Computer science - maths and further maths a levels?

(76 Posts)
Ireallydontseewhy Fri 22-Apr-16 08:14:14

So, i think i know what answer i'm expecting, but always good to get other people's experience. Dc is interested in computer programming - though only at gcse level so far! Am i right that if you want to do computer science at degree level you are really looking at taking maths and possibly even further maths, at a level? And not necessarily doing computer science a level?

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Ricardian Fri 22-Apr-16 08:28:00

CS lecturer in RG.

A few universities want further maths. Currently Imperial and a few of the Cambridge colleges, but I suspect Warwick will join them shortly. Anecdotally, it's a line they find hard to hold and they offer a lot of alternative routes (STEP, in particular) but I suspect they will get harder about it over the coming few years.

The new Computing A Level is very good, and recommended by many places (including the above places that want FM). I suspect that the very best students have M, FM and CS, but I don't know: we don't ask for FM and don't get many students with it.

A few places will currently accept Computing or A Level maths, plus two others. Without wishing to get involved in crystal-ball gazing, I think that situation is unlikely to persist and the Russell Group and the next tier will have A Level Maths as a hard requirement, as it was in the past, within the timescale your son is concerned with. Courses you can access without A Level maths are making other compromises, and in any event students who do not have A Level maths fail the first year at a wildly disproportionate rate (note: they aren't comparable in other ways, tending to be first-in-family, so this isn't as clear-cut as the numbers imply).

If my children wanted to follow me but keep their options a little bit open I'd recommend Maths, Physics and Computing (which is what I did thirty-five years ago) and add Further Maths if the school permitted it. If restricted to three A Levels, then I'd also consider Maths, Further Maths and Physics and do Computing as an external entrant or just keep up a hobby interest. That way you have all of computing, all the engineerings, maths and physics open to you, at all universities (there are no institutions demanding A Level computing, mostly because it's not remotely universally available).

But in summary, if you don't do A Level maths, as of today you are excluding almost all the RG computer science departments and a lot of the next tier, and in two or three years time that situation will be even more clear cut (places that on paper say they will consider candidates without A Level maths in practice either don't', or impose additional conditions you may not find congenial).

Oh, and don't let anyone try to convince you that BTEC IT qualifications will get you on to selective CS degrees. They probably won't, and if by some miracle you manage it, about 75% of such students fail the first year. There are claims that starting next year BTEC IT is being "improved". We'll believe that when we see it, and are not planning to change our blanket refusal to accept it.

HildurOdegard Fri 22-Apr-16 08:34:34

I did chemistry, biology and maths (pure and applied). Most on my software engineering course had swapped out biology for physics.

Ireallydontseewhy Fri 22-Apr-16 09:04:10

Thanks both - that is so helpful! Ricardian, is it the aqa a level that's very good - can't remember if it's called computing or computer science.

Well, dc is not keen on maths (though reasonably good so far - though i know things change a lot after gcse, as it gets much harder and not something you can 'get' through hard work if you don't have that kind of brain at a level). and really doesn't like physics - so suspect may be going in a different direction unless things change in the next year. In those circs i suppose it's quite odd that dc is so keen on progamming if it's so maths based!

But it is really useful to have it confirmed about entrance requirements - having been met with slight disbelief when i ventured this opinion - thank you so much! Looks like it's back to humanities/Mfl.
Much harder now it's down to 3 a levels at dc's school - if it were still 4 as levels i might suggest 2 humanities, maths and cs for as, then decide in august (not ideal for cs i know, but at least keeping the options open)
Interesting that it seems oxford doesn't require further maths (though i am not bovvered about oxbridge, dc may be)

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Ricardian Fri 22-Apr-16 09:13:21

is it the aqa a level that's very good

I don't think anyone has got down to that level of detail: the point is, not ICT.

From what we hear, it's also very rare for someone to get an A in computing without also getting an A in maths. If anyone has access to exam board data it would be interesting to know how many people get "AAA including computing but not including maths".

I might suggest 2 humanities, maths and cs for as, then decide in august (not ideal for cs i know

Bloody marvellous for CS, if you can do it. Some of our very best students (pre the return of A Level computing) have had things like maths, history, french. Maths, computing, history would be perfect: analytic and essay writing. The problem is that it's committing, because dropping physics rules out all the rest of engineering and most of the mathematical sciences.

However, you would probably have to take maths through to A2 to get onto any selective course. You will find there are a few courses today that don't insist on maths, but it's highly likely they will change that within the next few years.

Ricardian Fri 22-Apr-16 09:16:55

In those circs i suppose it's quite odd that dc is so keen on progamming if it's so maths based!

