Computer science made accessible to over 10,000 children

Juraj Hromkovic - a man who explains. (Photograph enhanced with AI: Dieter Seege
Juraj Hromkovic - a man who explains. (Photograph enhanced with AI: Dieter Seeger,
Juraj Hromkovic has been Professor of Information Technology at ETH Zurich for the past 20 years. During this time, he has been a leading advocate of teaching computer science in schools. He’s now giving his farewell lecture.

Is there such a thing as chance? "How we interpret chance is very subjective. Some see it as the things we can’t predict because we lack the information. Others doubt that true chance exists. Ultimately, it’s something like a question of faith in the natural sciences." The man who said this ought to know: one of his research areas is chance-driven algorithms for data processing, also called randomisation. Juraj Hromkovic started publishing important work in this field early in his career.

"There’s no denying ETH Zurich’s reputation," Hromkovic says today with a laugh if you ask him why he came to Switzerland. His first impressions were all positive: Zurich has always been an open, international city, and if you see yourself as a service provider, integrating is easy anywhere. The term "service provider" is key for Hromkovic: he mentions it several times during the conversation. Hromkovic doesn’t do science for its own sake. He wants what he does to benefit society directly.


It may be this conviction that led Hromkovic to an academic domain that doesn’t necessarily promise the greatest accolades: pedagogy. A bit of chance was at play here too: "When my daughters went off to school, I started thinking about what good mathematics and computer science teaching could look like." After this initial spark, Hromkovic was gripped by the subject of specialist pedagogy.

First he was tasked by ETH with handling the training of upper secondary school teachers. In 2005, he founded the Centre for Computer Science Education (ABZ) and oversaw teacher training for the computer science teaching certificate at ETH. He wrote over 40 teaching aids for computer science - some of which could fairly be called bestsellers by now. Besides this, the ETH professor and his team taught computer science to over 600 Swiss school classes. He’s had some truly amazing experiences. "It’s incredible that there are often children who aren’t the best in their class, but who blossom and take on an important role in their computer science class. Over the years, we’ve probably watched over 10,000 children engage with computer science and been inspired by their curiosity." That’s not mere chance. Hromkovic tells over and over how and why he "fell in love" with computer science himself - and enthusiasm is contagious.

Pedagogy quickly became part of Hromkovic’s DNA. He’s always careful to make sure the person he’s talking to understands what he means. He doesn’t like teaching "finished products" or their applications - he wants to communicate how people arrived at the ideas. He’s quick to offer an example: "We shouldn’t teach division and multiplication in written form. It took thousands of years before those methods were developed! Children should be able to discover diverse representations of numbers so they can ultimately figure out for themselves why using positional notation is the most efficient way to do calculations." Hromkovic believes a sense of achievement is the strongest motivation to learn and therefore the most efficient teaching method.


The emeritus ETH professor gets to enjoy a very special sense of achievement at the end of his career. Last year, the federal government decided that computer science would become a core subject in Swiss upper secondary schools from the 2024/25 school year onwards. A farewell gift for Hromkovic, who has devoted himself to quality computer science teaching at all levels of instruction for over 20 years. "Computer science isn’t just a new subject. Informatics has always been an integral part of human culture, linking the two poles of mathematics and language."

The path has been and remains rocky. Many people, including adults, politicians and teachers, feel resistant to the subject of computer science. The 1995 reform of the school leaving certificate (Matura) introduced the subject "Information and Communication Technology" (ICT) and rejected attempts to incorporate programming. ICT is oriented towards teaching people how to use computers and the internet, both of which Hromkovic sees as having very little educational value. The conversation about whether programming is still worth it is coming up again today in the era of ChatGPT and other AI models. The ETH professor’s opinion is clear: "You have to be able to read and analyse programs to use GPT efficiently. That’s the only way to evaluate and correct GPT’s programming suggestions."

The thinking in computer science is always directed at finding a solution to a problem systematically and efficiently. "Lehrplan 21, the curriculum for the Swiss German-speaking cantons, stipulates that students should be able to understand and co-create the world they live in. They need computer science to do that," says Hromkovic with conviction. He has always maintained that same level of conviction in the idea that he can have the most influence and make the biggest social contribution by focusing on computer science education. So it’s no surprise to hear what he’s doing next as emeritus professor: he’s writing new teaching material.

Farewell lecture

On Wednesday, 10 April at 5.15 p.m., Professor Juraj Hromkovic will hold his farewell lecture titled "Quo vadis education in the age of automation" in the Audi Max. The event will be external page live streamed call_made.
Franziska Schmid