Digital technology and computer science have changed Australia in many ways in the last decade, and these changes will doubtless continue into the future.
But as these technologies become more and more integrated into our lives, we must ask ourselves: do we wish to be a nation of creators of technology— or just consumers?
We’re already among the world’s heaviest users of tablet devices and smartphones—but knowing how to play games on a tablet is not the same thing as knowing how to create them. One costs money; one generates money. Shifting our focus as a nation from the consumption of technology, to the creation of technology, will help us compete in an increasingly global and connected world.
The opportunities for our children are enormous. The young people who grow up with Australia’s new Digital Technologies curriculum—our first ‘innovation generation’—will have the some of the world’s most sought-after and highly-valued skills. Globally, the demand for computer science and computational thinking skills only continues to accelerate. The technology sector worldwide holds huge potential for the creation of high-value jobs and wealth; the tech startup sector alone in Australia has the capacity to contribute $109 billion directly to GDP and create 540,000 new jobs by 2033. A highly-skilled workforce is the key to unlocking this value.
In Google’s experience, an introduction to computational thinking in early years provides the strongest possible pathway for students to engage with and excel in computer science, and benefit from the careers it enables. Yet today, Australian students with tertiary Computer Science skills are falling in number and make up just two percent of the total of domestic graduates.
So how do we encourage more students to study Computer Science? Honestly, changing the name might help, since the name “Computer Science” sounds a bit intimidating, doesn’t it? Certainly there is a scientific/mathematical basis to CS, but the CS practitioner mostly relies on Computational Thinking (CT) skills. CT includes pattern recognition, pattern abstraction (generalization), modeling, design, and programming (coding). Naturally, these are skills that are needed to create software, through the process of software engineering. What is not as well appreciated is that CT is applicable to more than just software engineering; it is increasingly a critical skill for understanding and using the computing technology that underpins much of our modern society.
CS has been cosying up to the sciences for a long time, where the term computational science is well known. CS + physics = computational physics, CS + chemistry = computational chemistry, CS + biology = bioinformatics, etc. Scientists have merely understood for some time, what everyone else now realizes, and that is that CS combined with another discipline, brings with it new insights and new ways of approaching things. We call this “CS + X”, where “X” can be virtually anything. For example, CS + retail = online shopping, CS + finance = “fin tech” (think online banking, personal finance management, etc.), CS + music = products like “Pandora”, CS + health = fitness products like “Fit Bit”, etc. The opportunities are endless. There’s even an Aussie startup called myEvidence combining CS + crime fighting.
And therein lies the answer to my earlier question.
Students will be a whole lot more excited about studying Computer Science if they can combine it with their passion, their “X.”
Universities around the world are starting to recognize this by introducing CS + X programs, where X can be any subject area, not just a science. We need flexible university degrees like this in Australia too. Then we just need to ask students the question, “what’s your “X”?
When we can equip students with 21st century skills and help them combine these with their passions we’ll be taking a giant step towards creating the next innovation generation.
For more information on computational thinking and other resources, check out google.com.au/startwithcode.
With thanks to our contributing author – Alan Noble, Engineering Director, Google Australia and New Zealand. Follow him on Google+ or Twitter.
This post has been created with permission of Google Australia and is based on articles originally posted on the Google Australia Blog.