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Public engagement output from Cryptography group reviewed by Computing at School (CAS) group

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27 May 2011

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The Royal Society is nearing the end of a high-profile study prompted by data from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).  In short, Computer Science as a subject has a challenge on its hands: despite increased use of technology, study of Computer Science in UK schools has decreased over the last decade.  If it continues, this is problematic trend that suggests fewer students will study the subject at degree level, and ultimately a skills shortage in UK industry.  

Alongside University programmes for outreach and public engagement, efforts have emerged whose common aim is to address the problem; examples include the CS4FN magazine, the Computing At School (CAS) group, and in the specific area of information security, the Cyber Security Challenge. Dr. Daniel Page and Prof. Nigel Smart, of the Cryptography research group, have contributed to this wider effort by extending material previously used for UCAS admissions into a short book. The goal is to link familiar topics from information security to topics in A-level Mathematics, and explain how the underlying principles apply in Computer Science.

This approach has led to some success. Having been presented at a CAS Sixth Form Conference, the material was reviewed in the CAS newsletter. Roger Davies, a teacher at Queen Elizabeth School, explains:

"For me, the immediate value is for teachers. Many staff that teach Computing don't have a background in Mathematics themselves. The book provides an excellent model for introducing some of the concepts we teach in a more formal way. Moreover, it is littered with wonderful details that can make lessons more memorable; the historical asides enable teachers to tell stories rather than just teach facts. Many topics are directly relevant to the syllabus I teach (AQA Computing) my students."

"Two examples stand out. One student was leaving to study Computer Science at University. He was an able Mathematician, but had no formal background in Computing and found the book immensely valuable as preparation for his course. For those in a similar situation, the book highlights links between study of Mathematics at school and the subject they have an awakening interest in; this is a particular strength since only a minority of schools offer A-level Computing, and a decision to study it at University can be a leap into the unknown. Another student returned for an extra year in order to complete his Mathematics A-level. He had developed into a gifted programmer, but when selecting his A-level options hadn't appreciated the importance of Mathematics and opted against it. Having completed his A-level in Computing, he found the book assisted his study of Mathematics by emphasising links that would not have been clear otherwise."

The book, electronic copies of which can be downloaded and used for free, is available via