Dodgy syllabus nips IT interest in the bud

Students with a penchant for programming in Australian high schools are being left behind by a subpar curriculum, according to the co-creator of the University of Sydney's National Computer Science School Programming challenge.

Students with a penchant for programming in Australian high schools are being left behind by a subpar curriculum, according to the co-creator of the University of Sydney's National Computer Science School Programming challenge.

Tara Murphy, lecturer in astro-informatics at the University of Sydney, co-created the school programming challenge with Dr James Curran, with the aim of supporting gifted high school-level programmers.

The challenge, created in 2005, sees students participate in a series of quizzes and programming challenges to test their knowledge across beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, and aims to supplement students with an interest in IT where the prescribed curriculum would otherwise let them down.

"In Australia ... IT is not always something that is given a lot of emphasis. A lot of kids and adults are competent using computers, but solving problems and thinking in a computational way is not done well in the high school syllabus. There's a lot of kids out there who are good at programming but they don't have anywhere to get support.

"The syllabus tends to be a bit under-inspiring for a lot of talented students, so [the challenge] gives people a resource for beginner students, as well as expand the knowledge of advanced students," Murphy told ZDNet Australia today.

The New South Wales software design and development curriculum, for example, was last updated in 2001. "In the computing world, that's ancient history," Murphy said, adding that the age-old curriculum is also letting teachers down.

"Another thing that could be improved is support for teachers and more regular [IT] training. Many of them completed their education in computing some time ago, and it's very hard for them to stay up to date, and do that personal development, as well.

"They're very aware that a lot of their students are more up-to-date than them. A year nine physics student wouldn't usually know more than their teacher, for example," Murphy said.

In order to keep up with new programming languages, many teachers register and participate in the computer science challenge to teach their students better.

"We have quite a lot of teachers who log-in and do the questions before their students so they can help them, but also have a fun competition with students, too. Teachers use this for the notes and the questions, and use them in class for the week, and use them as a tutorial for students and set the harder questions as homework."

Murphy is hoping that the upcoming national school curriculum promised by the Gillard federal government will bolster the IT training, which may, in turn, help solve the nation's IT skills crisis.

"A lot of people also feel the [current] syllabus is a bit out of date, and we're hoping that would be updated with the new national syllabus," Murphy said.

Murphy expects to attract around 1500 students to this year's challenge.

"Anyone in high school can do it. We've even had year six students complete the advanced program, for example," she said.