Special Report - The State of Computer Science Education

By John White

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With nearly 1.4 million new computing jobs projected for the U.S. economy by 2018, employers are likely to have many important questions about whether the current crop of college graduates is up to the task of competing for these positions, and how higher education is adapting to the changing needs of the computing workforce.

As the country approaches the second annual Computer Science Education Week December 5-11, an event endorsed by the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize the critical role of computing in society, it is an ideal time to assess the state of the computer science pipeline and the ability of employers to gain access to the talent they need.

Despite warnings about a possible shortage of skilled computing professionals needed to meet the growing demands of business and industry, the good news is that university enrollment is trending upward for undergraduate computer science and engineering programs in the U.S. and Canada. But the picture is not all rosy. A crisis in kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education threatens to create a dearth of adequately skilled employees, and it could adversely affect the strategic and economic security of the country if it is left unchecked.

Neglect in K-12 Education

Even as the role of computing in society and the economy has grown rapidly, quality computer science education is being pushed out of the K-12 education system in the U.S., according to a recent report released by our association and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). The report, Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age, found that roughly two thirds of the country have few computer science education standards for secondary school education, and most states treat high school computer science courses as an elective rather than part of a student’s core education.

Confirming this lack of focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills in U.S. elementary and secondary education is another recent report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, from a panel led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine. This report updated the initial study, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, which addressed the threat of the nation’s deteriorating ability to compete for jobs in the evolving global marketplace. Among its specific recommendations, the initial report called for urgent measures to vastly improve K-12 STEM education by enlarging the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in one of these fields.

In their follow-up report earlier this year, the “Gathering Storm” panel concluded that the nation cannot ignore these worsening trends in STEM education, which will undoubtedly undermine the nation’s economic strength and quality of life. If left unresolved, the report notes, they will also adversely affect the tax revenue base that permits our government to provide the national security and social services required for modern, industrialized countries in the 21st century.

Trends in higher education enrollment

According to the Computing Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey released earlier this year, the number of new students in higher education majoring in computer science increased 8.5 percent over last year. The total number of majors increased 5.5 percent, for a two-year increase of 14 percent. Computer science graduation rates should increase in two to three years as these new students graduate, providing a reservoir of skilled computing professionals for the marketplace in the short term.

This upward trend reverses the steep decline in computer science enrollment during the 2000’s. The CRA report also notes that factors attracting students into computing careers include competitive salaries, creativity and problem solving applications, and the chance to make a difference in the world. In addition, there is growing awareness among educators and students that computing drives the innovation that is necessary to sustain economic competitiveness in the global environment.

Higher education adapts

Colleges and universities, professors and department chairs are coming up with creative ways to reposition their curriculums to adapt to the dynamic nature of computing and the increasingly competitive global environment, and to respond to market needs. Graphics and animation, artificial intelligence (AI), human-computer interfaces, and other left brain/right brain combination topics have become popular, opening up exciting career prospects. For example:

In the face of rapid and frequent changes confronting the global computing field, the Association for Computing Machinary (ACM) and  the Association for Information Systems (AIS) issued new curriculum guidelines for undergraduate degree programs in information systems (IS) earlier this year. For the first time, these guidelines include both core and elective courses suited to specific career tracks. The guidelines reflect the ubiquitous use of Web technologies, and the emergence of new architectural elements including Web services, software-as-a-service, and cloud computing. They can be adapted for schools of business, public administration, and information science or informatics, as well as stand-alone schools of information systems.

Which computer languages are taught?

There is no debate about the need for learning computer languages, but there is little agreement over which is most popular or appropriate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that today's computer programming jobs require higher-level skills as lower-skilled coding jobs are being exported to countries with cheaper labor. As a result, there is greater demand for higher levels of programming skills, which enable programmers to write programs that are more or less independent of a particular type of computer, and permit faster development of large programs.

Currently, the most visible manifestation of computer programming is the Internet, which relies principally on C and C++ as well as JavaScript, Java, and PHP. Programming languages like Microsoft's .NET, Visual Basic, Perl, and Python are clearly important for success in other aspects of the technology field.

In fact, there are hundreds of active computer languages and many more “dead” ones where the code they produced may still be running somewhere. For example, many large organizations with long histories in computing still use COBOL to run the world’s business data applications, and it is likely to remain a viable language in the years ahead.

Continuous computer science learning

Learning does not stop at the college level, particularly for computer science graduates. Due to its dynamic nature, computer science has developed a reliance on lifelong learning programs to confront the challenges of the information society. Computing professionals in growing numbers are taking advantage of the many diverse educational and instructional tools that offer multifaceted materials and resources for specific technical areas.

ACM’s Learning Center, for example, features online books from prominent technical publishers, online computing courses, and extensive resources that combine annotated bibliographies, online books and courses, tutorials, sample code, videos and podcasts, and community websites and blogs from the computing world. These resources are especially attractive for serious professionals who need to stay current in their field or adapt their knowledge and skills to new applications.

Computer Science Education Week, an activity of Computing in the Core (CinC), a non-partisan advocacy coalition, joins together associations, corporations, scientific societies, and other non-profits to advocate for stronger computer science education programs throughout the country.

Partners include ACM, Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) , National Science Foundation (NSF), National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), WGBH, Computing Research Association (CRA), Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology (ABI), and Microsoft, Google, SAS, Intel and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

These organizations recognize the important role they must play to ensure that K-12 and higher education are preparing students for the demands of the 21st century workforce. Each organization is evangelizing in its respective communities, creating content for use in classrooms, organizing student contests, and sponsoring conferences for educators.

Other companies are invited to join in by signing a pledge at www.csedweek.org.

Preparing future workers

Despite encouraging trends in the higher education enrollment and graduation rates in computer science, a continuing supply of students who qualify for admission to college and university computer science programs remains in jeopardy. A joint effort between the business and education communities to strengthen the computer science education pipeline from K-12 to higher education will help prepare future workers to secure our cyber structure, protect national security, and make our energy infrastructure more efficient. A vital, competitive, global economy with a productive workforce and a steady stream of scientific and technical innovation depends on it.

John White has served as ACM executive director and CEO since January 1999. As CEO, Dr. White is responsible for working with ACM senior leadership (the officers, the board of directors, and over 1,000 volunteers) in setting and delivering ACM’s strategic direction. During John’s tenure, ACM membership has grown to an all-time high, its scholarly publishing program has doubled in size, and the association is increasingly involved in issues related to the image and health of the computing discipline and field worldwide.

Prior to joining ACM, John was manager of the Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). White spent seventeen years at Xerox PARC leading several research groups, including the PARC group that developed and delivered DocuPrint, Xerox’ series of high-end, high-speed networked printing products. Prior to his tenure at Xerox PARC, John was a professor of Computer Science at the University of Connecticut.