Transforming computer science education

At last July’s annual Computing Research Association (CRA) conference, deans of college computer science and engineering departments met to discuss what to do about declining enrollments and the rising demand from corporate IT for grads with soft skills.

One of the most pressing items on their agenda was what to do about the perception that the tech world is populated largely by introverts, happy to hide behind their screens all day eating energy bars. The new IT worker, everyone agrees, is going to have to leap over the cube wall to work with a variety of people in a variety of ways.

“They’ll need to work well in teams, work well with customers, have great communication skills and be problem solvers,” says Maria Klawe, dean of Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The formula for teaching kids how to do that, some CRA attendees believe, is CS + X: taking computer science (CS) and combining it with other areas of study (X), such as business, psychology, biology or art.

“The world needs people who can cross traditional disciplines,” says Klawe.

Indeed, Princeton now offers a first-year course in bioinformatics that integrates math, physics, biology and computer science. As part of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s strategic plan, the faculty is going to grow by 25 per cent, and all of the new professors — some 32 people — will have cross-disciplinary abilities. (One recent hire has a CS and biology background.)

Jeannette Wing, president’s professor of computer science and head of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, believes CS students will increasingly go into non-IT-specific professions.

“If you think about science today — astronomy, chemistry, physics — it has mounds and mounds of data that (people in those fields) don’t know how to process,” she says. “That’s where computers can come into play.”

“Virtually every discipline and industry needs IT and computer science,” says Klawe. “If you’re talking to an anthropologist, there are opportunities for using IT (in that field); same if you’re talking to architects or physicists.”

CS + X, in that it integrates computing with the needs of an increasingly technocentric world, is looking more and more like the answer for computer science curricula. And it could change that geek image forever.

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