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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Educating Computing's Next Generation

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Robert B. Schnabel of Indiana University, Bloomington

Robert "Bobby" Schnabel is Chair of the ACM Education Policy Committee and Dean of the School of Informatics at Indiana University.

Courtesy of Indiana University

In a sensible worldat least as defined by computer scientists who, as we all know, are eminently sensible peoplethere would be no need for the ACM Education Policy Committee (EPC). Educational systems, and the policymakers and officials who influence them, would be fully aware that computer science knowledge and skills are among the most essential ingredients of a modern education. They would recognize that not only does this knowledge provide the foundation for modern competency in many others fields ranging from sciences to communications to entertainment and more, but that only through giving students deep computer science (CS) knowledge can we expect to have a new generation that can createnot just consumethe next wave of computing innovations. Educators and policymakers also would be fully cognizant that in conversations about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs, the current and projected demand for computing workers far outstrips any other area of STEM and faces by far the greatest deficiency of supply relative to demand.

Of course, we don't live in a perfect world. All aspects of our world are influenced by history, and the existence of CS still "only" dates back about half a century, which pales in comparison to math, biology, chemistry, physics, and other sciences. While the higher education system adapted fairly quickly to the existence and importance of CS, the K12 system has not. More recently, the situation has gotten worse in nations including the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.S (the initial focus of the EPC), the last decade has seen significant declines in the number of K12 CS courses, the number of students taking the CS advanced placement exam, and the number of undergraduate CS majors. At the same time, however, the demand for CS professionals continues to grow. In addition, the participation of women and underrepresented minorities remains low at all levels.

ACM formed the EPC in 2007 to engage policymakers and the public on public policy issues in CS, including:

  • Reviewing issues that impact science, math, and CS education in K12 and higher education
  • Determining whether current policies are serving the computing field and recommending improvements
  • Commenting on proposals before governmental bodies that impact computing education
  • Educating policymakers on the importance of computing education
  • Providing expertise on key computing education issues to policymakers

While the U.S. is the initial focus, computing education is a global issue and many positions of the committee have global applicability.

In its brief history, the EPC has had some significant impacts, including:

  • Co-sponsoring the 2010 report "Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K12 Computer Science in the Digital Age," which examined the extent to which CS education is incorporated into current state education standards and to what extent states allow CS courses to count as a graduation credit in a required or core subject. Key report findings include that only nine states allow a CS course to count as a core graduation credit and that 14 states have adopted no standards (see
  • Leading the development and implementation of CSEd Week. Beginning in 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed the week of Grace Hopper's birthday (Dec. 6) to recognize the critical role of computing to bolster CS education at all levels. The 2010 week included over 1,700 pledges of support and 270 activities and events from 45 states and over 30 countries.
  • Leading development of the Computing in the Core coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy coalition of associations, corporations, scientific societies, and other non-profits seeking to elevate the national profile of U.S. K12 CS education.
  • Holding numerous events in D.C. and at conferences, and meetings with government policymakers, to raise awareness of CS education issues.
  • Commenting on various STEM education studies and policies to assure full attention to CS, with marked impact in some cases.

There are, as Robert Frost said, miles to go before we sleep. We welcome your suggestions and support!

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Robert B. Schnabel, chair of ACM's Education Policy Committee, is a professor and Dean of the School of Informatics at the Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Cassidy Alan

Parents of the next generation are the ones with the most emotional and material investment in the next generation of individuals, and due to the saturation of the message in popular culture, the importance of computerization is absolutely not lost on them. Therefore, empowering those parents, rich and poor, with choices as to where to send their children will create irresistible attraction to K-12 educational institutions to help those kids become savvy in next-gen technologies.

It's a global issue but central planning will not become better at accomplishing meritorious goals in this area any more than others, but prove the old adages about what the "road to hell is paved with.." and the law of unintended consequences.

Larry Bernstein

It is a tragedy that we can not agree on the difference between education and training; the difference between a software engineer and a computer scientist; the degree of overlapping disciplines between systems and software engineering. Until we agree-to-agree before we disagree there will continue to be much heat and little light on these topics fundamental to creating an educated profession.

For example, must a software engineer be a top notch programmer designer?


"More recently, the situation has gotten worse in nations including the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.S (the initial focus of the EPC), the last decade has seen significant declines in the number of K12 CS courses, the number of students taking the CS advanced placement exam, and the number of undergraduate CS majors."

I have several friends who have children entering college. Their kids were very interested in computers, but their parents saw the degree of outsourcing going on in the industry. All recommended that their children choose another major, such as Mechanical Engineering. Although I don't have any college-age children, I'm afraid my recommendation would have been the same, especially in light of the fact that my company has laid off 1/3 of its workforce and transferred the jobs to Hyderabad and Mumbai. How can we advise that our children spend 4-8 years acquiring expertise in a field when, at an apparent whim without regard for expertise, the people running the company can irrevocably decimate their lives?

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