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Is There a Crisis in Computer-Science Education?

We’ve been following the continuing conversation among journalists, programmers, and educators about computer-science education in the United States and whether everyone should—or should not—learn how to code. It’s a question that comes up often in digital-media circles, so we were pleased to read a thoughtful, nuanced contribution to that conversation last week from Tasneem Raja, the interactive editor at Mother Jones.

In it, one statistic in particular caught our eye: The United States graduated proportionally fewer computer-science majors in 2011-12 than in 1985-86.

Could that really be? We live in an age when techology companies are growing at exponential rates and, in some cases, have resorted to anticompetitive measures in order to retain the best people.

So we looked into it.

It’s true that the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science in 1985-86 (4.3 percent of the total) was significantly higher than the percentage in 2011-12 (2.6 percent).

But focusing only on that single 26-year difference misses a far more interesting story. Take a look at this chart showing the proportion of bachelor’s and master’s degrees from 1979-80 to 2011-12.

Aside from looking remarkably like the Cisco logo (itself a representation of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge), the chart clearly shows fluctuation in interest among undergraduates and graduates in computer science.

The reason for that fluctuation isn’t clear from the graph, but we have a couple of theories:

1. The pipeline was primed: In the 1970s and 1980s, many elementary, middle, and high schools taught computer programming to students, according to Joanna Goode. As an associate professor of education studies at the University of Oregon, Ms. Goode has researched access for women and students of color in computer science.

“But, as the PC revolution took place, the introduction to the CD-ROMS and other prepackaged software, and then the Internet, changed the typical school curriculum from a programming approach to a ‘computer literacy’ skill-building course about ‘how to use the computer,’” Ms. Goode wrote in an email.

That could explain the rise in computer-science degrees in the early 80s—students who would have been in grade school in the 70s and had some computer-programming education—and the drop in the mid-90s—the students who were in elementary school in the 80s and learned only how to use a computer, not how to program one.

2. The job market: Fluctuations in college-degree attainment are often connected to fluctuations in the job market in certain industries. The peak in computer-science degrees, in 1985, came about four years after the introduction of IBM’s first personal computer and during the heyday of the Apple II, which very likely led to increased interest in getting a computer-science degree.

Similarly, the second wave, in the early 2000s, came about four years after the development of the dot-com bubble, when Silicon Valley jobs and million-dollar IPOs seemed almost ubiquitous. The subsequent decline in computer-science majors followed the bursting of that bubble.

In either case, the data seem to indicate that we’re in the midst of another rise in interest in computer science at the college level. Whether that’s the result of better computer-science education at lower grade levels or increased interest related to the ubiquity of smartphones and the tech-industry boom (some say we’re in another bubble) is unclear.

Furthermore, to focus only on computer-science majors misses a larger point. As Ms. Raja argues in her essay, simply teaching kids how to code shouldn’t be the only goal. Just as important—or perhaps more so—is teaching kids how to think like a computer programmer—what is called “computational thinking.” She highlights some current efforts to teach computational thinking in elementary and secondary schools, particularly to girls and members of minority groups, who remain woefully underrepresented among computer-science degree-holders and professional computer programmers.

And while teaching computational thinking may result in more computer-science degrees, the more important contribution it will make is giving more people across all fields the ability to solve problems like a computer scientist and to speak the language of computer programming.

As Ms. Raja notes, those are skills everyone should have access to, regardless of their major.

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