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It’s not clear exactly why kids don’t pursue STEM fields in general, and shy away from computer science in droves.

They will give you myriad reasons, among them that the work just isn’t interesting, that the cool kids don’t do it, and fear – fear it’s too hard, fear they’ll be ridiculed as “nerds,” fear of being exposed as an intellectual fraud, or ironically, as the “too smart kid,” fear of failure.

Alison Derbenwick Miller is vice president of Oracle Academy.
Alison Derbenwick Miller is vice president of Oracle Academy.

Fear is an awful thing. It’s a four-letter “f” word that holds incredible power – power to keep us from doing what is good, what is right. Power to stop us from taking risks. Power to maintain the status quo, to stop disruption, to inhibit change. Power to stymie innovation, and to limit opportunity.

Fear is bad. Fear stands between us and a better world. It stands between us and our better selves.

But fear should not stand between our students and computer science.

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In reality, computer science is no different from any other academic discipline done well – it demands focus, study, practice, curiosity, and intellectual rigor.  It allows ample space for critical thinking and creativity.

Programming a robot to independently land on Mars and send home the results is theoretically no harder than writing a seminal work of literature, analyzing a gene sequence for medicine, or counseling an acutely at-risk teenager. In fact, one can argue, the cost of failure in computer science oftentimes is lower than it is in other fields.

But the immediate evidence of failure is likely much higher. A program runs, or it doesn’t. A network connects, or it doesn’t. There is no room for a fluffy paragraph to smooth things out if the main argument doesn’t quite follow logically. There is no room for a slightly fuzzy drawing of a cell seen through a microscope if one missed the mitochondria.

“Fear is bad. Fear stands between us and a better world. It stands between us and our better selves. But fear should not stand between our students and computer science.”

And perhaps, it’s this demand for logical clarity linked to immediate rejection of an incorrect approach that invites fear and doubt in students.  After all, no one likes to feel rejection, especially rejection that appears to be a direct reflection on your abilities.

Whatever their origins, these perceived challenges in studying computer science too often act as a disincentive for students, and increase the likelihood that only students with a strong natural aptitude will learn computer science if it’s not a core subject offered in their schools.

Even if students are fortunate enough to be in one of the less than 10 percent of U.S. high schools that offer computer science, they’re unlikely to elect to study computer science if they don’t have a strong background in math, if it only counts as an elective or has the potential to hurt their GPA, or if the teacher and the other kids in the class don’t look like them.

This is where educators and role models come in.

Ayanna Howard is systems and controls professor, Georgia Institute of Technology.
Ayanna Howard is systems and controls professor, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Teachers can take an unknown, scary subject and make it interesting and fun. They can help students develop confidence in their math, logic, and problem solving skills. They can foster collaboration and help students learn how to learn from each other. They can challenge students to try projects that seem a little out of reach. They can guide learning to make taking on challenges fun, and solving hard problems satisfying.

Role models are passionate about, and successful in, their field. They look like students, or come from similar backgrounds, or speak the same language.  They can show students how a school subject applies in the real world, bringing it to life.

This is especially critical in computer science, where the connections between creating technology and the potential impacts and uses of that technology in daily life often are missed. Computer science can be a tool to help people, to make a greener planet, to solve some of the world’s problems. Although not nearly enough, it’s done by men and women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and colors.

The best teachers are both educators and role models. They empower and inspire. They lead students down learning pathways that make the unknown into the familiar. They challenge students to work beyond what comes easily, and they quote Edison when frustrations are high: “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Technology is ubiquitous across industries, and drives the global economy.  It’s virtually impossible to go through a day without interacting with computer science – buying or selling products, using traffic lights, banking, using a smart device, texting emoticons – the list goes on.

Future economic growth and technology innovation requires people with strong computer science skills. Access to computer science education, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, is a defining 21st century social issue. Technology permeates our lives, and understanding computer science and coding is critical to being a contributing member of society.

Despite recent legislative nods in some states to the importance of CS as a core academic subject and the introduction of the Federal Computer Science Education Act, the U.S. education system continues to lag when it comes to computer science.  According to the College Board, fewer than 1 percent of AP exams taken in 2013 were in computer science. In 2010, the United States produced only 1,782 Ph.D.s in computing fields.

