This is a Big Deal

On September 26, 2006, in Policy, by Peter Harsha

Computer scientists testifying before the Committee on House Administration on the security (or lack thereof) and verification of e-voting machines.
Cameron Wilson of ACM’s U.S. Public Policy Committee has all the details. USACM has been heavily involved in the issues surrounding electronic voting machines and so its appropriate that USACM members Ed Felten and Barbara Simons have been invited to testify. You may have seen Felten recently on Fox News or CNN talking about his research on the security and vulnerabilities of a particular e-voting machine and demoing the relative ease with which an election can be compromised.
Kudos to USACM (and Ed) for helping bring this attention some much needed focus and for providing Congress with the technical expertise it needs to really assess this situation.


A few interesting pieces/tidbits to juxtapose this morning. Sam Liles helpfully forwarded this piece from The Tennessean on the declining interest in computer science as a major, which is apparently getting a fair bit of play on The article asks the now familiar question:

Computer science majors make some of the highest starting salaries for college graduates in the country, at about $50,000 a year. Computer science and computer engineering jobs are some of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
So why are university computer science departments watching their enrollments slide?

The article puts the finger on student’s perceptions about the state of the job market — that potential majors shy away from CS because of fears about offshore outsourcing. But it also does an “ok” job of showing how that might be a mistaken impression:

The East South Central region, which includes Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi, is the fastest growing in the country in terms of information technology jobs, in part because of economic growth here, according to her agency’s latest survey.
Some 23 percent of chief information officers in that region plan to hire more workers this year and only 1 percent plan cutbacks.
Movva said she hasn’t been able to find experienced consultants in Nashville, and has had to hire outside the region, including signing visas for foreign nationals, to fill job openings.
“There are lots of jobs but not enough people are entering this field,” said Sandeep Walia, who is opening an e-commerce software office called Ignify on West End Avenue.
With Oracle database experts making as much as $150,000 a year, “you wonder why more people aren’t getting into this,” Walia said.
Vanderbilt professors are worried about the perception that jobs aren’t out there.
The department’s Web site includes a plea from the chairman to prospective students that says: “Contrary to what you may be reading in some publications, there are jobs. …
“The jobs are out there, but the perception is that they’re not,” said Richard Detmer, the chairman of the computer science department at Middle Tennessee State University.
Jonathan Waite graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt in May. But he says the job market is saturated with computer scientists. He feels that way even though he got three job offers in three months of looking for a job.

But students’ perceptions of the job market aren’t the only aspects of the problem worth addressing. Increasingly, CS departments are realizing that the way they teach computer science might have something to do with declining interest in their major, too. And that’s the focus of this piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed, “New ‘Threads’ for Computer Science.” The piece (which must be good because it quotes my boss, Andy Bernat, and CRA Board Member Rich DeMillo) focuses on the announcement of planned curriculum changes in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, where DeMillo is Dean.

The Georgia Institute of Technology is today unveiling what some experts believe is a much broader approach to the problem. The institute has abolished the core curriculum for computer science undergraduates — a series of courses in hardware and software design, electrical engineering and mathematics. These courses, in various forms, have been the backbone of the computer science curriculum not just at Georgia Tech but at most institutions.
In their place, Georgia Tech is introducing a curriculum called Threads.

Underlying this approach is the view that “the one size fits all approach to computer science just isn’t working anymore,” said Richard A. DeMillo, dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. The plans were developed by professors, who prepared a white paper outlying how this approach would create “symphonic thinking” graduates — another way of saying graduates whose jobs wouldn’t be outsourced, a fear keeping many out of the field.
“The really big change here is that we were willing to give up the idea of a core curriculum,” said DeMillo. “If you have 90 percent of your courses occupied with the core, you don’t have the flexibility to do anything creative.”

The Georgia Tech approach is noteworthy, not just because it’s an interesting approach to the problem, but because — as Andy points out in the article — it’s being undertaken by one of the bigger schools in computing. There’s plenty of additional detail on Georgia Tech’s approach in the article and on the Georgia Tech website.
Additional efforts in improving the quality of CS education will likely be give a boost by NSF’s very recent solicitation for its new CISE “Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education” (CPATH) program. The new program will make $6 million in awards in FY 2007 to encourage “colleges and universities to work together, and with other stakeholders in undergraduate computing education including industry, professional societies and other types of organizations, to formulate and implement plans to revitalize undergraduate computing education in the United States.”
While the image of computing still requires a lot of work, it’s also becoming increasingly clear that the field needs to reexamine the way it educates its undergraduates. In the coming months, I think we’ll see further efforts by the various computing societies (including CRA) to put a focus on CS education. Hopefully the NSF solicitation will uncover some interesting ideas and approaches within the discipline as well.


A National Academies report published this week discussing the gap between women and men in science academia is getting decent press in the national media. Both Newsweek and the New York Times have pieces covering the Academies’ report “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.”
Both articles make the key point from the report: while women are getting a larger percentage of the graduate degrees in science, engineering, and mathematics than in the past, academic faculties do not reflect those gains. Women of minority groups are almost non-existent on faculties. Among the reasons given in the report for low numbers of women on faculties are: rigid tenure clocks, inadequate child care, and colleague and administration bias. The report also states that in order to address this issue, there must be widespread changes to academic departmental structure in order to address the problem and that the changes must start at the top.
The New York Times article ”Bias is Hurting Women in Science, Panel Reports” focuses on the reports findings and states:

For 30 years, the report says, women have earned at least 30 percent of the nation’s doctorates in social and behavioral sciences, and at least 20 percent of the doctorates in life sciences. Yet they appear among full professors in those fields at less than half those levels. Women from minority groups are “virtually absent,” it adds.
The report also dismisses other commonly held beliefs — that women are uncompetitive or less productive, that they take too much time off for their families. Instead, it says, extensive previous research showed a pattern of unconscious but pervasive bias, “arbitrary and subjective” evaluation processes and a work environment in which “anyone lacking the work and family support traditionally provided by a ‘wife’ is at a serious disadvantage.”

The Newsweek article ”Science and the Gender Gap”, which is part of a larger section on women in leadership, points out that this is not necessarily new information. The article states:

Though individual women may have understood what they were up against, there wasn’t much of an organized effort to change things until an August day in 1994, when a group of tenured female faculty members at MIT met with physicist Robert Birgeneau, then the dean of the School of Science, to press their case that there was an institutional bias. “It was really a singular point,” says Birgeneau, now the chancellor at Berkeley. Before that day, he says, it was easy to dismiss an individual woman’s career problems as the result of a personality conflict or problems in her lab. But after investigating their complaints, he concluded that the problem was systemic.
In 1999, MIT issued a groundbreaking report which showed that tenured women professors made less money and received fewer research resources than their male colleagues. The next year MIT’s president, Charles Vest, convened a meeting of administrators and scientists from 25 of the most prestigious U.S. universities who issued a unanimous statement agreeing that institutional barriers prevented women from succeeding in science.

Both articles are available online at ”Bias is Hurting Women in Science, Panel Reports” and ”Science and the Gender Gap”.