Computing – the fourth science

This was a facebook post, but I’d like to expand on it here:

I’ve just checked our school leavers’ destinations for last year. We had 16 going into medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, pharmacology or veterinary science.

We had ten going into software engineering, computer science, AI, robotics or related subjects where Computing would be an essential or near-essential skill (including one Maths/Physics pupil in there).

I have been very generous in what I consider a “medical” subject and quite strict on the computer-relates ones. We’re looking at something not that far away from a 1:1 relationship between the two overall, depending on how you view the courses.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Not even considering how useful basic Computing would be for anyone doing engineering, chemical engineering, bio-tech, or indeed the medically-related subjects… would someone kindly explain to me why parents still think their children “have” to do Biology, Chemistry and Physics to get into Medicine et al? Especially when university entry requirements haven’t asked for this triplet for many years?

Yes, I’m selling my own subject. I just want to know why I need to when the advantages of it are so flipping obvious to so many pupils.

I was speaking to a parent recently who finished her PhD a short while ago and she can’t understand why Computing isn’t encouraged more by schools. Her subject was Genetics and there was no way she could have done the work she did without the aid of computers and knowing how to use them.

Yes, there’s a definite gap between “using a computer” and “knowing how it works and how to program one”, but there’s also a big common ground where the skills picked up would be useful for so many other areas of life/study.

Take the Software Development Process, for example. It teaches how to approach a large problem, break it down into smaller ones, plan each section appropriately, distribute these small problems to multiple people (if required), get the parts made, test them thoroughly, document everything, evaluate the finished product and maintain it afterwards.

This procedure can be applied to so many other skills: essay writing, laboratory experiments, household projects, business plans… it just needs a little bit of tweaking. To the best of my knowledge, with the exception of CDT/”techie” we’re the only subject that teaches this structured approach to problem-solving. Not only do we teach it, it’s entrenched in the ethos of computing and forms the framework of the course from junior years right through to senior. It’s not just an exam topic.

Computers are in use in all walks of life and knowing how they work helps you when you’re dealing with them. If you know what they can do and roughly how they do it, then it makes it easier for you to communicate to an expert exactly what you require if the actual task is outside of your skill set. This would be incredibly useful for those doing any scientific university course as they rely so heavily on information-gathering and, indeed, automation of experimental procedure. Automated and monitored by, of course, computers.

We’ve had pupils who’ve told us in their first year that they’re not taking Computing because they’re going into Medicine and their parents have said that Computing is pointless. This angers me. A good Computing pass further up the school is as valuable as any other for university entry and equally as useful for getting onto Medicine. In First Year you don’t even know what your child’s strengths truly are and by telling them they won’t be taking the course at certificate level in two years you’re hamstringing them – they won’t try, so they won’t achieve their potential. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You could be pushing them to do a subject they struggle at, when they could be a natural nerd who could get a far easier “A” in Computing… and still get onto a medical course at university.

Computing is a science. In fact the course – right through from the beginning of the certificate route in schools to the end – has recently been renamed “Computing Science” in Scotland to reflect this. What more do we need to do to make parents, and indeed those within schools who sort out the timetable, realise that Computing Science is comparable to the “classic” sciences in terms of academic value?

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Computing – the fourth science

Dewi Morgan

“Computing is a science.”

Oh, no. No, it ******* isn’t.

Please, please don’t ever say that ever again. You are wrong. You are badly, terribly, awfully wrong, and you are doing a massive disservice to students if you promote this canard. As are the dribbling cretins who renamed that course.

Unless you are doing actual peer-reviewed, published research to push the boundaries of our knowledge of computing, then you are not doing science.

Otherwise, if you are strongly promoting an engineering mindset, then what you’re doing is “engineering”.

And if you’re not pushing rigorous engineering principles with every ounce of your will, then all you’re doing is “pissing about with computers”, and killing the job prospects of your students. Oh, sure, they’ll get jobs… but they won’t last the six month trial period unless their managers are just as incompetent.

I’d never want a “computer science” graduate for design, coding, maintenance, management, admin, or indeed any computer-related task other than… um… no, I got nothing. I guess if I concussed them with a brick, I could use them as a doorstop? Nah, I’d just use the brick. Data-entry, maybe?

Full rant here:

Dewi Morgan

Well, it’s not just semantics: the use of engineering vs science is reflected in the skills taught. Comp Sciers get taught all sorts of cool theory that’s irrelevant in real life, and nothing practical.
If you’re teaching even ONE of the engineering skills I mentioned in my post, then your students are doing infinitely better than any CompSci student I’ve yet met. In which case, great, and I want to take your course myself, because many of those are skills *I* have trouble with!

Dewi Morgan


I wanna be in school again 🙁

Also, sincere apologies, as I appear to have been preaching to the choir, here. I guess it’s not all doom and gloom in education for computing, and the syllabus doesn’t just get crafted by people who think Pascal and Fortran are cutting edge.

Happy! 😀

Martin Barker

@Dawi Morgan unfortuantly it is a Science – my Degree
Compuer Games Programming BSc (Hons) (Sc = Science) i would agree in principle it should be a BEng but it’s not,

Secondly are you aware that at the point this article was wrote it is in Primary school as part of the curriculum from Year 3

Year 3 = Turtle
Year 4 = Scratch
Year 5 = HTML / CSS
Year 6 = Python

I hate the fact that year 6 are given python, python is a C equivalent language in all it takes is an email with a .py script from a and you have a virus running on a network in a school it just ******* stupid python is to damn powerful / dangergus for a year 6 to be messing with

Dewi Morgan

OK, before anything else… you got to do a degree in computer games? You JAMMY BASTARD! I hope they taught at least some of the management and design methodologies people hype and tout in the boring IT industries where they don’t actually care about the bland e-product they’re writing, so they have to make it seem fun by thinking up new forms of non-waterfall development and non-procedural design.

Good thing there are games degrees now, the games industry desperately, and I mean *desperately* needs to combat the glut of hobbyist-turned-coders with some properly trained coders.
And yes, that means giving them real languages to train in. I kinda sympathize with sysadmins who’s first priority is security, but unless they prevent any external machines, phones, disks or thumbdrives connecting to the school network, they’ve got way larger problems than letting people code in a non-sandboxed language.
I don’t think people could teach woodworking with padded plastic saws, so the woodwork teachers just have to mop up blood every now and then, and computing’s not really that different (eh, I’m probably way behind the times, woodworking is probably part of the “humanities” subject now, and it’s all virtual interactive 3D chiselling sims…).