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More recent data is not yet available. Although CS enrollment in post-secondary schools is trending upward, gains are modest and the pipeline of graduates remains inadequate to meet projected demand for qualified workers.

Safra Catz, president and CFO of Oracle, noted recently that we could close the IT skills gap in the United States if we could get one girl in every U.S. high school to pursue a computer science degree. Surely we can do that.

It’s arguable that no matter the context, the root of fear is always the unknown. The unfortunate reality, though, is that opportunity and innovation also lurk in the unknown. Growth, change, and innovation can only come from having the courage to challenge the unknown, and make it known.

Don’t we owe it to our students to help them gain this courage through good computer science education?

Ayanna Howard is systems and controls professor, Georgia Institute of Technology. Alison Derbenwick Miller is vice president of Oracle Academy.

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Letters to the Editor

23 Letters

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  1. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with computer programming. I taught myself to program when I was 13 and I decided then to become a programmer. In college I found that structured programming was very different from the self-taugh why I was doing it. I had a bad habit of “fighting” the lanaguages. I still enjoyed it and when I graduated I and started my first real job I found that I HATED programming. Well, I liked programming, I just didn’t like the dull programming job I had. It wasn’t as much fun as doing a project from start to end. I liked being a “hacker” and doing ym own thing and working on big problems.

    It took me several years and a Doctorate in I.S before I found something that I liked. I now lead a group of 20+ developers who customize SAP solutions for manufacturing. I like being the person between the business and the developers, working on stragity and code.

    Kids might like programming as a hobby, but like me might not like it as a job, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find some other way to use thier “hacker” skills.

  2. When I was in college, Intro to Computer Science seemed to be a “weed-out” class. It was elitist. Taught by people that were well recognized in private industry. In the art domain, the “computer art” professors were traditionally trained artists, with little expertise in computer art. They seem to have gotten their positions because they had credentials in education, or “understood experimentation”. The latter was translated into “read the manual, that’s how you’ll learn”.

  3. The extent of logical clarity in computer science is exaggerated, as anyone who has tried to read a computer manual can attest.

  4. As someone who studied S&T in college in the 60s but went on to get a Ph.D. in fine arts, and then returned for EE studies in the 90s, I have never regretted the S&T background and indeed it has often been required or helpful in many assignments over the years.

  5. Or maybe its just because the work is boring, unfulfilling and moreover you are called a “code monkey”.

  6. Actually, computer science should be the easiest degree to get. With chemistry or nuclear physics, a student might never get the chance to learn by trial and error because doing experiments on his own could be dangerous, expensive, or illegal. In computer science, one can learn by trial and error and see for sure exactly what works and what doesn’t. For those of us who learn hands-on, computer science is as easy as automotive mechanics.

  7. It’s not fear, but a combination of low salaries, wrong expectations, and bad, really bad pedagogy. Sure, teachers “can […] make it interesting and fun”, but they just don’t.

    If there were really a shortage of qualified professionals, salaries would be much higher than what they are. Take COBOL and mainframe programmers “shortage” as an example: despite the fatalistic prophecies about massive retirement in the mainframe sector, mainframe job postings require (that is, make mandatory) over 10 years of experience in COBOL, JCL, CICS, VSAM, and a bunch of other tools and acronyms, all for a modest 50-60k/year.

    Article says the gap in the US can be closed if one girl in every high school pursued a CS program. By that measure, the shortage definitely is not as bad as media make it look like. If people listened to the “shortage” propaganda, sooner rather than later the salaries in IT would be lower than those of an office assistant.

    Most of people pretend they want to make career in IT, but in reality they hate serious programming. From day One they are trying to become managers. They are in the wrong field. Period. I’ve seen so many IT managers who make decisions with no clue on what IT systems is about.

    If top management means to tackle the alleged shortage in this or any industry (physicians, actuaries, engineers), there’s only one effective solution: Higher Pay.

