are members of the Microsoft Student Partner programme. All the students involved in these societies are passionate about technology and regularly hold technology-related events such as install-fests, gaming contests, games programming competitions and quizzes. The department recognises the importance of these events in motivating the student body and offers its resources and facilities to support these activities wherever possible.

Competitions have proved to be one of the best ways of enthusing our students. Staff regularly organise small competitions based around exercises and approach industrial partners to support these and provide prizes. We have successfully used these local competitions as precursors to larger national and international competitions. Staff encourage students to participate in industrially sponsored competitions such as the BCS Programming Competition and the Imagine Cup Software Development Challenge. These are great motivators and also a good way for students to increase their visibility and gain access to the best placement opportunities and job prospects.

A good working relationship with Microsoft brings many benefits. The company has provided attractive prizes for our local competitions, helped with the organisation of student conferences and training events on latest technologies and provided access to deep technical expertise that makes it easier to include coverage of their latest technologies in our teaching.

The students' enthusiasm for IT is fired if their tutors and lecturers also display a keen enthusiasm for the subject. By making available early (pre-beta) access to the latest tools and technologies and engaging us in numerous events that help maintain our enthusiasm, Microsoft has helped us to pass this enthusiasm on to our students.

The results of this have been staggering. Hull graduates are now employed by many of the leading IT companies around the globe, and Hull students have reached the world final of the Imagine Cup Software Development Challenge on three out of four occasions. It is amazing how far a little encouragement can go.

David Grey lectures in computer science at Hull University.

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