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In the Nation's Interest

Trustee Blog: Paula Stern on Importance of More Careers in Computer Science

March was yet another month of lackluster growth, with the unemployment rate unchanged at 6.7%.  (America lacks a quick, comprehensive way to measure the losses of “underemployment.”)  Americans not working at full potential and seeking a career change should look no further than computer science. The demand in this field is so strong that computer science majors earned, on average, the second highest starting salaries in 2012: an impressive $59,200.  Only beginning engineers were compensated more, at $62,700.

Think about your daily interactions with computers.  This morning, your phone’s software awoke you at the time and to the tune of your choice.  You proceeded to the subway, entering only after the gate verified the coding embedded in your pass.  Once settled at work or school, you began directing endless tasks of your computer, which the operating system performed flawlessly – including the click that opened this very article.

As you can tell, computer science – which entails having computers solve problems – touches on nearly everything we do in this day and age.  In fact, there isn’t a job out there that could be done better without some knowledge of computer science.  The financial industry is often referred to as the portion of the IT sector that deals with money.  And what politician wouldn’t navigate some policy debates better with an understanding of how software works?  Retail, healthcare, research, cybersecurity, the insurance industry – they all are built on computer science.
Boosting participation in computer science will mean introducing students to it in our K-12 schools in engaging ways that better sparks their interest.  A survey revealed that 57% of college students pursuing a STEM major say that a teacher or class cultivated their interest before college.  That requires a stronger emphasis on seeing and experiencing the extraordinary real-world applications of computer science, from high-tech clothing to medical technology.  And just as important, demonstrating its real-world applications must be tailored to their tastes.  A class for elementary students may show how a video game is programmed or use hands-on activities to introduce computing concepts with no hardware at all.  Even learning about flow charts supports computer science, because they really are “if-then” statements, right? At the high school level, spurring interest might entail giving students the knowledge and skills they need to create an app for a smart phone.  Or teaching them how to manipulate large data sets.  (Who isn’t curious or worried about “big data” these days?)

Also, anyone who knows me knows that I have a keen interest in getting more girls and women into these fields.  Women in the United States are equally avid users of technology, but they are significantly underrepresented in its creation.  Women make eighty-five percent of all consumer purchases in the United States, even though women earn less than men (1).  The National Center for Women & Information Technology – a change leader network that I am proud to work with – is trying to reverse this troubling situation.  Women's lack of participation in this important and growing area has serious consequences, not only for them but for the future of technical innovation. According to research compiled by NCWIT, companies that embrace a more diverse workforce enjoy a return on investment by adopting a more inclusive hiring culture. Teams made up of men and women are more open to experimentation and knowledge sharing, perform tasks more effectively, and often outperform less diverse teams (2).

Popularizing computer science among all students also requires a change in policy.  This interactive map of the U.S. dramatizes the short supply of graduates with computing and information technology skills compared to the unfilled demand for skilled workers in today's US economy.  Currently, federal education programs – and the funding that’s tied to them – discourage or exclude computer science from the primary set of K-12 subjects.  The Computer Science Education Act (HR 2536/S 1407), a bipartisan bill introduced in the House and Senate, is a significant first step in the right direction, as it would permit federal funds to be used by states and school districts to teach computer science.

The potential for computer science careers in the U.S. is extraordinary.  Fulfilling that potential will mean changes in both the classroom and education policy.  The U.S. cannot attract more young people to computing if America’s K-12 educational system fails to teach computing.

1 Brigid Schulte, “Major national companies try ‘sponsorship’ as new hammer to break glass ceiling,” Washington Post, November 14, 2013. 
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Paula Stern, Ph.D., is Chairwoman of The Stern Group, Inc. in Washington, D.C. Dr. Stern has served on seventeen different public corporate boards over the course of her career. She has been a member of the Committee for Economic Development since 1999.

Trustee blogs are the views of an individual trustee and not the official policy of CED.