  8. If you ask me, they’re teaching math and literary analysis completely wrong and making the kids hate the subjects. Instead of teaching the kids the principles and fundamentals of math and how to use them in the real world, they’re forcing them to memorize loads of techniques and shortcuts to solve the most number of known problems as fast as possible. They’re not learning the interesting parts of math and they’re not learning how to figure out how to solve any problem–just the ones they’ll be tested on. Then they forget them. Not only did they waste their time memorizing all that junk, they also come to hate the subject. Same with literary analysis. Instead of learning critical thinking and how to analyze literature from references, symbols, analogies, etc., they’re just memorizing whatever junk is going to be on the test. They don’t even have to read the literature–just memorize everything the teacher tells them in the review the day before the test. Instead of learning critical thinking, they just learn to believe whatever they’re told, whether it’s left-wing politics, right-wing politics, or advertisements. No wonder they’re avoiding STEM and computer science.

  9. It might have something to do with the fact that the professor teaching the classs could easily be teaching 20 year old material. Its just been my experience that if the professor got his/her job in 97 then thats the material that the professor teaches, they dont have to teach anything new and they still get their paycheck and yet software changes all the time. Generally I have found that the people who go into computer science dont really need the college education since it was already their love and passion and have been involved in coding for years before they were old enough to go to college. And generally I found the only reason why these people get a degree is because HR demands they get one.

  10. I’m not afraid of anything. I just don’t have the money to finish my bachelor degree in Computer Science. If I get a promotion, more likely I can finish. And I’m 30. Computers and it’s entire “enchilada” interests me.

  11. I have been working in CS for over 25 years. I would never have my children go into this field. As long as companies devalue the career path by creating an artificial downward force on the pay by employing droves of H1Bs, this is a dead field and US companies will get what they pay for.

  12. First of all, I would like to know what is meant by “IT skills gap”.
    Then, I would like to know to what extent the article’s authors are aware of the employment situation in IT and computer related positions in various levels of experience and education.
    There are many Computer Science (CS), Computer Information System (CIS), and Information Technology (IT) programs graduates in the United States who are unable to find jobs – even entry level jobs – in their study fields. In addition, many people who were employed in IT in various industries have been laid off and are still unable to find jobs in IT and computer related fields.
    It is easy for the article’s authors and Safra Catz, president and CFO of Oracle, to talk and write about why more people (students) should get into CS, CIS, and IT programs.
    Rather than MAINLY wishing and “pushing” for higher numbers of enrollees in CS, CIS, and IT courses or degree programs, the aforementioned persons – and other people alike in beliefs – should ALSO dedicate their words, time, and efforts towards working with various industries to find effective means to create plenty of appropriate jobs for the graduates and laid off IT people in the United States of America.

  13. The authors know or must know full well why smart kids do not choose CS. For a very American reason – there is no money in it.
    The staggering wealth accumulated by a few founders and CEOs cannot obfuscate grim employment conditions for the majority of CS workers – huge unpaid overtime, mediocre salaries in areas with often extreme cost of living like Silicon Valley and NYC,
    regular lay-offs, and challenge of finding employment after age 40. All covered by massive influx of H-1Bs in indentured servitude, with which one has to compete. Instead of publishing endless articles like this, the CEOs of Oracle etc. would do better to improve conditions. Now, sure those are better than for massive occupations like retail, food, and construction, and thus may appear above-average. But smart kids compare not to average. Medical and Business Schools do not complain of the applicant shortage, despite the need for very hard work, tough entrance exams, and requirements for top performance in quantitative classes.

  14. Perhaps prospective students, though they can’t quite put their finger on it, have internalized that this career path may eventually lead to the uncomfortable end of training their lower-cost H1-B replacement. In such an age you need not wonder why medical schools have broken all records for number of applicants.

  15. Latent software bugs are not easy to detect and they are quite common. The software industry strives to prevent them by using rigorous methods, which almost all entry-level programmers lack. These methods are not taught in Colleges, from what I’ve seen over a 35 years career in the field.

    I enjoyed the technical challenge of working in the field. I’ve worked on spacecraft, satellites, missiles, airplanes, financial systems, and much more. But, I would not recommend the field to young people, because this field competes directly with low-cost labor throughout the world. Also, engineers live transient lives, often moving every few years to the next job. If you do not create your own company, you often must work long hard hours, often late into the night (to meet deadlines), at the lowest rungs of the corporate ladder. So, STEM provides technically challenging and interesting work, but there is more to life than being a corporate or consumer slave.

  16. As a person who has been working I this field for decades, working with outstanding technologists, I can say that they’ve completely missed the reasons. Children are taught that their exploration and pushing of the boundaries is first wrong, and then a crime (felonies).

