Changing lives

By Chris Rodley

James Curran’s charismatic computer science classes have become the stuff of legend.
Image of James Curran

Credit: Brian McInerney

Students in James Curran’s classes at the National Computer Science School quickly discover they can’t sit in the back row and hope to fly under the radar. From the very first week, he commits the names of every student to memory, even in groups of up to 70, ensuring no-one is ever anonymous.

Each year, he also memorises the names of all 90 students at the NCSS, an outreach program for teenagers that he runs with his partner, astrophysicist Dr Tara Murphy. When the students arrive and meet him for the first time, he likes to greet each one by name as if they’re an old friend. “University teaching can be very impersonal,” says Associate Professor Curran, Director of the NCSS and ARC Research Fellow, speaking from his cluttered office in the School of Information Technologies (the day we meet it’s decorated in an under the sea theme, as part of an annual prank played by his honours students). Getting a personal connection is what makes the difference.”

By adopting that approach, he has made a remarkable impact on the lives of his students over the past decade, helping hundreds of them to realise their dreams.

It’s at the NCSS that many students encounter Curran, a researcher in computational linguistics, for the first time. Originally established in 1996 by Professor Judy Kay and Associate Professor Bob Kummerfeld, the NCSS has evolved into an important launching pad for budding Australian programmers. A packed week of intensive classes and mentoring from industry experts culminates in a gruelling ‘all nighter’ that has become legendary. From dusk until dawn, students lock themselves away to build their own social networking site from scratch – while eating their way through an enormous stack of pizzas that reaches to the ceiling.

“It’s almost always a life-changing event for everyone who goes,” says Tim Dawborn, a PhD student of Associate Professor Curran and an alumnus of the NCSS who now tutors there. “They’re often the only person who’s interested in computer science in their school, and they realise there are other people who are like them.”

"It’s almost always a life-changing event for everyone who goes."

Sasha Bermeister, a tutor at the NCSS, says the event was a pivotal turning point in her young life. “I was the only person in my school who could fix the printers,” she says. “I always felt like the odd one out, especially being the only girl in my ICT class.” Not knowing any women who were programmers, she says, made her doubt her aspirations: “I thought, was that even possible for me?”

When she got to the NCSS, Associate Professor Curran introduced her to successful women in programming who became her role models. He also took the time to sit down with her one-on-one to help map out a career path. Recently, the 21-year-old was offered a graduate position at Google.

Many of those who attend the summer school meet Associate Professor Curran again in his lectures at the University of Sydney, which have the same high intensity as the NCSS. His first-year course in advanced informatics is described by those who complete it as one of their most difficult courses at the University. Associate Professor Curran is unapologetic: “One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume students aren’t capable,” he says. “You gain students’ respect by challenging them and making them think.”

His charismatic style of teaching goes a long way towards keeping students engaged during complex lectures. For much of the time, he writes programming code live at front of the class, while asking questions and soliciting ideas that get incorporated into the program. “It’s less of a rehearsed lecture and more of an interactive performance,” says Nicky Ringland, another of Professor Curran’s PhD students.

He makes a point of encouraging interjections and will often disrupt the lecture himself with impromptu quizzes designed to keep students on their toes (favourite questions include “How many piano tuners are there in Sydney?” and “How much does the Harbour Bridge weigh?”).

"I love to see students who don’t think they can do something and by the end of the degree prove to them that they can."

When students struggle, Curran is there to offer advice and pastoral care. His support is tailored to the needs of each individual, from tight deadlines for students who need structure to encouraging emails for students who are feeling discouraged. “You have to work out what they’re passionate about and find a way for them to explore those things,” he says. “I love to see students who don’t think they can do something and by the end of the degree prove to them that they can.” His name for graduation day, he adds, is “I Told You So Day”.

Recently, Curran has set his sights on helping even more young programmers achieve their goals by lobbying for programming to be taught at school. Even if children have no intention of entering the IT industry, he argues that they still need to understand the underlying principles of the computer code that pervades nearly every aspect of modern life. “We teach kids about the planets, but how many are going to become astronomers?” he says. “There’s a combination of knowledge you have because it’s part of the basis of our community.”

Teaching programming in schools will also boost Australia’s future economic prosperity, says the researcher, who sits on the committee that is writing the new national digital technology curriculum for primary and high school students. Most importantly of all, he says, it will give more students the opportunity to find a job they love: “I do all this because I’m interested in people,” he says.

All his outreach, teaching and research, as well as his duties as a father since the birth of his son last year, leave him “constantly teetering on the edge of chaos”, Curran says.

Luckily, many of his former students have started to take up the slack by sharing the burden of mentoring, tutoring and organising outreach for young people. Last year, there were 50 applications for just 20 tutor positions at the NCSS. His students have also taken charge of his highly successful NCSS Challenge initiative, which taught over 4000 young people the programming language Python last year. “It makes me sad not to be needed, but that’s the way it should be,” he smiles. “When you get to the point that the people at the end of the pipeline care whether there are more people coming into the pipeline, I can drop out.”

Zooming with language

When searching for information online, we often face the problem of distinguishing between two different things with the same name. For example, there’s both an Australian and an American broadcaster named ABC, and searching for one gives us results for the other.

James Curran understands more than most the confusion that can arise from identical names: he is often mistaken for another Associate Professor at the University of Sydney also named James Curran, who works in the Department of History. Appropriately, then, his research focuses on teaching computers how to cope with these ambiguities in language in order to deliver us exactly the information we’re looking for.

In a joint project with the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre and Fairfax Media, Curran has developed a web application called Zoom which can identify and track all the stories in the Fairfax newspaper archives involving a particular person or topic. It relies on his team’s natural language processing software not only to distinguish between different subjects with the same name but also to know when the same subject goes by many different names.

“Ultimately, what we are trying to do is build systems that are a better version of Google or [voice-activated iPhone application] Siri,” he explains. “The aim is that you can actually get the answer that you’re asking for as opposed to just a set of documents that contain the key words you’re interested in.”