Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Can We Afford To Wait For a CS Sputnik Moment

I was having a talk with a teacher online recently and he reminded me of the Sputnik scare that started a lot of renewed interest in science and math in education. All of a sudden politicians and business people were concerned that American students were losing ground in those fields. This started a rash of interest that eventually lead to landing people on the moon. Along the way many wonderful and unexpected scientific discoveries were developed and I mean a lot more than just Tang! There was a defining moment that sparked a call to action. Where is that moment for computer science?
I first publically asked that question in a blog post several years ago called Finding the Titanic which I have copied below. I haven’t found that moment or that discovery. I wonder if such a thing can be manufactured or is it something that just has to happen? But if we wait for something to happen will it happen too late? That is if it is not already too late. Other nations are waking up to the essential nature of computer science. Estonia is teaching computer science to all students in all grades! Who knows where that will lead them in the long run!
How do we get this conversation out beyond the choir who is already interested in CS education? That is the multi-billion dollar question!
The closing keynote of TCEA 2009 was given by Dr. Robert Ballard of oceanographic explorer fame. It was a talk that was both interesting and inspiring. One thing he said was particularly thought provoking to me. I think it is highly relevant to the current and worsening recruitment problems we are having in computer science – especially with non-traditional CS students. Dr. Ballard explained that for many years he was making important discoveries in science. Uncovering secrets of the earth and of life that caused people to throw away the old textbooks. Revolutionary discoveries. And yet all his graduate students were from over seas. Children had never heard of him. There was no excitement in the field outside of the field. Then he found the Titanic!
Within weeks he’d received 16,000 letters from young people with two questions on their mind – "What do I have to do to do what you do for a living?" and "The next time you go, can I go with you?" From relative obscurity he and his field had grabbed the imagination of young people in a way that was unprecedented. These days all of his graduate students are Americans and many young people grow up wanting to be like him and make the sorts of discoveries that he and his teams are making.
It makes me wonder – what is the computer science equivalent of finding the Titanic? What is that one thing that will grab the imagination and inspire a generation to enter the field?
It may not even be central to the field. In fact I suspect that it will not be. Perhaps it is some tour de force that proves a controversial concept or theory. After all finding the Titanic was a great demonstration of equipment that was really designed to do other more centrally scientific things. I don’t know what it will be but I am pretty sure that we need to find it. Slow and steady is losing us ground. So … any ideas?

1 comment:

Dean said...

Celebrating accomplishments with fame instead of cash. To the team that came up with the vaccine for HPV - and will completely prevent several cancers - bravo; you deserve a tickertape parade through NYC.

Getting kids to realize that they can do these things. Cowboys were cool. Astronauts are always cool. But instead of portraying STEM professionals as something you want to be, they're portrayed as socially inept bumblers that kids don't want to become.