UCAS Listings: Getting to grips with technology

Student profile: Robyn Giles, studying computing science at the University of Aston
One of the growth courses of the Nineties is computing sciences. The course often attracts a large number of mature students, who realise they need computing skills to further their career.

Robyn Giles from Birmingham decided to take a course in computing science at the University of Aston after a brief career as a medical illustrator with the NHS.

She says: "I looked around and saw that computing was the course which should enable me to change career direction."

Entry to the course was gained via a two-year business and finance course at the University of Central England.

Robyn, who comes from New Zealand, had left school at 17, with the equivalent of GCSEs.

"I looked around at a variety of courses in computing at universities in the Midlands, and Aston attracted me because it seemed to be a very friendly place, and it also offered 24-hour access to the computing labs. That was very important to me because I could fit my work around my other commitments."

Aston currently offers three courses in computing skills - one in hardware engineering, one in information technology, and Robyn's course in computing sciences. "I went for this one because it seemed the more middle-of-the- road course, as my main interest is in programming."

Entry to all three courses is usually gained via A-levels in the traditional science subjects, but the university is willing to look at other forms of qualifications, for students who don't come straight from A-levels.

Most students enter the course with at least a basic knowledge of IT and programming, gained through the National Curriculum. Robyn was starting from scratch!

"Of course I've come across computers in the course of my work, but compared to some of the other students on my course I am something of a novice," she says. But she was reassured by the tutors that the four-year course did start at the most basic level.

Robyn, who has just completed her first year, says: "At first we were given quite basic scenarios and problems to work through. This will be something like a company that wants to make a full note of the telephone charges it incurs, and to look at the different rates they have to pay at different times of the day and month. Then we would have to create a database for this problem. Most of us would come up with a slightly different route, and the lecturers would explain which was the right way and the wrong way to arrive at the solution."

Students have also been introduced to basic hardware, circuitry and the basdics of all the different systems. "This has been quite heavy going," says Robyn, "but we do have to learn the nuts and bolts of how a computer works!"

Students are also being gradually introduced to different computer languages. "Eventually we will get to what's called 'assembly' language. At the moment we're just learning a bit at a time, because it is very complicated," she says. The course currently uses the system "Ada".

The students are also assessed on their communication skills, as this is a course geared very much towards the workplace. Surprisingly, none of the exam work is actually done on a computer in the first year. "The exam was worth 80 per cent of our year mark, and we were asked to write essays on how to resolve various problems. I think at this stage the tutors want to see that we fully understand how to get from A to B before we concentrate much more on actually using the computers," Robyn says.

The course shares a number of lectures with the two other computing courses, and then has specific tutorials. There are currently 60 people on Robyn's course - of whom only five are women. "It does seem to be quite male-dominated," she says. "I know the university wants to attract more women, but it seems computing is still very much a male subject."

At Aston there is a great deal of practical lab-time, when students work on their own. "I enjoy this the most," says Robyn. "There are people around who can help and I find the practical programming side by far the most interesting."

Despite having less experience than most of the students on her course, Robyn says she was "very pleased" at her first- year exam results. There is some continuous assessment and each exam is weighted to take account of its relevance to the course. "This means that modules like systematic programming are worth much more than others," she says.

In the third year, students have found an industrial placement in business and commerce. Robyn says that the success rate for students finding employment from the course is very high. "The university seems to have very close links with industry," says Robyn. "I'm not sure exactly which direction I want to go in after the course but I'm finding out where my strengths lie and I know that Aston will point me in the right direction."

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