Above: Anna Emmerson, Google Site Reliability Engineer, studied biology before getting a career in computer science. Image credit: Lauren Trompp.
Our education system hasn’t changed since the employment model was to work in a single career area and often within the same business for 20–30 years. And yet students today can expect to work in an average of 15–20 jobs over five completely different career areas, and with an average employment time of just 4.4 years.
Many of these career shifts will be towards jobs that have digital technologies as their basis. However, enrolments in computer science areas have been in steady decline since 2000. One of the ways in which we can address the information needs of students in determining their future career paths is through the narrative of CS+X or Computer Science plus ‘X’, where ‘X’ is their passion, motivation or interest.
Get ready for change
The roll out of the Digital Technologies Curriculum across Australia will better prepare students for a world in which digital technologies are key to most careers. But while the new curriculum focuses on conveying the key learning outcomes in digital technologies, computer science stretches across a plethora of areas, and the fields in which students will employ these skills are far from clear.
Take smartphones for example. There are almost as many mobile phone subscriptions (6.8 billion) as there are people on Earth (7 billion) – and it took little more than 20 years for that to happen.
Australia is one of the most saturated smartphone markets in the world, with around 90% of us owning a smartphone. Teens are particularly high frequency users of phones, and spend on average five hours each day online. Nine out of 10 teens go online on a mobile device daily, with 24% using them ‘almost constantly’. And yet while 10 years ago there was no need for smartphone developers, user experience professionals, or app developers to create the gadgetry we are so addicted to, now, these careers are some of the fastest growing around.
In 10 years’ time, how will rapid technological change affect our future graduates? One thing is clear: we don’t know what the future careers will be.
What is CS + X?
Today, computer science (CS) skills are required across business, arts, humanities, design, biology, health, sustainability, sports, physics and more. CS + X describes a movement started at US universities and is being driven by corporates like Google. CS + X emphasises the need to acquire skills in CS and take them into new areas.
CS + X thinking takes concepts in computer science – such as computational thinking and problem solving – and applies them across a broad range of areas. By teaching CS + X, we prepare students across design, science, English and humanities to develop skills in adaptability, cross-disciplinary thinking and independent learning.
So, we know that demand for CS graduates is growing globally. By 2020, global demand will exceed the number of graduates by 1 million jobs. One of the areas where CS skills are in high demand is in business, and in the start-up sector. But some of the skills fundamental to CS can be used across all areas.
Take for example Computational Thinking (CT) skills. CT includes pattern recognition, pattern abstraction, modelling, design and programming (coding). CT is a problem solving skill that is increasingly critical for understanding and using the computing technology that underpins much of our modern society. But it’s also crucial to modelling animal populations, understanding finance, and project management in business.
By teaching CT, we are preparing students with problem solving abilities, not just knowledge. But we also want to peak their interest. One way to do this is through their ‘X’ – their motivational factor, passion or world challenge – and combine this with digital thinking.
Some examples of degrees running CS + X style courses include:
>> art practice + CS
>> CS + classics
>> CS + comparative literature
>> CS + science
>> CS + English
>> CS + languages
>> CS + business studies
>> CS + music
>> CS + linguistics
CS + X careers
There are many fast growing areas where CS skills are combined with other disciplines. Take biology for example. Bioinformatics is a booming area of biology combining CS skills in data with medical data, leading to personalised medicine, and a better understanding of diseases and the way they act on the body and spread through the population.
Data streaming from our smartphones is also increasingly used in marketing, retail shopping, in personalising services from news to music streaming services. In sports, devices optimise the performance of athletes and monitor our own fitness.
CS is combining with arts and science in the fields of data visualisation, which takes complex ideas from the real world, like modelling the effects of natural disasters, and provides us with clearer ways to get the information we need quickly, to connect people at risk with those who can help. In the recent Ebola crisis, it was computer programmers who were sent across the world to quickly solve problems with dissemination of patient data across clean zones, inventing on the fly.
CS + X is already happening. We want to take it into the classroom. Because it’s fun, its relevant, its practical, it promotes cross disciplinary approaches to learning, and it will equip students with the skills they need for the future.
A critical point
We are at a crisis point with enrolments. Despite students’ near constant online activity, surprisingly, digital skills are on the decline. A large Australian study of over 10,000 students in Year 6 and Year 10 in 2015 found that the skill levels of students in ICT have dropped significantly in the last four years – that’s their ability to add to a site, create a simple video game, use software to format documents and images, and search websites.
In Australia, enrolments have also dropped massively in ICT subjects over 12 years. In 2015 the level of enrolments is 82% less than it was in 2000. Particularly concerning is the low levels of females in engineering and ICT, both major employers in Australia. In fact ICT is one of the fastest growing employment areas, but just 1/5 ICT workers today are women.
Some more stats:
>> 44% (or 5.1m) jobs are at risk from digital disruption
>> 75% of fast growing occupations require STEM skills
>> Just 16% of graduates are enrolling in STEM degrees in Australia.
(all stats from PwC A Smart Move report)
So as STEM publishers, why do we care so much about ICT? Well partly because technology is a key component of any business or career, but also because STEM jigsaws nicely with the CS + X narrative.
