The future of the U.S. information technology industry—and thus the competitiveness of the nation—is caught in a trap of misperception. Since the burst of the dotcom bubble in 2000, young people have avoided careers in information technology. The number of computer science majors at U.S. universities has plummeted. Worse, the dwindling pool of people who enter the field is losing diversity even more rapidly, a tragedy for a field that already had one of the lowest participation rates by women, African-Americans and Hispanics. Now more than ever, the field attracts people who are fascinated with programming and technology for their own sakes—to put it harshly, the true geeks. High school students who do not devote all their waking minutes to computers and programming feel they are unfit for careers in computer science.
Yet the demand for people with computer science skills is at an all-time high. The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show that the number of computing-related jobs has surpassed the previous peak in 2000. What is more, computing-related jobs are no longer an isolated component of American industries; IT underpins every function of the business community—market research, product design, finance, strategic planning, environmental issues—every aspect of doing and leading. That means these jobs are not only vital but fun. They require people who have strong technical knowledge but who also can work and contribute in a much broader realm. A recent New York Times article dubbed this kind of IT professional “the renaissance geek.” The leaders of Microsoft, Google and other companies have made their point clear: Give us more well-trained, well-rounded computer scientists!
The reality is that a career in IT is dynamic and in demand. Yet the myth of a narrow, boring and uncertain work life persists. Unless this misperception is corrected, we will continue to lose talent, and the United States will become a technology backwater. Companies will shift technical and innovative work offshore. Our standard of living will decline because the driving force behind today’s economies is innovation, which, in turn, requires a workforce that is highly educated in science and technology.
So what are we to do? Addressing this issue will require significant changes in our culture. I take heart in past educational campaigns that have made a difference, such as the antismoking efforts of the last 30 years. But the answer requires more than public relations. Industry, government and academia all have a duty to cultivate and celebrate the dynamic nature of today’s computing careers. As a professor of computer science and dean of an engineering school, I believe that substantial responsibility for the current situation lies in the way we teach engineering and applied science. We can do so much more to attract and engage young people from kindergarten through graduate school.
At all levels, schools need to make computing attractive to ambitious students who have a fondness for technology but also want to fold in other skills and interests. These are the students who are going to be leaders and make a difference in the world, and they include women and minorities and the full cross-section of society.
The way we currently teach computer science in high school and universities does not meet this goal. For the most part, the introduction to computers in K-12 is typing, followed by making webpages. In high school, students can learn programming, but the focus is narrow, and students who sail through these classes are not necessarily the best positioned for success in computer science careers. In fact, college-level teachers sometimes use a completely unfamiliar programming language in an effort to dispel the bad habits students picked up during their many hours before the keyboard. And while programming is an important tool in computer science, it does not reflect the broad range of ideas and concepts that make up our field, including computer architecture, theory and systems.
The preparation we need starts in grades K-12, when many students turn away from math and science. A key problem is that children receive very little exposure to real projects and careers in engineering and applied science. I would like to see more open houses, summer camps, weekend events that partner schools with businesses and universities. In British Columbia, Canada, a program called Scientists & Innovators in the Schools trains scientist volunteers and pairs them with schools that want exposure to their fields. Summer programs at Princeton put teachers into labs with high-level scientists and send them back with tools to conduct hands-on projects in their classrooms.
At the college level, I propose several tactics:
n Make computer science courses a requirement for more undergraduates. During the dotcom boom, any such proposal would have panicked computer science departments, but for the first time in two decades these departments have excess capacity. In addition, many disciplines with large numbers of undergraduate majors (biology, psychology, history) have discovered the impact of computing and are likely to be enthusiastic about having their students take a computer science course, especially if it is tailored to their needs.
n Make sure students are excited by their first computing course. We must assign them the best instructors and creative course content and then establish explicit bridges so students who enjoy a “computer literacy” course can make the transition to advanced courses and a computer science major they had never previously considered. At Princeton, a new integrated course that combines computer science, biology, physics and chemistry has attracted several women to major in computer science.
n Build connections to other disciplines with double majors (computer science plus biology, psychology, business, policy, interactive arts) and multidisciplinary projects.
n Create partnerships and internships with industry to show students what real-world jobs are like, and create partnerships with K-12 teachers to give young students a more dynamic view of computing fields.
In all these efforts, academic institutions must provide a supportive environment for women and minorities. Underrepresented groups, as well as those with outside interests such as the arts, public policy or business, need more encouragement to stay in a computer science program because all the signals send the message that they don’t belong. For example, a woman doing well academically may leave because she doesn’t see herself as having the same level of interest as the male students who spend their spare time programming computer games or reading technical blogs. There is a lot that can be done to counteract this effect—providing role models with lots of outside interests and faculty speaking explicitly of the value of broad interests in their classes. But none of it will happen without a concerted effort.
At the same time, we must hire more women faculty in computer science. Women serve as important role models but also tend to engage in interdisciplinary research and invest their energy in innovative teaching. At Princeton, we are putting into place a strategic vision that makes diversity a top priority and emphasizes the connections between engineering and the broader university, including liberal arts. In addition we have set a goal of convincing 90 percent of all bachelor of arts students to take at least one engineering course, many of which have a computing component.
None of these efforts can move forward without the support of government and industry. The National Science Foundation took an important step forward with the creation of its Broadening Participation in Computing program, which was launched this year. The NSF can help even more by increasing basic funding for computer science research. It and other agencies could create preferential scholarships and loans for students majoring in computer science. Through awards and public relations, government agencies can do a lot to drive a shift in public perception of computing careers.
But when it comes to marketing, American industry is second to none. I would like to see a consortium of U.S. companies devote a fraction of their advertising and marketing budgets to creating a realistic (and hence positive) image of careers in computing. If the auto industry can promote the use of seat belts, and distillers can fight drinking and driving, then companies with an interest in computer science ought to be able to market their own field to young people. Yet like academia, the IT industry has some cultural issues to improve. I know from speaking to students and young alumni, for example, that many women and minorities view the interview process at some technology companies as adversarial and unwelcoming. The industry also can wield considerable influence if it engages with secondary as well as higher ed schools to improve computing education.
It will take time to see the effects of many of these changes, so we have to make a long-term commitment. And it is critical that correcting a misperception does not create a new one that overstates our case. There is no question that a degree in computer science is not a magic bullet for financial success. Indeed, the days of the dotcom twentysomethings who became instant millionaires are over. A successful long-term career in computing requires the same effort and skill that are necessary in other fields: developing strong people and communication skills, willingness and ability to learn new technologies, understanding what makes businesses successful and adapting to change. Still, the opportunity in computer science for creative work that makes a difference equals or surpasses that in any other field I can imagine.