This article is published in the March 2009 issue.

Educating Future Generations in Computing

Message from the CISE AD

Computing innovations drive our economy, underlie scientific advances, change societal behavior, and support national security. Tomorrow’s innovations rely on today’s students. To sustain progress, we need a continuous supply of creative and highly trained computer science researchers, a diverse well-trained computing workforce, and an educated, IT-literate citizenry. So, how are we doing?

Some Facts

At the K-12 level, computing is rarely taught in the elementary grades, and even in high schools it is often limited to basic literacy and relegated to the vocational track, not the track for college credit. Many computer science high school teachers are out-of-field and uncertified; few states have curriculum standards in computing. In 2008, only 15,999 Advanced Placement (AP) CS tests were taken, compared to 222,835 Calculus AB, 154,504 Biology, and 108,284 Statistics tests.

In contrast to what is happening in the United States, a growing number of countries are requiring high school students to take computing. Israel, for example, requires a minimum of three units of CS study, subject to national standards, with teachers who are required to have both an undergraduate CS degree and a teaching license in CS.

At the undergraduate level, of all college freshmen surveyed by the Higher Education Research Institute, the number who reported an intention to major in computer science was 1.1% in fall 2007 and 1.0% in fall 2008, an astonishing drop of 70% since 2000. Taulbee data show the number of new computer science and engineering majors in fall 2007 was roughly half of what it had been in fall 2000 (23,416 versus 12,195). The total enrollment in CS&E programs was 79,311 in fall 2000, but only  46,227 in fall 2007. Fortunately, some top-ranking departments have begun to see an uptick in 2008 enrollments, and so there is reason to be optimistic.

At the graduate level, we have seen increases in degrees, with M.S. degrees up 25% and Ph.D.s nearly doubling since 2000. More than 50% of these advanced degrees went to nonresident aliens, many of whom will be returning home to increased opportunities in their own countries.

Computing’s failure to attract students is particularly striking with women, minorities, and persons with disabilities. Women have made gains generally in science, accounting for 51% of the undergraduate degrees, 44% of the Master’s degrees, and 38% of the Ph.D.s in the most recent data available from NSF. However, last year’s Taulbee Survey data show the comparable numbers for women in CS&E at 12%, 23%, and 19%, respectively. The situation is also bleak for underrepresented minorities, who were awarded 9.3% of our undergraduate degrees in computing—3.8% for Master’s and 2.6% for Ph.D.s.

A Charge to the Computing Community

These facts clearly add up to a charge to us: To engage today’s students in computing for tomorrow’s innovations in all fields.

We certainly have the wonders of our technology to offer students. Getting a machine—be it a cell phone, a robot, or a server cluster—to do what you want is thrilling. Writing software to build a virtual world that defies the laws of nature is magical.  Instantaneously reaching your friends through global social networks is cool. Teaching students to use our technology effectively and creatively and to develop the skills to produce future computing technology is our responsibility. But we offer more than our technology. More profoundly, we offer a way of thinking (aka “computational thinking”) that can empower students, no matter what field they decide to enter, no matter what profession they decide to pursue.

CISE’s educational vision is based on this premise:  Everyone can benefit from learning some principles of computing and the computing field can benefit from a diverse workforce trained in such principles. “Everyone” means everyone: students and teachers at every stage of the educational pipeline; from future researchers in computing to future leaders of our nation; and people of all cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds, interests, and disciplines. Moreover, CISE recognizes that our field is demanding people who not only have solid technical skills, but also good collaborative skills. Communicating and working with others in multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural teams is the norm in industry. Such collaborations are also growing in computing research, as theoreticians work with experimentalists and as computing touches all other disciplines.

What Are We As a Community Doing?

CISE is implementing its educational agenda through two complementary programs: CISE Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education (CPATH) and Broadening Participation in Computing (BPC). CPATH aims to revitalize undergraduate computing education and BPC aims to increase the number of postsecondary degrees in computing that are awarded to students from underrepresented groups.

CISE is not alone in its interest in computing education. Companies such as Google, Intel, and Microsoft sponsor computer science education and outreach programs. Many other computing organizations and societies have taken up the charge too; here are some examples:


With CISE funding, the National Academies’ Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) is running a workshop series on computational thinking for everyone. The intent of the first workshop, held last month, was to provide definitions and dimensions of computational thinking as a basis for teaching computing to everyone, especially K-12 students. In mathematics, we teach numbers in kindergarten, algebra in seventh grade, and calculus in twelfth grade. What would an analogous progression of concepts be for computing? To answer this properly, we need to understand how children best learn what when. Thus, the second workshop will bring together computer scientists, education scientists, and learning scientists.

The Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), partially funded by CPATH and BPC, supports and promotes K-12 computer science education. It strives to establish a national computer science curriculum based on ACM’s Model Curriculum for K-12.

CISE is working with the College Board to create a new Advanced Placement course. Given the decentralization of education in the United States, AP offers the best hope of effecting change nationally, providing a single point of leverage. The new AP course, envisioned to be part of a three-course sequence, will retain the rigor of a college course but will expose students to the fundamental concepts of computing (including abstraction, algorithms, complexity, and computability), as well as its important applications. The final phase of the project will be a nationwide effort to create 10,000 Teachers in 10,000 Schools to teach the new sequence. The success of this endeavor will require the collaboration, well beyond NSF, of government, industry, and private foundations.


The “Rebooting Computing” project, run at the Naval Postgraduate School and partially sponsored by CPATH, held a summit this past January with 240 international participants. The summit formed fourteen action groups, many related to education, spanning all levels.

The ACM Education Board leads a CISE-funded collaborative activity for organizing a high-level summit to convene the main US computing societies to address the future of undergraduate computing education on a national scale.

The newly formed CRA-E will be exploring different models of engaging undergraduates in computing.

Working Synergistically

In just this past year, I witnessed a flurry of activity by many individuals and organizations focused on computer science education. The energy and enthusiasm is exciting. It even seems a bit chaotic! One reason I wrote this column is to make sure as many of us in the community as possible are aware of each other’s activities. Let’s build on each other’s results rather than separately reinvent the wheel. The synergy of all of our efforts should give us a vibrant and inclusive educational system that is critically needed to develop a computing-savvy 21st Century workforce.

Educating Future Generations in Computing