Perceptions of Computer Science

V.C. Galpin and I.D. Sanders

Reflections on Work-In-Progress Symposium, University of the Witwatersrand, September 2002


Research in South Africa, and internationally has shown that students often have incorrect perceptions about the nature and content of computer science at university level. Examples of misperceptions include: computer science is programming, computer science is word processing, careers for computer scientists involve little interaction with people, women do not do computer science, etc. Another concern within the computer science community is the low number of women taking the subject, and this may be, in part, caused by these misperceptions. 

In the School of Computer Science at Wits, we have developed a curriculum to deal with these misperceptions. An important part of our first year curriculum is conveying the breadth of Computer Science to our students. This is achieved through less emphasis on programming, and more emphasis on fundamental computer science concepts such as algorithms, data structures and theoretical models of computers such as Turing machines, as well as social and ethical issues and the limits of what can be achieved with computers. 

We have been collecting data to investigate the effect of this curriculum. Part of this data collection involves surveying the incoming class over the past four years. A question of interest is how the students' perceptions (before they study computer science at university) have changed over that period. It is important for us to ensure that students have a realistic idea of what computer science at university involves to avoid disappointment with the course material, and hence we need to understand the current perceptions of students. 

The research to be presented at the seminar will include an analysis of the data collected at the start of each year, investigating trends over the period that students were surveyed and gender differences in perceptions. Additionally, suggestions for positively influencing students' perceptions in advance of university study will be presented. 

Slides - PDF