Erik Schmidt on computing education in the UK

In August, Edinburgh is Festival City, hosting the International Festival, the Fringe, the book festival, and many others. At the media festival, my old coauthor, Erik Schmidt (now chair of Google), delivered a keynote which included wise words on computing and education:
First: you need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges. Lewis Carroll didn’t just write one of the classic fairytales of all time, he was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton - but was also a published poet.

Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There’s been a drift to the humanities - engineering and science aren’t championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other - to use what I’m told is the local vernacular, you’re either a ‘luvvy’ or a ‘boffin’.

To change that you need to start at the beginning with education. We need to reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths. In the 1980’s the BBC not only broadcast programming for kids about coding, but (in partnership with Acorn) shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes. That was a fabulous initiative, but it’s long gone. I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage.

At college-level too, the UK needs to provide more encouragement and opportunity for people to study science and engineering. In June, President Obama announced a programme to train 10,000 more engineers a year. I hope others will follow suit - the world needs more engineers. I saw the other day that on The Apprentice Alan Sugar said engineers are no good at business. Really? I don’t think we’ve done too badly!

If the UK’s creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of it integrated from the very beginning. Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar: bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top.

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