Switching young people on to computer science
Tech companies on both sides of the Atlantic predict critical shortages of computer scientists, citing poor IT education in schools as a key factor. Dr Judy Robertson’s work aimed at stimulating young people’s interest in computer programming and supporting teachers has changed classroom approaches and the Scottish curriculum.
A Royal Society task force recently examined why few pupils are inspired to study computer science. As well as blaming a national curriculum that allows basic ICT education to meet its requirements, the task force’s report highlighted the lack of incentives for cash and time-strapped schools to introduce real computer science activities, a shortage of specialist teachers, and dearth of professional development.
Dr Robertson’s work at Heriot-Watt has long been tackling these problems. Her research has shown how game-authoring can bring programming into schools while also developing skills for successful learning across the curriculum. This can make programming a much more attractive option for schools, especially since the approach she developed was designed to be engaging and easy to get to grips with for pupils and non-specialist teachers alike.
Dr Robertson’s work with teachers commissioned by Learning and Teaching Scotland in the consultative period for the Curriculum for Excellence Technology Outcomes contributed to the inclusion of games development as a mandatory curriculum experience for 12 and 13 year old pupils (years 2 and 3 of senior school). By summer 2013, some 200,000 Scottish pupils had gained games-development experience.
Moreover, Dr Robertson’s help in boosting the fledgling organisation ‘Computing at Schools Scotland’ – via a high-impact conference she organised in 2010 – inspired growth to a membership of more than half Scotland’s computing teachers, providing a focus for continuing professional development.
Dr Robertson’s work has also influenced policy abroad, for example in the USA. Her research is quoted in the key document underpinning President Obama's game-authoring initiative to improve learning in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.