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2011 June 11

Surge in Computer Science Majors

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The New York Times just published an article by Claire Cain Miller on rising numbers of computer science majors: Hollywood Spurs Surge in Computer Science Majors.  She attributes the growth to the popularity and profitability of services like Facebook and Google, though they do point out

Never mind that Mr. Zuckerberg, like other tech titans, did not major in computer science—or even finish college.

She also attributes the growth in computer science majors after a long decline from the bursting of the bubble to changes in the curriculum:

Stanford, the University of Washington, and the University of Southern California have recently revamped their computer science curriculums to attract iPhone and Facebook-obsessed students, and to banish the perception of the computer scientist as a geek typing code in a basement.

The new curriculums emphasize the breadth of careers that use computer science, as diverse as finance and linguistics, and the practical results of engineering, like iPhone apps, Pixar films and robots, a world away from the more theory-oriented curriculums of the past.

It is certainly true that two of the recent majors added to the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at UCSC, Game Design and Robotics Engineering, are quite popular.

Professors stress that concentrating on the practical applications of computer science does not mean teaching vocational skills like programming languages, which change rapidly. Instead, it means guiding students to tackle real-world problems and learn skills and theorems along the way.

The new majors at UCSC are indeed solid engineering programs, not fluff. (There are also more artsy programs, like Digital Arts and New Media, which cover some of the same subjects, but with less engineering content—I know less about them.)

The programs do suffer from the same problem as computer science:

the programs woefully lag in attracting women and many minorities, though the share of computer science degrees granted to women climbed 2.5 percentage points last year to 14 percent.

The reporter does question whether this is just another passing fad, like the run-up to the dot-com bubble:

But educators say this time is different.

“What we’re seeing now is a better-motivated upsurge,” said Ed Lazowska, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, “students who understand that they really need to know this material.”

Personally, I think that Lazowska is fooling himself.  This looks exactly like the upsurge before the dot-com bubble and will probably last about as long.  Computer science and computer programming continue to be moderately difficult fields that not many people are good at, and the big financial rewards that are enticing people into the field will prove to be somewhat temporary (as they have repeatedly in the past).  Once the dream of easy money fades, students will abandon the field as being too much work. Still, an occasional bubble can keep the doors open at the University for a while.



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