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<< Back to May 2004 CRN Table of Contents

[Published originally in the May 2004 edition of Computing Research News, Vol. 16/No. 3, p. 20.]

The Incredibly Shrinking Pipeline Is Not Just for Women Anymore

By James H. Morris and Peter Lee

If you can keep your head while all about are losing theirs and blaming it on you, per-haps you have underestimated the seriousness of the situation.

The tech meltdown and the media stories about offshoring are causing a lot of angst among us all. These temporary phenomena should motivate us to re-examine the real goals of computer science and education. Some of the recent attempts to encourage students to enter computer science have three problems: they are addressing the wrong goals, the wrong career paths, and the wrong audience.

The Wrong Goals

Portraying computer science as a path to getting rich is wrong and contributes to the boom-bust pattern of computer science enrollments. In fact, the vocational nature of computer science reduces its appeal to many students. Contrast this with the promise of biology and other physical sciences. They offer intellectual grandeur and the opportunity for a rewarding career that helps humanity. Since 1990 the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in the biological sciences has increased 70 percent. During the same period, the number of computer science degrees awarded each year has dropped by 10 percent. Since the peak in 1987, computer science degree production has actually fallen by one-third. The numbers are equally bad at the doctoral level. Today, we are producing about 25,000 computer science bachelor's degrees annually. Roughly 1,000 each year reach the Ph.D. level. The life sciences produce six times as many at each level! These figures force us to question whether we are developing adequate critical mass in the scientific community to tackle the challenges of computer science. They also suggest that the breakdown is in recruiting undergraduates.

These numbers alone may be alarming enough. But, in our view, they are merely symptoms of deeper problems in how we educate our students. In a nutshell, our current approaches to computer science education fail to teach the science of computing. As a result, they fail to inspire the very best and brightest young minds to enter the field.

As readers of CRN know, computer science is faced with scientific challenges that rival any in the history of science, but are relevant to pressing practical problems of today. Computer science involves questions that have the potential to change how we view the world. For example:

  • What is the nature of intelligence, and can we reproduce it in a machine? To explore outer space we must create intelligent robots.
  • How can we ensure the reliability and security of systems more complex than humans have ever created?
  • What is the nature of human cognition, and how can this allow us to design machines that help us make sense out of petabytes of unstructured data?
  • What are the consequences of computation on devices operating at molecular scale, exploiting quantum physical effects?

Questions like these seem to be esoteric when placed next to the practical needs. But their answers are likely to have profound social and economic impacts. In-deed, it is this interplay between such fundamental challenges and the human condition that makes computer science so interesting. The results from even the most esoteric computer science research programs often have widespread practical impact. Computer security depends upon the innovations of public key encryption and number theory. Google is powered by state-of-the-art distributed computing systems, algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

Computational methods are transforming an amazingly wide range of scientific, business, and artistic practices. Computer science enables science to be both fundamental and practical at the same time. This characteristic of the field is likely to persist for the foreseeable future.

Action item 1: Find charismatic figures to promote computer science the way Albert Einstein promoted physics.

The Wrong Career Path

Writing about this problem in The New York Times, Steve Lohr lamented that a computer science major was taking a job on Wall Street. Our majors working outside the computer industry is a good thing for computer science. A computer science program could be a great preparation for virtually any career: microbiology, business, law, medicine-any field touched by computing. Just as brilliant liberal arts students major in English before settling into a career, many students should start with computing as the focus of a "liberal science" education.

We're educating more than enough biologists, as anyone with a degree in biology will tell you. A Ph.D. in Biology must run a gauntlet of post-docs before getting an academic position, if she ever does. A biology education is not nearly as versatile. In contrast, Ph.D.s in computer science always find work in their field. Our government has over-funded the life sciences, allegedly because aging congressmen like cures for diseases. Computers increase our intelligence, not our life span. Which would you prefer for congressmen?

To prepare our students for more wide-ranging careers we must broaden what we teach. Naturally, computer science majors should learn the basis of how it all works from the atoms up to the Internet; but that is not enough. They should learn some other things:

How to make something work in the mud. Our modern world is complex and messy. To be effective, a person needs to be her own engineer, knowing how to fiddle with tech-nology under adverse conditions. Students should build robots that work in places like Antarctica.

How to tell what's really going on. The methods of empirical science must be under-stood. The ability to discern a real phenomenon and distinguish it from myth or opinion is vital. Chemistry labs have been the traditional place for that, but the user testing lab could teach more relevant lessons

How does computing fit into the world? Computers did not spring just from the minds of Turing and von Neumann, but are the latest development in a process that goes back to the invention of interchangeable parts and beyond. More than a calculator, the computer is becoming the interface between people and their world. Computer scientists must know enough history and social science to chart and predict the impact of computers on the intersecting worlds of work, entertainment, and society. To do this, they must under-stand the whole modern world and its roots.

Any good undergraduate program includes liberal arts, science, and life skills. The computer-oriented studies should go beyond engineering skills to the things a per-son should know to prosper in a computing-intensive world: the potential and the limits of computing devices, matching solutions to problems, and the ethics of information use. More generally, we should impart basic skills-how to judge what you know and don't know, how to learn what you need to know, how to understand other professions and cultures, and how to communicate-using computers and networks as tools.

Action item 2: Broaden computer science curriculums, reducing engineering emphasis.

The Wrong Audience

Trying to attract computer science majors after they have arrived at university is too late. High schools and middle schools are the places to encourage computing.

In these schools, computer science is not "cool" and has second-class status compared to biology, physics, and chemistry. Girls in high school find computer science both unwelcoming and intellectually unattractive; more than three-quarters of the stu-dents in advanced placement computer science programs are male. In major high school science competitions, such as the Siemens-Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition, the numbers of computer science entrants in regional and national finals are dwindling as projects in biology and physics drown them out. What passes for computer science in the high school curriculum is just training in computer programming. This dooms computer science to second-class status; computer science courses rarely count towards satisfying the science requirements in high school curricula. Worse, high school computing does not teach the visions and grand challenges of computer science.

Ironically, the overflow of physical scientists go into high school teaching where they inspire new generations of students to pursue their overcrowded field. Let's hope some of today's out-of-work computer professionals find their way into teaching.

Action item 3: Run a nationwide program to teach real computer science to high school teachers. Find a way to get more computer scientists into teaching high school.

Action item 4: Reform the advanced placement computer science curriculum by adding tests beyond programming.

Action item 5: Provide research opportunities for high school students that lead to contestants in national science fairs.


It is time to panic-not because of the recent events, but because of a long-term misunderstanding of our field. Are we about a device or about an idea? As programmed digital devices continue to shrink in size and cost, many predict that the computer per se will disappear, just as the electric motor disappeared into hundreds of niches in our homes and automobiles. Should we shrink in size and cost along with the computer? If not, we had better get a grip on the intellectual basis of computer science and explain it to the world.

Professor James H. Morris, Carnegie Mellon University, recently completed his term as Dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Peter Lee is Professor and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs, Computer Science Department, CMU.


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