Academic journal article Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology

Searching for Tomorrow's Programmers

Academic journal article Issues in Informing Science & Information Technology

Searching for Tomorrow's Programmers

Article excerpt

Introduction

I thought to myself "Why am I even here?" It was 2am and I was on a minibus driving through the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The driver hurried along at a frenzied pace taking every opportunity to overtake. The minibus had worn shock absorbers and the road was poor, so every bump and pothole lasted longer. The speed limit was marked as 32km/h but the traffic seemed to be travelling at 70-80km/h. At one stage we slowed and I hoped that we had arrived at our destination, but it was only a police speed checkpoint. The driver turned towards us and, in his limited English, chuckled "High speed" and soon the rough ride continued.

With me were three of the finest programming geniuses the Australian high school system had to offer. The boys had been selected from the top performing competitors in the Australian Computer Programming Competition (ACPC), a national programming competition for high school students. The competition is now in its twentieth year. In its history the competition has adapted to changes in languages, operating systems and methods of communication. From a paper based competition where questions and solutions had been sent through standard mail, the competition has used fax, email, and now runs online with automated question distribution and marking. Interest in the ACPC has been diminishing for a number of years. At its peak during the early to mid 1990s the competition enjoyed participation of over 4000 students from around the nation. In 2003 interest in the competition had lessened. After several advertisements in teachers' journals and postings to computing teachers' mailing lists, together with prize incentives including cash and computers, the participation was just over 300. As organisers we have considered discontinuing the competition due to low levels of interest.

A team of three had been selected from ACPC competitors to compete in an international programming competition: The International Schools Software Competition (ISSC) held in Sri

Lanka in December 2003. The competition runs in conjunction with the South East Asian Computer Confederation (SEARCC) Conference. SEARCC is a parent body to national computer societies including the Australian Computer Society (ACS). The ACS was supporting the Australian team as it travelled to compete. As one of the ACPC organisers I had been given the role of Team Manager for this Australian team. The ISSC has also been affected by world affairs. In 2002 the competition (together with the SEARCC Conference) was cancelled due to SARS fears in Asia. In 2003 the competition went ahead, but the SEARCC Conference was again cancelled. Only four teams competed in the ISSC; two from Sri Lanka (the host country), one from Thailand and, of course, one from Australia.

Introductory programming courses can be seen as starting point to a Computer Science degree and a future career in software development. Introductory programming courses at universities around Australia are also witnessing a decrease in interest. (This paper refers to courses as a single semester long period of study. This may be equivalent to a unit, subject or paper in other institutions.) In 2001 and 2003 a census of introductory programming courses around Australia was conducted (de Raadt, Watson & Toleman, 2004). As well as measuring popularity of languages taught, use of tools and teaching methods, the census also measured student enrolments in introductory programming courses. Courses which continued between 2001 and 2003 experienced an average reduction in student enrolments of 28%. When the census was repeated in 2003 instructors were not reminded of their previously reported enrolment figures, nor were they told that there was a general trend of lessening enrolments developing, yet all but three participating Australian instructors reported a reduction in student numbers in their courses. Some courses experienced a reduction as high as 71%. …

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