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Refreshing the Nerds

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It’s not surprising that the rapid rate of IT’s penetration into different applications has led to a reportedly huge shortage of IT skills. What is more surprising is this shortage is noted alongside very narrow perceptions of the types of staff we need and why many societies/cultures fail miserably to capitalize on the potential work force. I hope to show that the demand side (that is, the job definitions) needs to be reviewed to address the needs for different types of skill sets. This will impact the supply side in that we may seek staff from backgrounds different from those which computer science graduates have typically been drawn.

We all agree that educational systems need to produce more computer scientists because the world needs many more people with skills in understanding, designing, developing and applying computer technology. The point here is that computer science also needs to attract students with broader interests and abilities than the traditional computer scientists—nerds. There’s nothing wrong with nerds. Indeed, some of my best friends (my husband, my son) are nerds. Nerds love computer science for its technical challenges, its mathematical structures, and intricacy. Nerds have made wonderful contributions to computer science.

But nerds are not enough. We need more computer scientists whose passions are art, language, literature, education, entertainment, psychology, biology, music, history, or political science. We need them because computers have an impact on all areas in our world. We need people with passion and vision from every area to drive the development of computer technology as well as the applications. So why aren’t more non-nerds studying computer science?

Part of the answer is the perception of what it takes to do well in computer science. Three years ago we conducted a survey of 7,500 high school students in Vancouver on issues related to careers in information technology (see for more information). One question asked students to indicate on a yes/no basis whether each of the following skills were required to be successful in a computer-related career: mathematics, graphics, problem solving, basic computer skills, logic, communication, creativity, fast typing, and business knowledge. These particular skills were chosen because they were the most frequent answers to an analogous write-in question in a pilot survey. We also asked students to perform the same task with respect to 10 personality characteristics: smart, patient, analytical, knowledgeable, hard working, good memory, team player, organized, outgoing, eager to learn.

Students chose communication least often (about 30%) among skills, followed by graphics and creativity at under 40%. Among personality characteristics, the least frequently chosen were outgoing (under 15%) and team player (under 20%). The most frequently chosen skills were basic computer skills (over 70%) and fast typing (about 55%), followed closely by logic, problem solving, and mathematics in the 45–50% range. The most frequently chosen personality characteristics were smart, patient, hard working, knowledgeable, and organized—all around 60%. We also asked students to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 how 12 factors would influence their career choices. The top choices were personal ability and personal interests with an average rating of over 6.2. The two lowest were friends and teachers with an average rating of less than 4. All others, including job opportunities, financial rewards and parents were in the 4.5–5.5 range. These results showed little change over the age range of the students surveyed (13–18 years old), and were largely independent of gender. Thus it’s not surprising that few high school students who love working with others and engaging in creative activities choose to study computer science at universities.

If we want more non-nerds as students in computer science, one of the first factors we must change is our image. Denice Denton, Dean of Engineering at the University of Washington, points out we ought to hire the image professionals from Madison Avenue to help us change our image to one that better reflects the reality of computer-related careers. But Denton also notes our image is not the only problem. There’s also the reality of how we teach computer science, and of how we design computers and computer applications. As a traditionally nerd culture, we tend to teach computer science in ways that appeal to nerds (as students and as instructors). We tend to value abstractions rather than examples, technology rather than applications. A number of educational institutions have been trying different approaches to teaching computer science with the goal of making it more attractive and accessible to women, minorities, and non-nerds. Some of these are introductory courses that motivate computer science concepts through applications, and emphasize communication, creativity, and teamwork. Others are fast-track programs for people who already have a bachelor’s degree in some other area. One such example is the Alternate Routes to Computing (ARC) program jointly developed by the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University (for more information, see www.arc.cs.

ARC is a two-year, post-baccalaureate program for people with an excellent academic record but no programming experience. It combines 16 months of academic computer science and math courses with a paid eight-month work term in the middle. ARC was designed to attract non-nerds and women, including mature students who may have been out of the work force for some time. In fact, over 50% of ARC’s students since its 1998 inception have been women. Previous degrees of ARC students include Spanish, English, geography, biology, journalism, music, political science, linguistics, business, education, law, math, geology, chemistry, and engineering. The mean age is approximately 30 years old.

ARC is based on standard undergraduate computer science courses. This is partly so that students who wish to do so may complete a second degree in computer science, and partly because we wanted to get the program up and running as quickly as possible. During the first eight months of ARC we provided additional support in the form of small classes, teaching assistants, tutors, and mentoring. Despite this additional support most students, particularly those from non-science backgrounds, find the initial eight-month period extremely challenging and stressful. And so do the instructors. Many ARC students find the language and conceptual framework of computer science and mathematics completely foreign. Many students devote 70–80 hours per week to their studies but experience intense frustration and discouragement when their marks do not initially reflect their level of effort. Instructors find it difficult to find approaches that make the concepts and processes of computer science and mathematics understandable and meaningful to students without recent exposure to mathematics. Nevertheless, the 75–80% of ARC students who complete the first eight months receive marks 7–10% better on average than the traditional computer science undergraduates. Most students in the first cohort of ARC students have graduated and have found excellent technical positions in information technology companies. Most view ARC as one of the toughest challenges of their lives but are very grateful for the opportunity to have made the career transition.

The experience with the ARC program has convinced me that non-nerds, even those who initially fear mathematics, can eventually excel and find enjoyment in computer science. It has also convinced me that if we want to attract large numbers of non-nerds, we need to explore different ways of teaching computer science more deeply and broadly. Most of the current experiments are Band-Aid solutions that address only a piece of the problem. We need to look at the whole picture.

The current situation for non-nerds in computer science reminds me of what it was like being a woman in science 30 years ago. Women who had lots of determination and talent and were willing and able to fit into the male culture were the ones to succeed. The others didn’t. We need non-nerds in computer science, so let’s figure out the proper approaches to integrate their talents and perspective into our field. And let’s not wait 30 years either.

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