Not just for anti-social people

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
For the first time, computer science students at a Scottish university have been given the chance to teach in schools. The benefits have been so significant, staff say every faculty should have a back-to-school option. Emma Seith reports
For the first time, computer science students at a Scottish university have been given the chance to teach in schools. The benefits have been so significant, staff say every faculty should have a back-to-school option. Emma Seith reports

The mission of the students at Glasgow University was threefold:

- dispel the myth that computing science students are geeks;

- deliver a workshop designed by the university's Computing Science Inside programme that aims to bring computing "alive"; and

- develop a lesson for a concept teachers struggle to get across.

Seven students took up the challenge, returning to their old high schools for 10 half-days as one of eight modules taken in their final year. As far as students, teachers and academics are concerned, the programme has been a massive success.

It follows on from a similar scheme in the university's maths department, and now staff are trying to secure pound;30,000 to run a pilot in the science and engineering faculties. Every faculty in the university, they say, should be giving students this opportunity.

"We want to see as many faculties as possible working in schools," says Steve Brindley, director of SETPOINT Scotland West, which promotes science, technology, engineering and maths education. He is on secondment in the university's faculty of education. "It gets the young people out of the university environment and increases their employability skills. It also gets good role models into schools."

In the case of computing science, where the number of students entering courses has halved in five years, they are hoping the scheme will also increase numbers.

At Lenzie Academy in East Dunbartonshire, computing teacher Stephen Kelly challenged former pupil Tom Halfpenny, 22, to teach his fifth-years about the OSI seven-layer networking model, that frequently leaves them "bamboozled".

"Just one part could be talked about in depth over three lectures at university," Tom says.

"Many experienced teachers could not have done as well as Tom did," says Mr Kelly. "He left me with the basics of his idea which we will be using with S5 from now on."

Tom is hopeful that he managed to shatter stereotypes and encourage pupils to think of computing as not just for "anti-social people attached to a computer, who don't have a social life".

Jamie Duncan did not know what to expect when he returned to his alma mater, Chryston High in North Lanarkshire, with computing science student and former pupil Martin Goodfellow. Although aged 20, he had concerns about "kids running riot in class". He was pleasantly surprised: "It's not as bad as these horror stories you get on TV."

The head of information and communication technology, Lorraine Taylor, wanted Jamie and Martin to give S2 a taste of programming before they made their Standard grade course choices. "We had discovered a programming language we wanted to use with S2 but we had not had time to develop it," she explains.

Jamie and Martin introduced the concept and, for the practical experience element, taught them the programming language Scratch, which is aimed at eight to 16-year-olds. It allows youngsters to piece together fragments of code as if they were puzzle pieces.

"Kids often make errors in the syntax if they are writing code themselves, but Scratch takes frustrating errors like spelling mistakes out of the equation and they can just experiment," Jamie explains.

According to Mrs Taylor, the workshops were "such a success" they are now being delivered to the rest of S2. Next year, the department plans to create a unit based on Scratch, adding another three workshops to the three created by Jamie and Martin, which has left the pair feeling "very chuffed".

Paul Aikman, who returned to Falkirk High where he worked mainly with S5 on their multimedia project, enjoyed his taste of teaching and feels he might return to it "later down the line", after getting some experience in industry. Tom feels the same.

Meanwhile, Jamie is convinced teaching would be "satisfying" and "rewarding", but he's off to London to work for an investment bank where "the wages are double".

Maybe a degree in computer science isn't such a bad idea after all.

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