Race to code at the National Computer Science School

2 August 2013

This year's National Computer Science School challenge has a record number of female students.
This year's National Computer Science School challenge has a record number of female students.

It will be a race to top the coding leader board when as many as five hundred high schools join the annual National Computer Science School (NCSS) challenge at the University of Sydney next week.

The challenge which commences on Monday 5 August was devised to combat the declining numbers of students studying software design and development in schools, and this year has a record number of female students. It has also expanded across the Tasman into schools in neighbouring New Zealand and Singapore.

Two NCSS tutors and computer science PhD candidates from the School of Information Technologies, Nicky Ringland and Georgina Wilcox will manage the event.

Citing NSW Board of Studies statistics Nicky says, in 2001 as many as 3000 students were studying coding related subjects in NSW; by 2011 the number had dropped by 50 percent.

"Every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn to code," states Nicky who together with Georgina has designed this year's multi-level coding challenges including one modelled on a last year favourite.

Nicky says: "I'm a linguist as well as a computer scientist, and I'm particularly interested in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Last year I crafted a coding question that allowed students to write a program that could translate English into Warlpiri, an Aboriginal language from the Northern Territory. They loved it. This year I'm working on a question involving another Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language."

Also part of the NCSS challenge program is an Industry Mentor Forum which gives students the opportunity to ask questions of software engineers working in the profession.

"Computational thinking or coding skills are important for a wide range of industries and careers," states Nicky. "We sometimes forget that we are surrounded by technology, we rely on it completely, but in general it is quite poorly understood. People think being able to use a computer is enough these days but it's not. So much of what we use in our daily lives relies on programmers to keep it working: our transport systems, banking, and medical research, even our sports and entertainment."

In a sign of the times, students as young as eleven have enrolled in the challenge that systemically teaches them either how to code or improve their coding skills.

Georgina says while each student works independently to submit a code that is electronically marked, students are supported throughout the five week challenge by a team of volunteer tutors.

"The NCSS challenge has amazing potential to encourage and engage students. It lets a student who is perhaps the only one at their school interested in computing suddenly be in this environment where everyone shares their passion," says Georgina.

"For the entire five weeks of the challenge, the online forums are abuzz. Students discuss everything from algorithm efficiency to cartoons, bioinformatics to computational linguistics, computer games to sharing subject selection advice. There is a lot of rivalry to complete each level and become number one on the leader board."

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Victoria Hollick, 9351 2579, 0401 711 361,