Computer science degrees are less than 40% programming. Much of that programming is mathematical. For example, go and do a graphics course: if you don't have matrix manipulation and good 3D trig, roughly how are you going to draw 3D object onto a 2D screen in an arbitrary orientation? Then go and do a machine learning course: how are you going to study, say, Bayesian inference without the maths and statistics? A complexity course without some basic calculus? Etc, etc.

Ireallydontseewhy Fri 22-Apr-16 09:26:04

Thanks again ricardian! Unfortunately 2 plus 2 would mean a change of school as it is a 3 a level, no as level, 6th form where dc is now. Epq any good? It may be worth considering changing school if dc is really set on computing - though as you say not many schools offer it. Art history yes, computing no (and not knocking art history at all! - but have been surprised at how rare it is to have computing in 6th forms, including very, and i mean very, 'academic' 6ths). And changing school has other disadvantages..

But in any case if dc doesn't want to do maths that rules it out! I do think there is a certain type of mind that finds maths quite easy to gcse, and can get an a star, but then doesn't go beyond that to a level - not liking maths may be an indication of that! And not liking physics may be another! Sorry, rather a lot of exclamation marks.

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Ireallydontseewhy Fri 22-Apr-16 09:31:08

Cross posted! Ah, that makes sense. I suspect gcse computing (not ict) may be less maths oriented, more 'coding' and that's what dc enjoys. What you said about 2 d reps of 3d is precisely what i mean about the gcse to a level jump! After gcse it stops being arithmetic and starts being really difficult - particularly that spatial stuff like 'plan and elevation'.

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HildurOdegard Fri 22-Apr-16 10:02:00

I would say that in my experience it was not necessary to have a huge amount of maths, although we had a compulsary maths module all years, only the engineering students (as opposed to straight CS) were required to study formal methods. As Ricardian says, less than 50% of the course is pure programming - and I felt that logic (i.e., building an algorithm) far out-weighed the need to be a genius with calculus.

I was in industry nearly 10 years before I actually applied any of the maths that I'd learned at degree level - and most of my peers had come from statistical maths backgrounds.

On a lighter note, there was a girl on my course who'd received offers for both software and pottery degrees. smile

Twowrongsdontmakearight Fri 22-Apr-16 10:07:12

Watching with interest. DS wants to do a degree in Computer Science and is planning on doing Further Maths, Physics and Computer Science A levels with either Chemistry or Spanish AS. Does it matter which AS he does?

Ricardian Fri 22-Apr-16 10:18:25

Many employers regard CS as the third choice for computing roles, after maths and physics. Maths with a year of computing (MSc or intercalated) is probably their dream ticket, which is why selective CS degrees are only going to become more mathematical. Remember: Bill Gates passed what is probably the toughest first year maths programme in the world, Harvard Math 55, as did Richard Stallman (there's a fantasy world in which one was a year older and the other a year younger, and they shared a classroom for a year). Page and Brin (Google) do have CS backgrounds, but in extremely mathematical programmes which would in UK terms look a lot like "a maths degree with a year of computing", and their PhD work was basically pure maths, particularly Brin's. The book "Google's Pagerank and Beyond" is a book allegedly about how Google's search works, but is actually a final year discrete maths textbook in a pretty cover, all Markov chains and Perron vectors.

The complaint from banks, defence, security, gaming, web commerce is that CS graduates don't have enough maths, and it's much easier to teach maths graduates to code their maths than it is to teach CS graduates the maths they need to code. If you're comfortable around matrices but can only thrash around in MatLab, they can teach you their language of choice easily. The converse is not true. That's something that most CS departments are well aware of, and the mathematical demands of CS degrees are only going to increase.

Ricardian Fri 22-Apr-16 10:26:41

I felt that logic (i.e., building an algorithm) far out-weighed the need to be a genius with calculus.

In practice, the latter predicts the former, and the dropout rate amongst students with weak mathematics on entry is high enough that it's less and less likely that over-subscribed departments are willing to take the risk. The problem is that students without A Level maths at the moment tend to have weak GCSE maths and it's possible to get a B, or even an A, while not studying quite a large part of the GCSE syllabus. Throw in the early entry policies of some schools and you could have someone starting a CS degree whose last maths was getting a B at GCSE three years ago. Such students fail, at extremely high rates. It isn't justifiable, morally as well as practically, to take on 10 students knowing that 8 of them will fail the first year on the off-chance that 2 of them do OK. You'd be much, much, much better off taking students with AAB including maths in clearing than makingh AAA offers not including maths (there's the complexity of students with AAA including computing but not maths, but as I said upthread, they appear not to exist in any quantity).

surprised at how rare it is to have computing in 6th forms, including very, and i mean very, 'academic' 6ths

It's not seen as "academic": CS departments have very low rates of private education compared to the level in their institution as a whole, and private and selective schools rarely offer it. The ICT A Level was weak (several CS departments got to the point of not counting it as an A Level at all) and the news that the new syllabus is much better has been slow to travel. And, of course, A Level computing is difficult for some ICT teachers to teach.

