Monday, November 22, 2010

Choosing a Career in Computer Science

Kevin Carey, at The Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses his childhood love of programming, the value of "computational thinking", how he abandoned a computer science major for the "more-forgiving academic standards" of the humanities, and the geek shortage crisis we face in this country.

How do we re-shape computer science education to keep kids who love programming in the major and attract new students?

Decoding the Value of Computer Science:

In The Social Network, a computer-programming prodigy goes to Harvard and creates a technology company in his sophomore dorm. Six year later, the company is worth billions and touches one out of every 14 people on earth.

Facebook is a familiar American success story, with its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, following a path blazed by Bill Gates and others like him. But it may also become increasingly rare. Far fewer students are studying computer science in college than once did. This is a problem in more ways than one.

The signs are everywhere. This year, for the first time in decades, the College Board failed to offer high-school students the Advanced Placement AB Computer Science exam. The number of high schools teaching computer science is shrinking, and last year only about 5,000 students sat for the AB test. Two decades ago, I was one of them.


I left for college intending to major in computer science. That lasted until about the fifth 8:30 a.m. Monday class, at which point my enthusiasm for parties and beer got the upper hand, and I switched to the humanities, which offered more-forgiving academic standards and course schedules. I never touched Pascal again.

Fortunately, other students had more fortitude. They helped build and sustain the IT revolution that continues to make America the center of global innovation. But the number of people going this way is in decline. According to the Computing Research Association, the annual number of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science and computer engineering dropped 12 percent in 2009. When Zuckerberg started Facebook, in 2004, universities awarded over 20,000 computer degrees. The total fell below 10,000 last year.

This "geek shortage," as Wired magazine puts it, endangers everything from innovation and economic growth to national defense. And as I learned in my first job after graduate school, perhaps even more. [emphasis added - MQ]

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