Pumping up the comp sci pipeline

I had the opportunity to speak with Chris Stephenson on Wednesday. Ms.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I had the opportunity to speak with Chris Stephenson on Wednesday. Ms. Stephenson is the Executive Director of the Association for Computing Machinery's Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). Along with Google and a grant from the National Science Foundation, the CSTA is coordinating an ambitious two-day conference to improve connections between university computer science programs, K12 educators, and private industry.

While this conference is specifically focused on outreach programs that college students and faculty can conduct for primary and secondary schools, it is part of a larger effort to address the so-called pipeline problem. Within the first couple years of this decade, computer science programs at colleges and universities nationwide saw drastic declines in enrollment. While many people perceived that the tech sector could not support the glut of graduates from these programs in the 80's and 90's (and therefore sought degrees in other fields), we're now seeing demand for skilled computer scientists far exceeding the available labor pool.

In fact, according to Ms. Stephenson, computer science-related fields remain one of the few areas of the weakening economy that are still expected to experience strong growth in the years to come. For example, one Microsoft executive explained to her that he had 5000 jobs to fill in Redmond alone, but had to turn to off-shoring to compensate for the lack of available programmers and computer scientists in this country.

She also pointed out that computer scientists are no longer locked into employment with the Microsofts and IBMs of the world, nor are their jobs all easily off-shored. Rather, more and more trained CS workers run health care systems, banking, and other "backbone industries." Given our utter reliance on large- (and small-) scale information systems, the demand for computer science graduates is quite high, while the number of graduates from these programs is at its lowest point in years.

Enter Google, and the CSTA conference taking place in Mountain View Thursday and Friday. This conference, according to Ms. Stephenson, is bringing together stakeholders in university computer science education, "consumers" of graduates in industry, and K12 educators. The goal is to create lasting partnerships between these groups, especially when K12 educators often have a poor understanding of the nature of computer science while universities and industrial groups poorly understand the demands on primary and secondary schools.

By improving, expanding, and refining the outreach programs that schools like Carnegie Mellon have been running in local schools, the various stakeholders hope to begin addressing the pipeline problem early on. At the primary level, simply promoting algorithmic thought and the use of tools like LOGO in math curricula can improve problem solving skills needed later on (for future CS majors as well as for future technology consumers and users).

At the high school level, helping students and teachers understand the real nature of CS (it isn't, for example, computer applications) is a real stumbling block. Similarly, finding innovative ways to incorporate CS instruction into a curriculum packed with state and federal requirements can be quite challenging. One proposal from the CSTA is to allow a rigorous CS course to replace a high-end math course in a student's schedule, since often the requisite skill sets are the same for both.

If all goes well, the two days will net a variety of approaches to creating partnerships between universities, K12 institutions, and industry. Such partnerships, Ms. Stephenson hopes, will ultimately address the pipeline issue much more sustainably than mere recruiting efforts by individual college CS programs.

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