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Archive for March, 2016

I’m just back from attending the morning sessions of today’s Distinguished Lectures in Computer Science at St Andrews given by Maria Klawe, fifth president of Harvey Mudd College. The lectures run all day, but due to my MS-like illness I could only attend the morning sessions, not the whole day. However I greatly enjoyed my time there, and wanted to note my thoughts while I can still remember them.

The venue was the Byre Theatre, St Andrews’ town theatre, in the main auditorium, providing ample seating for current St Andrews computer science staff, students and alumni who had been invited to attend. My husband and I were both there as alumni, from the 1990s. I had to use my wheelchair today, and thank Aaron Quigley and others for arranging a suitably accessible venue. I had a very good view from the back row. Indeed one member of staff joked that I had the best view in the house!

The theme of today’s three lectures was “CS for all”, exploring issues relating to widening computer science education and participation at school level, undergraduate level in universities, and in active research, including disabled people. We attended the first two lectures, which each ran for an hour.

The school-level one, “Computing for all in K-12 education” was particularly interesting, looking at initiatives – often outside academia itself – to widen computer science and particularly programming education for school-age children in America. I was particularly struck by the statistics showing how few computer science teachers there are in US schools, and especially in New York, with just 23 out of nearly 10,000 teachers. No wonder the subject is under-taught in schools. Anyway Maria discussed lots of positive initiatives for change underway, which were encouraging. And there was an active Q&A session afterwards. I was particularly heartened that almost all the people asking questions were women, very encouraging for gender equality. I wasn’t planning on asking a question, but something Maria said triggered me off, and I asked if there was evidence that these various school-level initiatives are leading to increased interest in computer science at university and similar levels.

The second lecture, on university-level education, also appealed to me. When I studied computer science as an undergraduate between 1990 and 1994 I was a tiny minority as a female student. So any steps to widen things are welcome. This was a good talk too, although I would personally have liked more detailed coverage of the various initiatives to widen accessibility. I was left often wanting to know more, as was my husband. I also wondered just how well some of the initiatives might translate to a UK setting. It seems to me, and I may have this wrong, that university level education in the USA is far more flexible than in the UK, with more flexibility in terms of which subjects you specialise in. Whereas in the UK it is normal to apply to a specific honours programme from school. This is particularly the case in England, with three year honours degrees, but even in Scotland, with its extra year for flexibility. And it isn’t always possible to switch later. My future husband and I – both undergraduates at St Andrews between 1990 and 1994 – wanted at the end of our first year to switch to joint honours computer science and astronomy, both quite unaware that the other was trying to do this at the same time. But the university authorities had just scrapped that honours degree combination, so we were told no, and I opted for just computer science, and my husband physics and astronomy. Though if we’d applied straight to do this combination from school we could have done it. Whereas in the USA I get the feeling that things are more modular and more flexible, and e.g. there is more room for people to move to computer science from other subjects later during their degree programmes.

This talk ran for quite a long time, leaving little time for questions, but there were interesting ones. I was particularly amused by the discussion of funded versus self-funded PhDs. After leaving computer science I switched to history, studied to completed PhD level. There is virtually no public PhD funding available for humanities students, meaning there is a much stronger tradition of e.g. history students self-funding, usually part-time. This is rarely in my experience done for employment purposes and to lead to increased salaries, but more for personal development and an intellectual challenge. But it does lead to a very different research environment from hard sciences like computer science, where the balance is more towards full-time funded PhDs going on to academia or industry.

Anyway I’m really glad that I went, sorry I’m missing the last talk. Many thanks to Maria and the organisers for such an interesting event. And for opening it to alumni like me and my husband.

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