Computing Profession

­.s. Schools Missing Opportunities For More CS Majors

A graduation cap and diploma for Computer Science students.
There is nearly a 50% attrition rate among college students with STEM majors, according to a study by the U.S Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics.

Despite the need for an increasing number of computer professionals to fill the burgeoning skills gap, many U.S. colleges and universities would receive an incomplete, or even a failing grade, when it comes to attracting and retaining computer science (CS) majors.

There is a nearly 50% attrition rate among college students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, according to a study released in November 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics, STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields.

At the same time, U.S. universities and K-12 schools are going all-out in their efforts to equip students with technologies like tablet computers, and rewiring their buildings for Wi-Fi. Since Apple’s iPad began shipping in 2010, colleges and high schools have been issuing iOS and Android-based tablets to students at a rapid pace, via funding through the local community or school district and the Department of Education, which sponsors the $4.35-billion Race to the Top competitive grant program.

While most students do not opt for computer science as a career, millennials enthusiastically embrace technology. A 2013 study by Project Tomorrow, a national education non-profit organization based in Irvine, CA, found 80% of U.S. high school students have smart phones and 45% have tablets. There are more than 5,400 educational applications available for Apple’s iPad, and approximately 1,000 are available for free download. There are also about 87,000 educational Android applications and over 65,000 are free, according to the AppBrain Android app market site.

Skills Shortage to Soar

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 40% increase in computer-related jobs between 2012 and 2022, requiring 1.4 million professionals to fill those positions. Meanwhile, a 2012 study by the Computing Research Association, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, found that U.S. colleges and universities bestowed approximately 12,000 computer science and engineering degrees for the 2012 academic year. If that graduation rate were to hold steady through 2022, only about 120,000 IT professionals will join the employment pool, less than 10% of what will be needed to fill those anticipated 1.4 million jobs

Additionally, there was a 25% unemployment rate among the 1.31-million college students who completed a Bachelor’s degree at the end of 2011, according to a 2013 report on College Graduate Employment issued by the BLS. The latest BLS statistics indicate the Class of 2014 faces an anticipated 8.5% unemployment rate, while 16.8% will be under-employed.

Opinions are divided as to why students’ technology usage in and out of the classroom does not translate into a desire to pursue a CS major or, ultimately, CS as a profession. CS academics and education experts agree myriad issues contribute to the ever-worsening skills shortage.

Sue Fitzgerald, professor of computer science at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, MN, and director of that institution’s Center for Faculty Development, says schools are not doing everything they can to attract and retain students to CS courses. Colleges and universities, she says, "need to rethink the starting point."

Fitzgerald says many first-year CS majors grow bored and frustrated with traditional programming courses that do nothing to stoke their interest in computers and technology; hence, the high dropout rate. "Computer science is not [just] about programming; it’s about relevance," she says.

In order to attract the full spectrum of young people–boys, girls, and under-represented minorities–Fitzgerald argues colleges must motivate students to enjoy CS "by showing them what’s fun, exciting, and relevant, and how they can become super-users and then creators of new games, social media, widgets, and other applications.

"I favor outreach programs starting with younger kids in grammar schools," Fitzgerald says.

Gary Beach, publisher emeritus of CIO Magazine and author of The US Technology Skills Gap, suggests, "The U.S. needs a long-term educational strategy, and we don’t have it. There is no synergized approach to the problem."

Beach supports the creation of a Federal Education Board similar to the Federal Reserve Board, which would craft 12 region-specific education boards. "America needs an over-arching, long-term national education strategy that outlines goals of where we need to be in 20 years," Beach says.

Fitzgerald disagrees. "We don’t need a federal or state push around STEM subjects. We need to find ways to have kids love computing; that’s the win for everyone."

Tiffany Barnes, associate professor of CS at North Carolina State University, holds a more centrist view, that attracting and retaining CS majors requires "a lot of different efforts.

"I do think we need a federal mandate to encourage getting students to major in computer science. CS should be a required subject." However, Barnes adds, colleges and universities need to establish a "good mechanism to infuse ‘newness’ into our education programs. We can’t simply say ‘everyone must do X.’ If we attempt to force people to program, it’s going to fail. We need to find ways to have students approach computer science in a way that appeals to them. To individualize instruction, we need to adapt the technology to the students."

"America has to do a better job at identifying and nurturing our Einsteins," Beach says. "If we don’t get a handle on this, America will keep falling further behind."

Grass Roots Initiatives

The U.S. education system relies on the energy, enthusiasm, and ingenuity of individual teachers to attract students to CS. There also are grass roots movements aimed at sparking students’ interest in pursuing a CS major, which include:

  • The Alice Project: An educational software environment founded by the late Randy Pausch that teaches programming to all levels of students, and their teachers.
  • IBM Master the Mainframe Contest: This coding competition has provided nearly 70,000 high school and college students in 39 countries on six continents with real-world coding experience on an mainframe. Students can win prizes, earn internships, and post their resumes on IBM’s global job board.
  • STARS Computing Corps: A non-profit that includes 50 colleges and universities dedicated to building a "larger, more diverse national computing workforce" for the 21st century.
  • TEALS: Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) is a Microsoft employee-driven program that recruits, mentors, and places high-tech professionals "passionate about digital literacy and computer science education" in high school classes as part-time teachers, in school districts unable to meet students’ CS needs on their own. Currently, 280 TEALS volunteers from Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and educational institutions like the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington, teach computer science to more than 3,000 students in 70 schools in 12 states.

Laura DiDio is principal at ITIC, a Boston-area IT consultancy.

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