CS + X is at the core of a series of guides that we produce, the first being Careers with Code, which we launched in 2014 in partnership with Google Australia/NZ. While Google provide some seed funding, we support the magazine, which is free to teachers and students, through selling advertising space to universities interested in tapping into the CS + X narrative.
Careers with Code is about combining computer science with your passion, whether that is health, sustainability, arts, sports or science. So, what we’re trying to do is to integrate careers into the curriculum from day one – and this magazine is aimed at ages 14+, to promote interdisciplinary learning and entrepreneurship, and emphasise a strong foundation in STEM.
So far we have distributed 215,000 print copies, had a total of 80,000 views for the digital edition and over 18,000 web views. This year we are also taking the magazine to New Zealand.
Careers with Code shifts the education focus from mastering content to adaptability and employability. We aim to engage students with STEM, and integrate ‘wow’ factor technology with relevant context and emphasise real life learning.
Here are some of the success stories we’ve profiled:
Bel Teh – Shoe maven
Fabulous shoes made to your own design might not sound like your usual computer science career.
“It sounds more fashion than technical, but it’s all online so there are loads of other skills that feed into it,” explains UNSW Australia computer science graduate Belinda Teh of web fashion site Shoes of Prey, where she works as a software engineer. “It needs database management, web design and networking. I also work a lot with graphics, scripting and 3D rendering.”
As a primary school student, Bel attended Dick Smith’s electronics workshops with her brother. Always interested in maths and science, she planned to study electrical engineering, but chose computer science because of the amazing projects she could get involved in – and she hasn’t looked back since. “After the first semester, I realised that I really, really enjoyed it.”
Bel was part of UNSW Australia’s winning team in the 2014 RoboCup tournament in Brazil. She was in charge of programming the robot’s kicking action – to control details such as where to kick the ball, how to get the to a particular spot at a particular speed and so on.
“The idea is to keep coding robots to play soccer and eventually, by 2050, we will have robots that can play against humans!”
One day, Bel hopes to work for SpaceX – a company that designs, makes and launches spacecraft. “I’d love to go to Mars!
Harry Lucas – Revolutionising wine
Harry Lucas is a uni student – and also a director and co-founder of a company that could change global food production.
Harry is studying mechatronics at the University of Adelaide – a degree that combines computer science with mechanical, electronic and telecommunications engineering. While still an undergrad, he developed a technology called GrapeBrain that gives grape growers and winemakers access to a huge volume of data that can be used to calculate more reliable estimates of annual harvest yields.
He created the system with two friends – mechanical engineering and finance student Petros Bakopoulos and marketing and law student Liam Ellul. Their software won their uni’s inaugural Tech eChallenge competition in 2015 and as part of their prize, they’ll travel to Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle to pitch their product to company executives for further development.
The software could be used to improve the efficiency of most farming systems, and Harry’s company, Seer Insights, has already been approached to adapt versions for other industries.
Watch Harry talk about why CS is like playing with toys.
Glen Charlton – Sports fan
Glen Charlton is a fantastic example of the surprising places CS can take you – Glen works on market-leading athlete monitoring systems and help some of the world’s biggest sporting clubs at Catapult Sports.
He combined his abilities in maths and science with his love of elite sport through a Bachelor of Engineering Science specialising in Sports Engineering at Victoria University.
His major uni project was designing a touchpad that attaches to swimming pool walls to detect human contact in chlorine water and record signals of swimmers’ times. Based on technology similar to a smartphone touchscreen, Glen designed the hardware and firmware of the pad, using a design that was cheaper and more durable than traditional mechanical touchpads.
One of his current projects is a local positioning system called ClearSky – a wearable device that triangulates a player’s every move via nodes that act as satellites. More precise than GPS for monitoring movement, the system has an accuracy within 5–10 cm and is already being used in sports stadiums and indoor training facilities around the world.
Zahra Bagheri – Coding the brain
And finally, University of Adelaide student Zahra Bagheri is using maths and coding to develop tracking software for machines that mimics dragonfly vision.
Zahra is a postgrad student at the University of Adelaide, where she and a team of researchers are developing a way for robotic eyes to mimic the predatory insect.
First, they look at how individual dragonfly brain cells work in order to understand how they interact. Then, they copy the processes of the dragonfly brain onto the circuitry of robots, creating tracking software that enables machines to see and respond like insects.
Here’s a video where Zahra explains her project.
In 2016 we are extending the Careers with Code series to two new guides focusing directly on STEM but with the same attitude of developing a foundation on either Science or Engineering, and then taking this anywhere – whether as a journalist, lawyer or politician – because STEM skills help us to understand the world’s problems, to innovate and create solutions. Through these guides we aim to build STEM engaged communities and allow students to understand how STEM content is relevant to future careers.
We are particularly interested in working with partners to directly address areas where enrolments are even lower in STEM degrees, to women in particular, and to Australian Indigenous students.
– Heather Catchpole
This article is based on a talk given at the National Future Schools Conference and Expo, Sydney 2016.