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Computer Science Student Recruitment Tips

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Judy Robertson

Given the worry the field has about finding the next generation of computer scientists, I thought it might be useful to share with you some of the successful outreach activities we have been doing at my university in Scotland.

Mark's recent post covered the US Labor Bureau's recent forecast which said “Computer and mathematical” occupations are projected to grow by the largest percentage between now and 2018 — by 22.2%. If universities keep suffering from the drop in undergraduate admissions to computer science courses we experienced lately, this would cause a worrying gap between trained graduates and industry jobs. However, it looks like CS admissions to UK universities have picked up of late. UCAS (the organisation which helps students find university places in the UK) reports a bumper year for applications to university in general (5% increase between 2008 and 2009). Computer Science admissions were up by 7% in the same period. Sure, this will have be influenced by the recession but it seems like a step in the right direction.

At my university, our CS admissions went up by 15% between 2008 and 2009. Our applications for entry in the next academic year have increased by 60% in comparison to this time last year! (It's too early to get published figures for other universities for comparison.) It seems like our fairly intensive recruitment and outreach activities over the last couple of years have paid off. At this point we don't have the data to tell us exactly which activities were most effective, but here are my thoughts on the matter in case it is helpful to anyone who is trying to increase their CS student numbers.


Stuff we have already done which seems to work

This is hot, tiring, painstaking work which requires a lot of patience. It seems to have paid off for us, and most of it is based around building relationships with local school teachers. We initially started doing direct workshops for kids on a piecemeal basis, but we try to do less of that now because it can be quite time consuming with less pay-off. I am more and more convinced that the way to make larger scale changes is to reach out to teachers who can then influence their pupils.

  • We have collaborated with other local universities to pool our resources. For the last 2 years we have been taking it turns to host an event called IT4U where 250 15 year olds from local schools take part in a day of interactive workshops (each run by one of the partner universities). They also meet employers and find out what it is like to work in the industry. A key part of getting this to work was to spend a lot of time consulting local teachers who graciously gave up their time to advise us on what event format would work and which pupils to target. We chose 15 year olds at a time of year when they were yet to make up their minds which subjects to study for national exams – hoping to influence them into taking computing subjects. There is a high time cost in organising such events (and you need a big biscuit budget for all the meetings) but it is a good way of reaching a large number of kids at once. If you're going to do this, though, don't fall into the trap of letting senior CS professors give lectures, however brilliant their research might be. The fall out is not pretty: kids need to be doing stuff for it to be fun for them.

  • Providing free training courses to local teachers. We asked teachers what sort of topics they would like to update their knowledge on and got some of our staff to deliver free training to them. The teachers who attend appreciate the effort we put in and began to look on us as “their” university, and so they started to advise their students to apply to us. Our local education system has severe financial difficulties now, so they find it very hard to pay for training. Free training is popular, and builds goodwill even if it is a pain in the neck for academics to try to fit around their other commitments. We have also been successful in applying for large scale funding (thanks EPSRC!) to provide sustained training for teachers which we hope increases the quality of CS provision in schools and gives high school students a more informed perspective on our discipline.

    We have upped our game for Open Days and applicant visit days to the department. Think back to when you were 17 and thinking about university courses. What were you worried about? What did you want to find out? I suspect many of our potential applicants aren't too bothered about the stellar research the university does, particularly if they won't be allowed near it for three years. They want to know what it will be like to study in first year: who will their friends be? Will the teaching staff be nice? Will it be a friendly place to be? Will they be able to cope with the work? Will it be fun? So we tried to reassure them about these questions by designing open days where applicants get to meet current students and talk to them about what sorts of things they do in classes year by year. They also get to meet each other and the staff, so they feel they already have friends here should they want to pursue their application. The golden rule again is interactivity; we keep dry academic talks to a minimum and go for activities and demos where they have something to do. Two tips: feed them well and keep your crazier professors locked up out of the way. If your head of department insists on talking, vet his or her slides to make sure it won't be a yawn-fest.

Stuff we are trying out this year and hoping will work

  • We are running an assessed module called Computers in the Classroom (based on an idea originally developed at St Andrews University). Final year undergraduate students spend 40 hours helping a teacher in a high school computing class. They are expected to also prepare and deliver a class during this time, and relate their practical class experiences to educational theory. Our students, many of whom have chosen to return to their former high schools, learn valuable transferable skills and the high school students will hopefully learn about how much fun it is to study CS at university. (Ha!)

  • We are running a Google sponsored conference for Scottish computing teachers in June this year to bring together practitioners, academics and policy makers to discuss the recent and upcoming changes to the computing curriculum in Scotland. With internationally respected speakers and topics relating to cutting edge research developments as well as pedagogical issues, we are hoping to raise teachers awareness of how the field is developing. As part of this, we will have a Best Practice award for computing teaching, which aims to celebrate the good work teachers do. I don't know about other countries, but teachers here have to put up with a lot and get little recognition for it. This is a small step to address this.

I hope these ideas might be helpful to people responsible for student recruitment in other institutions. If you have any other ideas which have worked for you, perhaps you could share them in the comments page.



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