Special Report – The State of Computer Science Education

With nearly 1.4 million new computing jobs projected for the U.S. economy by 2018, employers are likely to have many important questions about whether the current crop of college graduates is up to the task of competing for these positions, and how higher education is adapting to the changing needs of the computing workforce.

As the country approaches the second annual Computer Science Education Week December 5-11, an event endorsed by the U.S. House of Representatives to recognize the critical role of computing in society, it is an ideal time to assess the state of the computer science pipeline and the ability of employers to gain access to the talent they need.

Despite warnings about a possible shortage of skilled computing professionals needed to meet the growing demands of business and industry, the good news is that university enrollment is trending upward for undergraduate computer science and engineering programs in the U.S. and Canada. But the picture is not all rosy. A crisis in kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education threatens to create a dearth of adequately skilled employees, and it could adversely affect the strategic and economic security of the country if it is left unchecked.

Neglect in K-12 Education

Even as the role of computing in society and the economy has grown rapidly, quality computer science education is being pushed out of the K-12 education system in the U.S., according to a recent report released by our association and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). The report, Running on Empty: The Failure to Teach K-12 Computer Science in the Digital Age, found that roughly two thirds of the country have few computer science education standards for secondary school education, and most states treat high school computer science courses as an elective rather than part of a student’s core education.

Confirming this lack of focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills in U.S. elementary and secondary education is another recent report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, from a panel led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine. This report updated the initial study, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, which addressed the threat of the nation’s deteriorating ability to compete for jobs in the evolving global marketplace. Among its specific recommendations, the initial report called for urgent measures to vastly improve K-12 STEM education by enlarging the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in one of these fields.

In their follow-up report earlier this year, the “Gathering Storm” panel concluded that the nation cannot ignore these worsening trends in STEM education, which will undoubtedly undermine the nation’s economic strength and quality of life. If left unresolved, the report notes, they will also adversely affect the tax revenue base that permits our government to provide the national security and social services required for modern, industrialized countries in the 21st century.

Trends in higher education enrollment

According to the Computing Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey released earlier this year, the number of new students in higher education majoring in computer science increased 8.5 percent over last year. The total number of majors increased 5.5 percent, for a two-year increase of 14 percent. Computer science graduation rates should increase in two to three years as these new students graduate, providing a reservoir of skilled computing professionals for the marketplace in the short term.

This upward trend reverses the steep decline in computer science enrollment during the 2000’s. The CRA report also notes that factors attracting students into computing careers include competitive salaries, creativity and problem solving applications, and the chance to make a difference in the world. In addition, there is growing awareness among educators and students that computing drives the innovation that is necessary to sustain economic competitiveness in the global environment.

Higher education adapts

Colleges and universities, professors and department chairs are coming up with creative ways to reposition their curriculums to adapt to the dynamic nature of computing and the increasingly competitive global environment, and to respond to market needs. Graphics and animation, artificial intelligence (AI), human-computer interfaces, and other left brain/right brain combination topics have become popular, opening up exciting career prospects. For example:

  • At Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, administrators place a high value on cross collaboration. They contend that students of computing must develop expertise across an array of connected sub-disciplines and act as innovative boundary crossers, bringing together many aptitudes and skills to drive meaningful innovation.

  • Columbia University offers a new Master of Science Program in Computer Science and Journalism. Graduates learn to generalize from a particular problem to a class of problems, recognizing patterns that are not obvious to a lay person.