University of Birmingham Study Courses
Courses in general
Anyone who’s been to university will surely remember that seminal phrase from family and friends back home! Sure, you’re at university to have a good time, absorb the atmosphere, and generally to get a little ‘life experience’. But first and foremost, you want to come out of the other end of your course with a ... degree – that’s what you’re working towards. And boy do you work! Well, if you’re a Computer Scientist you do anyway – I just finished my second year after 10 (yes, that’s ten) exams, while some of my slightly luckier friends came out of the year with as few as 1. Oh well – that’s the way the penny drops…
- The university
Although you’ll find out a whole lot more about the university from my upcoming specific review on the wonderful academic institution, I think it’s important to slip in some of the more important details into this op first. The University of Birmingham, which celebrated it’s centenary in the year 2000, is a very well established university, with a certain amount of prestige attached to it’s work. Established in 1900, it has specified more explicitly in the main science and engineering disciplines, but in recent year has branched into more diverse fields such as humanities and law.
Based in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham, barely a few miles from the city centre, the University is in prime position, with everything on campus, and even it’s own train station on the Lichfield Trent Valley/Redditch line.
- The School of Computer Science
Or simply CS as some of us more affectionately call it. The School has been around for quite some time now, and although I couldn’t tell you exactly how long, I can say that it has certainly become an integral part of the University. Starting off with just a simplest Computing course, it has now branched out into many areas, with courses including:
Single Honours courses – these are the straight 'one subject' courses, which the majority of students undertake for their degree. The different flavours are as follows:
Computer Science and Software Engineering
Computer Science and Software Engineering with Business Studies
Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence
The two main, and most popular, blends are Computer Science/Software Engineering (CSSE) and Computer Science/Artificial Intelligence (CSAI). However, you can also take on a bit more work if that's your fancy…
Joint Honours courses – these courses combine two different disciplines, and are great for people who a) want to diversify their learning somewhat, or b) don't think the Single Honours course will challenge them enough! (who are you kidding!) The different types of Joint Honours course are:
Psychology and Artificial Intelligence
Mathematics and Computer Science
Mathematics and Artificial Intelligence
Computer Science and an Arts subject
Artificial Intelligence and an Arts subject
Electronic and Software Engineering
Computer Science and Civil Engineering
- Location and facilities of the School
This is actually more tricky than you may at first think. You see, after years of being stuck in an arm of Aston Webb building near the Great Hall at the centre of the campus, the School has finally outgrown it's location, and so the University has thankfully built us a brand new building (at last!), which is over near the West Gate of the campus, right near the railway station.. Hopefully, by the time the next term starts, the whole School will have migrated over to a brand new custom-built building, and I'll have to learn where all the rooms are again! Ah well, it'll be worth it, it all looks very posh :)
The old CS department had a fair few facilites, and most (if not all) are being transferred over to the new building:
» Library – the School has it's own library where you can sit and quietly study, collect marked essays, photocopy books or borrow reference materials for your course.
» Labs – the School has lots of labs. I'm not sure how it will be laid out in the new building, but the old department had two UNIX labs, one with Windows NT machines in it, and a few research labs that us young 'uns aren't allowed in :)
» Net connection – fast! very faaaast :)
» Common Room – we've been without one for some time, but now we've got a nice room with comfy chairs in so we can sit and chat or study.
- The course
The course I study is the one known as Computer Science/Software Engineering. CSSE offers a good balance between the hardcore programming side of the industry, and the planning and developing side of the industry. When I started the course, all I really wanted to do was program, and program a lot, but now I can see, after visiting some establishments looking for a placement for this year, that the planning methods and ideas that I've learnt about in the Software Engineering side of my course will prove quite useful in the future. While my course was a BSc, it is soon to become a BEng I hear, that is, from a Bachelor of Science degree to a Bachelor of Engineering degree. So what are the two sides of the course like?
» Computer Science. This part of the course gives you a good grounding in the theories of computing, as well as getting you going as far as learning programming languages goes. While there's a little hardware theory, there's not much, so if you're a hardware kind of guy/gal, this isn't the course for you.
» Software Engineering. This is the part of the course where you learn how the industry writes programs – right from the first design stages, right through to the mainte nance stages at the end. Sure, it can get a little tedious at times, but you'll soon find out how useful it'll be!
The course is changing all the time to make it more dynamic and to incorporate and allow for changes and developments within the computing world. I could give you a rundown of all the modules I have done, but it'd probably be wrong for next years syllabus – I know for a fact that some of the modules have merged and changed already. But I'll try and give you a general overview of what it'll be like:
This is where people play catch-up, and the School tries to level everyone out at approximately the same level of understanding. This means you get a maths course, which will be (relatively) easy for people who did A-Level Maths, and absolute murder for people who didn't. And you get the 'Introduction to Computer Science' course, which will be (relatively) easy for all those people who did A-Level Computer Science. You also get your first introduction to programming – this will be in Java (until something better comes along), just as it was in C++ a few years back.
This is where the work REALLY gets going. The main focus of the course is the second semester 'Team Project' where you're dumped with a team of people, and have to program an application to fulfill a specific task, while co-ordinating your team into groups and splitting the project between you. Trust me, it's a LOT harder than it sounds, and if you get a bad team (like with people who don't turn up or don't do any work) then it's even worse – but it's meant to mimic real life, and you might have those problems in the real world.
