Shortly I shall have to dash to smile at our esteemed Principle as he presents prizes to the winner of our programming competition. The interesting part of the event has already happened: hearing the winners' presentations and talking to them and their parents over lunch. The programming challenge is a super hard competition offered to fifth and sixth year pupils, with laptop prizes for group and individual award winners. The winners this year were John, Chris and Adam from Abereen and Inverkeithing.
I nearly fell off my chair when I saw their presentations. My colleagues and I were really impressed - they are model students. I spent yesterday watching our fourth year honours presentations, and they weren't as different from these school pupils as you might think! Luckily one of the three is coming to study with us next year (although I do wonder what we will find to teach him. :-) ).
What struck me most was that these pupils were self taught. They studied computing as school, but were rather disdainful of it. One of them resented the "menial work" he had to do, but which he meant simple but time consuming exercises well below his difficulty level (This may sound familiar to my colleagues studying on lecturer training courses...). What he wanted, and what the competition gave him, was challenge.
The pupils taught themselves new programming languages - Ruby and C++ neither of which are usually taught even in first year uni. They worked without help from adults or more experienced peers. The group winners decided to make the task more tricky for themselves by putting a 3D graphics simulation on top of the underlying scheduling AI problem they had to solve. They learned methods of collaborating successfully using Skype. One of them has been teaching himself Linux, java and Second Life to get ready for university. He is looking forward to starting his new course so he can learn even more.
Computer science attracts such dedicated independent learners. My husband was one. Bill Gates is one. I would bet the "boys from google" (as I once heard them described by a smug Stanford technology transfer office) also had a strong self tuaght interest from an early age.
Our job is often to teach the rest of the class. We have to get the poorer and average students to pass. The trick is, I suspect, not to squander the rarer natural talent which comes our way and to keep challenging the best students all the way through the degree.