Ricardian Fri 22-Apr-16 10:27:18

Chemistry or Spanish AS. Does it matter which AS he does?

No. A language is nice: Erasmus years look good on a CV.

Ireallydontseewhy Fri 22-Apr-16 11:27:50

Very interesting ricardian - so if you want a career in computing you may be better off doing maths or physics? (Provided you can handle the course, obviously!).

Yes, cs is not a 'facilitating subject' - so i think what you're saying is that it doesn't have the same 'academic' status as say maths or physics? Or even of less obviously 'difficult' 'facilitating subjects' like the humanities. Hmm, tricky. Again, not so much of a problem when there were 4 choices for year 12, but more so when you only have three. A couple of the very academic 6th forms do offer it, but then they tend to offer 4 subjects as well.
This is so helpful - thank you!

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Ricardian Fri 22-Apr-16 11:56:01

so if you want a career in computing you may be better off doing maths or physics?

Whisper it, but yes, depending on the employer (and being able to do it, as you say).

And those degrees, particularly maths, open up other avenues as well.

Of course, there are a lot of IT/programming/etc jobs where a CS degree is preferable because you can hit the ground running. Horses for courses. But the maths-y jobs are often better paid and/or more interesting.

Ireallydontseewhy Fri 22-Apr-16 12:06:19

Or (as i think you may have suggested upthread!) maths followed by an msc in computer science)?
Twowrongs, sounds as though your dc's school is going down the 3 a levels, one as level route? Much broader. I am beginning to question whether 3 a levels only is necessarily the ideal for all 6th formers. Epq adds another aspect, but not the same as an as in spanish! Or even an as in maths! On the other hand changing school is another kettle of fish - distraction and additional stress in yr 11 of applying to other places, leaving a known social milieu., familiar and liked teachers. Hmmm.

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marialuisa Fri 22-Apr-16 17:58:03

If he is seriously interested look at the Computer Science course offered by University of Nottingham. No A level maths requirement because they did a lot of data analysis and found it made no difference to final degree performance.

Ireallydontseewhy Sat 23-Apr-16 09:32:00

Thanks marialuisa, will have a look. Nottingham would be a great university to go to as well! Not a stem expert at all here, so it is so useful to get this kind of info. Very kind of you all to share! Would be interesting to look at employment rates after the different courses as well.
It Seems very young to be making such life determining decisions - but if going to look at other 6th forms i think you have to start early on in yr 11 - open days in autumn term, etc

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PointlessFriend Sat 23-Apr-16 09:54:57

BTW HEADSTART do some great CS taster courses. DS attended a residential course with them a few years ago.

Ireallydontseewhy Sat 23-Apr-16 10:35:57

Thanks pointless, just had a look at them, the non-res courses look good as well!

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PointlessFriend Sat 23-Apr-16 10:42:25

I think he did a day course too. If you are anywhere near London the London University a Taster Days are good too.

noblegiraffe Sat 23-Apr-16 10:48:34

Two DS wants to do a degree in Computer Science and is planning on doing Further Maths, Physics and Computer Science A levels

You can't do further maths A-level without maths A-level. He could do maths, physics and comp science then further maths at AS, although it might be possible to take further maths as a full 4th A-level.

noblegiraffe Sat 23-Apr-16 10:49:24

The reason that many sixth forms aren't offering computer science is because there's a severe shortage of teachers who can teach it.

Ireallydontseewhy Sat 23-Apr-16 10:56:32

I can imagine noble - do you have to have a cs degree to teach a level, or could a maths teacher teach it? It's definitely Something worth considering - are you likely to be left stuck if the teacher leaves at end of yr 12 and a replacement can't be found! (Negative thinking i know, but i seem to remember a recent thread about ict - cs even more so i would have thought...)

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Ricardian Sat 23-Apr-16 11:23:30

do you have to have a cs degree to teach a level, or could a maths teacher teach it?

A maths teacher with computing experience probably could, but there's hardly an excess of maths teachers hanging around schools with nothing to do, and there are massive changes in train for both GCSE and A Level which probably have first call on their time. The point is that a lot of current ICT teachers might struggle: there are a frightening number of vaguely-IT degrees which contain little or no programming.

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