There more to choose from this year, and you can do plenty of different options. Choose carefully – you have no idea how frustrating it can be if you're stuck with a particularly boring or difficult module for a year! It 's also important to remember that this year builds on your first year experience, and you can steer your course in a specific direction if you want to.
This year you have a choice – you can take a year out/do a year in industry, or you can carry right on to the final year. If you choose the former, then obviously you'll have a 4th year to deal with, but more on that in a bit. The final year is probably the most important year, and the main part of it is a 'Final Year Project' which you have to plan, complete and document all by yourself. No mean feat! And you can also specialise your learning a bit more. I can't tell you an awful lot about this year, because I haven't done it yet!
Assessment varies throughout the course, some modules have a combination of continuous (homework and the like) and examined assessment, while some courses just have one or the other. The thing I hate the most is the 'VIVA' style assessment, where the lecturer and some assisting 'demonstrators' (older students who are helping out) have a kind of form saying 'two marks if they've done this, one mark if they've done this'. The problem is, some people are harsher markers than others, and it all very much depends on who is marking your work. Luckily, this doesn't crop up TOO often, but it's annoying when it does.
As for the exams, well, here comes the fun part. Someone high up in University administration, in their infinite wisdom, decided last year that it would be much more helpful if all the exams were at the end of the year, rather than some at Christmas, and some in the summer. Having sat exams in both conditions, I can certainly tell you that the old system worked a lot better, and I was stuck with 10 exams at once, rather than a 5-5 split. I'm pretty much convinced that it was just to make some admin a bit easier, but that's just me being cyni cal. I can definitely see marks averages going down as a result though – I was bloody exhausted after this year's stint!
Obviously, another important aspect of the course is 'Who's teaching it?'. I can tell you now, it's a mixed bag of lecturers, as with pretty much every university in the country. There's good ones and bad ones, and there are also those who seem to hate having to teach, and those who love it to bits. You'll find it wherever you go, as I've found from talking to old school friends. I have to say – the top lecturer I've had so far has been Mark Ryan for first year Java. He's amiable, and teaches the course in a way that's simple and easy to understand. There ARE lecturers however who are seemingly a bit incompetent, and while they probably know their subject really well, they are really bad at conveying it! I'm not here to name and shame though, so I can just say that another top lecturer is former Head of School Achim Jung who teaches a lot of 'theories of computing' type modules, and does a brilliant job with difficult material. Even though there are a couple of dodgy lecturers, as you would find in any university, I haven't really come across any that I couldn't learn from – which is obviously a good thing.
- Industrial Placement
I mentioned earlier that you could spend your third year on an industrial placement, learning how the industry works, and getting some experience for your CV. That's exactly what I'm doing this year, and while it wasn't exactly the kind of job I was after (I possibly left it a bit too late), it's some money for the final year, and a bit of work experience too.
I should mention that while Birmingham is quite happy for you to go on work placements for the extra 'Year In Industry' line on your degree, they don't do an awful lot to help. While some uni versities will get you in with all the major companies, or even insist that you have a placement, Birmingham expect you to go out and sort it all out yourself, and then tell them when you have. I was quite disappointed with this approach, I have to admit.
- So, should you take the course?
I think so – I've enjoyed my time so far, and while I've found it challenging, it's been mostly quite interesting, and I've learned a lot (which is the point after all). It's certainly quite software orientated, but that's good as I didn't want much to do with hardware. The facilities and location are great, and while not all the course is sit-up-and-listen interesting, you'd be doing miraculously well to find a course that had exactly the modules you wanted to do in it. There are some bad points to the course, but there are also lots of good points, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't made some great friends through my time at CS. A good course at a great university – I'm having a great time!
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Courses in general
The course here is interesting in parts but is hardly thrilling stuff. Little effort is made to engage the student in the stubject. Lectures tend to be boring but well organised with useful handouts. Seminars are slightly more entertaining but the student gets few opportunites to study areas of particualr interest. The ... library is well stocked and runs smoothly - there is never much trouble getting books. It is the short day loan system that allows this but it never seems worth it at 9:30 the following morning when you have to get up to return books.
The history society is pretty poor and hardly worth the membership fee.
However the department is friendly and helpful and there isn't really much that any lecturer could do to make history interesting!
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Medicine At University of Birmingham
Having just completed by 1st year I can safely say Medicine at Bham is great. From the start you have a whale of a time organised by Medsoc and it continues throughout the year. If you are into rugby then Bham is the place to go. We have a massive "Club" which is one of the best, we won the med chools cup last year and only ... narrowly lost in this years semi finals.
Now about the actual course, it's good at first because you see patients in a GP practice after about a week, but this soon becomes a little tedious as the work in the GP practice is too focused on academic reading and public health issues. This does however have a good effect in putting you right in at the deep end you often get called "Dr" by the patients which is cool. It's within the practice that you get to do practical things like taking blood, doing ECG's and blood pressure etc (this is repeated again in the med school for extra practice). Anatomy sessions are cool because you get taught by a junior Dr who has taken a year out to teach (called anatomy demonstrators) They tell you all about the shortcuts to learning the stuff such as cool rude anograms to remember the cranial nerves (email me firstname.lastname@example.org and i'll tell you too rude to put here) Downside is no dissection enless you do well in anatomy and opt for it for an SSM. They've got a good balance i think between small groups/ PBL's and the lectures. But I think that there is a bit too much psyhcology (can't even speel it or can I!) and sociology, but not surprising I suppose when you consider the number of GP's in Bham. Anyway I would recommend it email for more info.
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