Help Students Put Computer Science to Work to Make it Cool

Susan Hall
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My son can go on quite the rant about having to learn how to figure the volume of a cylinder. "When will I ever use that?" he'll say. (He's been ranting about this for years now.) I used to say the same thing about algebra, which I don't know that I've used, though I do know that I've used geometry. Most recently I had to know how to determine the circumference of a circle to know how much trim to buy for some throw pillows I was making.


Anyway, it's a given that kids want to learn information that's relevant to them. I found that a real, "Well, duh!" moment while reading a piece in The New York Times about rising enrollment in computer science and colleges' shift toward emphasizing its practical use.


It quotes the Computing Research Association that the number of computer science degrees awarded in the United States will reach 11,000 this year, after a big drop-off since the dot-com bubble burst. It's not close to the record, 21,000, degrees awarded in 2004, according to the article. It attributes this growth to Hollywood making computer science cool in movies such as "The Social Network" and the wild popularity of the iPhone and other mobile devices. But the tech industry has been trying for years to make computer science cool, including coming up with Computer Engineer Barbie. I think this focus on practical uses will win more hearts and minds.


According to the article:

The new curriculums emphasize the breadth of careers that use computer science, as diverse as finance and linguistics, and the practical results of engineering, like iPhone apps, Pixar films and robots, a world away from the more theory-oriented curriculums of the past.

And Yale has a new major that combines computer science with art, theater and music. This new emphasis on practical applications of computer science doesn't mean just learning programming languages, which can change quickly, but on learning theory while tackling real-world problems. It quotes Keila Fong, a junior at Yale, saying:

Once people are kind of subversively exposed to it, it's not someone telling you, You should program because you can be an engineer and do this in the future.' It's, Solve this problem, build this thing and make this robot go from Point A to Point B,' and you gain the skill set associated with it.

Hollywood has made computer geeks cool, though. Personally, I'm wowed by the fact that Abby on "NCIS" can take any computer that's been at the bottom of the ocean or burned to a crisp and still retrieve information off the hard drive. And that on "NCIS Los Angeles," they seem to have maps of the interior of every old abandoned warehouse in the city - and other really cool technology for a tight-fisted government agency.


Meanwhile, those computer science grads can't come to the workplace fast enough. The June report from Dice.com still finds IT talent shortages, particularly on the East Coast and the Midwest.


A CNN.com post points to an interesting aspect to this ongoing worry that the United States doesn't produce enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM): A 2010 study at UCLA found that it takes these students longer to complete their degrees than students in other majors.


The research tracked 420,000 freshmen who entered college in 2004. It found that of those who started in a STEM field, only 33 percent of white and 42 percent of Asian students finished the degree in five years. The percentages were lower for Latinos (22.1 percent), blacks (18.4 percent) and Native Americans (18.8 percent). For students in non-STEM majors, 73.5 percent of whites and 65 percent of Asians completed a degree in five years, as did 41.6 percent of Latinos, 58 percent of blacks and 60.5 percent of Native Americans.

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