19 schools to offer programming at O levels

(Clockwise from far left) Bukit View Secondary School students Tan Whee Lee, 14; Nicholas Chong, 13; Tio Hui Li, 13; M. Charulatha, 13; head of department for science Ng Wuay Boon, 38; level head for science and Applied Learning Programme Reena Lloyd
(Clockwise from far left) Bukit View Secondary School students Tan Whee Lee, 14; Nicholas Chong, 13; Tio Hui Li, 13; M. Charulatha, 13; head of department for science Ng Wuay Boon, 38; level head for science and Applied Learning Programme Reena Lloyd, 33; Brandon Ng, 14; and (squatting) Neo Jun Wei, 13, with solar cars they built. It is part of the school's efforts to interest lower secondary students in coding and programming.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Starting next year at Sec 3, course emphasises real-world application of computing concepts

Singapore's aim to be a Smart Nation has prompted 19 secondary schools to offer programming as part of a new O-level subject called computing.

It will start next year, at the Secondary 3 level.

With its introduction, the existing computer studies subject offered by 12 secondary schools will be phased out by next year, when the last group of students take it at the O-level examination.

The move puts into action a call made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year, when he launched the Smart Nation initiative, which will use technology to make daily living convenient.

He called for children to be exposed to programming from a young age, "to enable the most talented and interested ones to be able to go far and develop their talent in IT in schools".

The Education Ministry told The Straits Times that the new subject will focus on programming, algorithm, data management and computer architecture.

It declined, however, to disclose the schools offering computing. But the list is said to include Bukit View Secondary School, Chung Cheng High (Yishun) and Zhonghua Secondary School.

The programming language that the students will learn is called Python, now taught only at A levels.

Python is one of the top 10 programming languages and is more relevant in meeting real-world needs, said teachers interviewed.

Bukit View Secondary teacher Lee Poh Tin, who was on the ministry's committee that developed the computing syllabus, said: "In computer studies, for instance, students learn about the various data types, but they don't need to work with it. For the new subject, they have to write a program using the data types."

Ms Lee, a computer science graduate, will teach computing at her school.

In programming, data types refer to operations that can be processed with programming language.

Hands-on learning will be a big part of the new subject, with students required to apply their computing concepts and skills to solve real-world problems, said the ministry. In fact, students will have to code a program during their O-level examination.

But not everything in computer studies will be discarded. Some elements, such as IT security and ethics, will remain as they are relevant, said Chung Cheng High teacher Wong Shing Liu.

Teacher training in the subject has already begun.

Last year, 21 teachers, including Ms Wong, attended a year-long course helmed by computer science professor Ben Leong, from the National University of Singapore's School of Computing.

Another 22 teachers are being trained now.

Prof Leong applauds the move to enthuse students in computer science and software engineering. But, he said: "It remains to be seen whether this will lead to more students entering such fields".

Even if they do not, Bukit View Secondary's vice-principal Shirley Lee said "the skills of computational thinking and logical reasoning will put them in good stead in any science, technology, engineering and maths fields".

The importance of having more engineers here was underlined by PM Lee earlier this month, amid plans by the civil service to expand its pool of engineers.

He urged people to rethink engineering jobs and see them as core to a business, instead of being a support function.

Meanwhile, Bukit View Secondary is stepping up efforts to interest lower secondary students in coding and programming.

For science lessons, Secondary 1 students will learn to build a solar car and code an animation of the human digestive system.

In Secondary 2, they will program a water-sensing robot to test the quality of the school pond.

The lessons have got Secondary 2 student Neo Jun Wei interested in programming and he wants to do computing next year.

His interest started last year, when he built a solar car: "It was not easy, but it was very satisfying to see the result of your hard work."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline '19 schools to offer programming at O levels'. Print Edition | Subscribe