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Zeichick's Take: Rebooting computer science



Alan Zeichick
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January 16, 2009 —  What is computer science? Why are so few young people, at least in the United States, choosing to enter the field? Isn’t computer science just programming? What can we do about it?

This week, I was privileged to attend the Rebooting Computing Summit, a gathering of 200 computer-science enthusiasts in Silicon Valley. The summit brought together the leading lights of our profession, and it was humbling to be in their presence.

Visionaries like Peter J. Denning, Vint Cerf and Alan Kay, as well as industry legends, like Multics creator Peter Neumann, Lisp authority Dick Gabriel, natural-language pioneer Terry Winograd, and UML inventor Grady Booch, were the headliners. There were also dozens of computer-science professors, high-school computing teachers, industry professionals, graduate students and others top-shelf experts.

The purpose of the summit was, as the title said, to find ways to reboot the science of computing. During the three days, the group delved (sometimes deeply, sometimes not) into the fundamental questions. Is computer science just a highfalutin’ way of saying “programming”? Is computer science really a science? Why isn’t computer science generally seen as an attractive academic pursuit compared to other science and engineering majors? Why aren’t young people lining up for careers in computer science?

Without trying to summarize three days of exercise, introspection and debate, there were some areas that were generally (but not universally) agreed on:

• Computer science has an image problem: It’s not seen as cool or relevant.
• There is confusion, both inside and out our community, about exactly what computer science is.
• Computer science impacts nearly every aspect of society, but it’s a deep dark secret.
• There are areas that are exciting to young people, like robotics and contests, but the computer-science tie-in is hidden.

In next week’s Take, I’m going to share some of the ideas that were floated at the Rebooting Computing Summit. Which of those ideas will get implemented—if any—remains to be seen, of course. However, this is a debate, and a discussion, we should all care deeply about. Write me at feedback@bzmedia.com.

Alan Zeichick is editorial director of SD Times. Read his blog at ztrek.blogspot.com.





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Comments


01/25/2009 05:28:14 PM EST

Computer science in all its forms is no longer attractive to college entrants because the realization has set in that there is no job security in being a software engineer or programmer. Better to be an accountant or a lawyer. In those professionals the qualifications necessary to succeed are clearly understood - unlike in computer science where you have to totally reinvert yourself every few years.

United StatesFinnbarr P. Murphy


01/28/2009 02:49:36 AM EST

In response to Murphy, if would be computer science students really believe they have to reinvent themselves every few years to succeed that is unfortunate. Computer science is about recognizing and learning patterns. These patterns persist throughout regardless of technology and are very easy to master.

United StatesMike Watson


02/02/2009 11:11:07 AM EST

Computer Science is relevant in all places in our society, but is kept a great secret, because it would be our jobs! Just like magicians keep their "tricks" secret, no matter how bad we want to know, we won't find out unless we research. I think what turns off the younger crowd to the software engineering and other aspects of the field is the mathematics. It's discerning, and not many people's minds are apt to the algorithmic behaviors of equations and how they associate with the base of engineering, in the world of computer science.

United StatesMukunda Manoogian


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