Few Students Make Time to Study Computer Science

By Crawford, Amy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 2, 2011 | Go to article overview

Few Students Make Time to Study Computer Science


Crawford, Amy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Elizabeth Jackson is different from other 17-year-olds.

"Most kids are like, 'Ooh, a computer! I can go on Facebook,' " the Ligonier Valley junior said. "They don't think, 'What a cool piece of technology!'"

Jackson, on the other hand, has long been interested in how technology works.

"I always liked pulling things apart, taking apart remote controls," she said.

Today, she is studying mechatronics, a combination of mechanical and electronic engineering, at the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in Derry Township. The class is centered around building and programming robots, and students graduate with knowledge of computer hardware, software and programming languages.

Although those skills are applicable to a variety of careers, mechatronics is one of the smaller shops at the vocational school, with just 19 students.

"When I was in school," said teacher Jeff Mori, "we had to make the computer display something, and you had to write code. But that challenge doesn't exist anymore, because all of these kids were born with an iPhone."

As computers have become ubiquitous in Americans' daily lives, computer science is declining in public schools. It's an irony that troubled the authors of a recent report, "Running on Empty," published by the Association for Computing Machinery, a membership organization for people who work in the industry, and the Computer Science Teachers Association.

"As the digital age has transformed the world and work force, U.S. K-12 education has fallen woefully behind in preparing students with the fundamental computer science knowledge and skills they need for future success," the study's authors wrote.

The authors found that between 2005 and 2009 the number of secondary schools offering introductory computer science courses dropped by 17 percent. The number of high schools offering Advanced Placement computer science plummeted by 35 percent.

An impending shortfall

Leigh Ann Sudol-DeLyser, a graduate student in the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the study's authors, said that states should have standards for computer science, requiring that certain concepts be taught.

Pennsylvania's science and technology standards, which are not enforced, require that students learn to use computers for various tasks, but not that they learn how computers work.

"It's not only important for a student to learn to write a letter in Microsoft Word," Sudol-DeLyser said, explaining that every student should learn about basic computer security, media production and simple programming, and interested students should be encouraged to study computer science in depth.

"We're only training about half the computer scientists we need," Sudol-DeLyser said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer software engineering and information technology are among the fastest growing careers, with more than 300,000 additional jobs expected to be created by 2018. …

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