Another project which has been exercising my mind of late is a Christmas lecture for 13 year old school pupils. Computer science departments all over the world are in fearful dread because of falling numbers. Kids just don't want to study computer science anymore. Plus,a previously low birth rate in the UK mean that there will simply be fewer people in the university demographic after 2010, so there will be a smaller pool of potential students. In Scotland, the number of computing graduates has dropped by a third in the last four years, while demand for computing graduates has doubled (according to Computing Scotland)
Our department now has a recruitment committee of 4 academics, including me. Terror of losing students and therefore income has caused the three universities in Edinburgh to club together to try and interest kids in computing, in the hope of getting more admission to undergrad courses in a few years' time. And of course, we consulted local secondary school teachers who suggested we do a talk at Christmas time for 2nd year pupils, and a set of workshops for 16 year olds in May.
And, by golly, do I rue the day anyone suggested a Christmas lecture! At some point we thought it would be a good idea to do a play based on a Christmas Carol, except with the Ghosts of Computing Past, Present and Future. In a manner which could only happen in academia, this spiralled out of control with no one having time to put into managing this demented enterprise until far too late. And then Scrooge got glandular fever. I was haunted by the spectre of cheesiness: the kids would split their slides laughing at us and the image of computer scientists as weird geeks would be perpetuated. This wasn't helped by my husband (also a computer scientist) who told me he felt worried everytime I mentioned the play, so cheesy did he think it all was.
Anyway, we rescued it from ruin in the end. It took place yesterday and the kids seemed to manage to stay awake and didn't shriek with derision. Actually, I think they quite liked it. THe teachers wrote to thank us and to say "I think the students got a good insight into where computing has come from and where it may be going. Please pass on our (and the students) thanks to all the staff involved with the event. Hopefully, we will be liaising on similar events in the future."
The secret, of course, is that you can get away with cheesy if the kids know you realise it is cheesy too. You want them laughing with you, not at you. This was much aided by one of my project students who gallantly played the ghost: a lumbering 6ft ghost in a white sheet which was too short for him with his jeans and massive trainers clearly visible. "Look and listen Scrooge, and you will learn" he said in a broad Edinburgh accent. I also got to call my colleague a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching covetous old sinner". And the kids liked seeing my iPhone project large on the document camera. Fancy gadgets always win the day.
So in spite of the fiendish waste of staff time and adrenaline, it turned out all right in the end. The head of department was relieved from his worry about us besmirching the good university name and congratulated us handsomely. Mery Christmas! God bless us all, everyone!