26 Aug 2013
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Computer science a hit with school students

By Rebecca Wood

New Zealand school students, who traditionally aspired to be All Blacks, doctors or lawyers, are becoming more attracted to computer science, a University of Canterbury expert says.

Smartphones, the web, and computing in general, allows people to easily create new things that never existed before. Many school students will grow up to be experts in areas that don't even exist today, says UC computer science professor Tim Bell.

Professor Bell is one of the speakers at the seventh annual Education Learners Forum at UC’s College House on Wednesday and Thursday, with more than 100 people expected to attend the conference.

"Exporting software can be done in a fraction of a second, almost at no cost, but brings in a substantial income for New Zealand,’’ Professor Bell says. But he points out that there is a desperate shortage of suitably qualified graduates.

"By last year, 62,000 people were employed in ICT occupations, 11,000 more than in 2003, while salaries for people employed by ICT firms are rising at twice the national average, and good computer science graduates receive multiple job offers,” he says.

"Computer science covers a wide range of areas that make it possible to put wheels on creative ideas. It covers a range of topics that are needed to create great software. For example, security is important – a new website is no good if people can break into it and steal clients' private information.”

Software that’s natural to use is a lot more popular than systems that frustrate users, believes Bell, and there are a lot of techniques that developers need to know to make sure their interfaces work well.

"Good algorithms, which are about making software respond quickly, can also help the user; waiting even a few seconds for a response can be frustrating or unacceptable for users,” he says. "The area of software engineering is also important; most projects are way too big for one person to write, so good techniques are required to deliver a product successfully.

"Having an overview of these topics helps software developers to produce software that will delight users. Without these techniques, a programmer can end up producing systems that are slow, unreliable, insecure and frustrating to use.”

The addition of computer science standards to NCEA provides an opportunity for high school students to find out what the field is really like and, says Bell, hundreds of students around the country have completed these standards since they were introduced in 2011. These students will be much more aware of the opportunities and challenges of a career in computing.

"The future is bright, not just for New Zealand's young people and their job prospects, but also for the positive impact this will have on our economy."

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