    If you are truly bright and inventive, you come across this very young (10-12yo). Virtually all of my technology learning occurred outside of classrooms. Schools were places of misery, mindless repetition, and a complete lack of understanding by those in authority.

    So many teachers who think they are “good teachers” miss the point. They thought they were doing me a favor by teaching me to obey, to comply, to agree with their nonsense. They wanted to believe that they wee making me a better citizen.

    They taught me an utter contempt for formal instruction. They taught me that most teachers lack even a basic understanding of their subject matters, and are ignorant of how much they don’t know. They taught me that the greatest crimes that one can commit in a classroom is act and think and dress differently than others, especially those in positions of authority. Questioning that authority is intolerable and will be punished severely.

    Why don’t bright minds pursue STEM? Because the people who teach STEM are the bulbs too dim to actually do productive work in the field. Mindless drones who endlessly repeat (poorly) the known, and force their students to do the same. Science can be used to prove, but intuition is how we discover. Classrooms today abhor intuition.

  17. I consider the deep thinking of physics and pure mathematics to be more important then computer science. I would rather say this puff pieces is demanding more coders in order to drive down wages to India’s levels. Remember the great revival of American invention, not innovation(that is for our corrupt business community, was created when our govt. SUBSIDIZED physics, mathematics, and engineering degrees.

    Coders are wage slaves. Nowadays that is bad news no matter the occupation. Wage slaves are the expendable drones.

  18. @Physics – What a load of sh..

    I believe people that dedicate a large chunk of their lives on nothing but the theoretical are almost useless.

    You don’t CONTRIBUTE anything to society, other than pipe-dreams, fantasies, hypothesis (hypotheses are like a..holes, everybody has one and they all stink).

    DO something. With your hands. Don’t sit back and draw on a white board and write papers to others who similarly do nothing.

    Computer Scientists are those who IMPLEMENT their solutions, and see it through to a mutually satisfactory conclusion. They can’t just draw a cloud at the end of a flow chart and label it “TBD” like all those dorks in the theoretical fields do.

    What a cop – out.

  19. I just completed an HTML5 Certificate and learned php and javascript. At age 60 I did not find it that hard either.

    I agree with the post just above. I was put in Honors Calculus in 1971 and to this day I get philosophical thinking about infinity and points and lines that were thrown at me over 40 years ago. Even though I only took Physics in the Arts, that too is exciting, and thinking about it makes me giddy every time I have my piano tuned…..

  20. It could be that some kids REALLY DON’T FIND IT THAT INTERESTING.
    It tends to be a very dry subject matter.
    I say this after having majored in Computer Science and spent
    13 years in the field in roles ranging from programmer,
    senior programmer, and project manager. I’m a bit sick of the work and the treatment of technology workers and therefore don’t it anymore.
    Sometimes a subject doesn’t have one, or just over time, loses it’s appeal.
    You shouldn’t try to force something on someone because you think they SHOULD be doing it based upon some expectation of “Future economic growth and technology innovation requires people”.
    Life is more important than that.

  21. American higher ed. is very pricey. Many young adults are reluctant to get a degree in something with dicey job prospects. Corporate America has shown it would much rather hire non citizens on H1B visas (who will usually work for much lower wages) than American citizens holding similar qualifications. Maybe the Microsofts, Googles, and Hewlett Packards need to actually hire American citizens and pay them realistic wages.

  22. One of the main reasons that students don’t take STEM subjects is that there is considerable parental pressure to maintain high marks, and subjects like math, physics, chemistry and computer science are viewed and more difficult to get high marks in. Students are therefore counselled by family to avoid those in favour of subjects in which high marks are perceived to be easier to obtain.

    Economics is another factor. Science and computer science careers are viewed as ghettos that lead to dead-end jobs with little chance of promotion. Medicine is an exception, but there are few others. One of the dirty secrets of STEM education is that a science degree is almost valueless unless one has additional technical certification or a graduate degree. Employers often don’t even like to look at job applications from people with science degrees. (Psychology is an exception as HR departments often like those, but a biology degree?)

    It’s really no mystery why students avoid STEM programs–the perceived value is low and the work level is perceived as high.

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