‘Students of All Majors Should Study Computer Science’

To the Editor:

“The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth?” (The Chronicle, November 11) says most researchers consider the STEM crisis a myth, unless their funding comes from technology companies. As information technology is certainly in STEM, we looked to see whether our field should be tarred along with the same brush applied to the sciences, engineering, and mathematics.

Our first untainted data source comes from CareerCast.com. This online site helps applicants find jobs in all fields, including STEM jobs as well as professional occupations in business, journalism, or law. Using a weighted formula based on work environment, income, job outlook, and stress levels, for the last five years it ranked selected job titles from best (1) to worst (200). The graph below shows selected results.

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This ranking helps point out that while there are no perfect jobs, some appear to be better than others, and college students likely must eventually pick one of these 200 jobs. Software engineer has always been a top job in their lists, and it was ranked first multiple times. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of this formula, software engineering looks more appealing than many other fields.

However, this ranking is more about the present than about the future. College students thinking about careers should be more focused on the latter than the former, and many would advise career-oriented college students to go into a field that is expected to grow rather than to one that will be flat. Wouldn’t it be great if there were an agency that projected future job demand that wasn’t under the thumb of industry?

Let us introduce you to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, our second independent data source. The BLS projects job growth over a 10-year period for just about every job title you can imagine. Using the latest BLS data, the graph below shows the percentage of job growth in this decade divided between the sciences, engineering, mathematics, and IT. The BLS expects software-engineering jobs to grow by 30 percent this decade, labeling it officially as growing “much faster than average,” which is the highest BLS distinction. While network administration is a much smaller slice of the computer-occupations segment than software engineer, it is growing fast too at 28 percent. Most people going into network administration today also have degrees in computer science.

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While there is uncertainty in all such projections, students interested in careers in IT certainly have strong BLS data to support their decisions.

However, in our view this career-oriented evaluation understates the importance of studying IT. “Computational thinking”—problem analysis and decomposition, algorithmic thinking, algorithmic expression, abstraction, modeling, stepwise fault isolation—is central to an increasingly broad array of fields. Programming is not just an incredibly valuable skill (although it certainly is that)—it is the hands-on inquiry-based way that we teach computational thinking. Those who can practice computational thinking, and who can wield the power of computer effectively, will be in the position to make greater contributions than those who can’t. Indeed, the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was for computer models, and the official press release said, “Today the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube.”

Richard Dawkins, author of the classic book The Selfish Gene, commented similarly: “Biology nowadays is a branch of computer science.”

Fields from anthropology to zoology are becoming information fields, which is why we think students of all majors should study computer science.

Fortunately, this debate is not being settled by pundits writing op-eds. Students are voting with their feet on the importance of computer science for their careers. The graph below shows annual enrollments over the past decade for the introductory computer-science course at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of Washington. At each of these schools, and at colleges and universities across the nation, the introductory computer-science course is now among the most popular courses on campus, and demands for advanced computer-science courses are at record-breaking highs. At Stanford, with more than 90 percent of Stanford undergrads participating, English majors now take the same rigorous introductory computer-science course as computer-science majors.

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Student demand and employer demand are cyclical in most fields, and computer science is no exception. But the long-term outlook is clear and compelling: In addition to attractive career opportunities in information technology, students from all fields want to learn computer science to learn to how to change the world.

Ed Lazowska
Professor of Computer Science and Engineering
University of Washington
Seattle

David Patterson
Professor in Computer Science
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, Calif.

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