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When a Crisis Doesn't Look Like a Crisis

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Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Mark Guzdial

Do we have a problem in the United States with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and especially computer science) education, or don't we?  In the last few weeks, it feels like there's been a national debate on the question.  On the one hand, there's the latest release of the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" reports, this one subtitled "Rapidly Approaching Category 5."  They argue that we cannot maintain American competitiveness and innovation with the current level of graduates in STEM.  The latest PCAST report "Prepare and Inspire: K-12 Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) for America's Future" says that there are serious problems with our K-12 STEM education.

In the meantime, the New York Times published an article recently "Tech Sector, Slow to Hire, Unlikely to Lead Recovery" saying that "Job growth in fields like computer systems design and Internet publishing has been slow in the last year. Employment in areas like data processing and software publishing has actually fallen."  In the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann argues that there is an "overblown crisis in American education." He points out that we have a higher percentage of our population in school than ever before, and "mass higher education is one of the great achievements of American democracy."

So do we have a crisis or don't we?  Do we have too few CS graduates, or do we have so many that unemployment is rising in the Tech Sector?

There is a possibility that all the commentators are right.  At the recent CSTA K-12 workshop at Grace Hopper, Eric Roberts of Stanford University gave a great keynote (slides available here) where he suggested that we don't have enough of the right kind of graduates.  We have lots of computer science graduates who don't have the right skills or the right kind of knowledge for the jobs that industry is desperate to fill.  Our innovation and competitiveness in the United States might be at risk because of that gap. Overall, we have lots of students, but they may not be learning enough in the STEM disciplines to meet the needs.  

There is a crisis, and it requires an education solution.  How do we improve the quality of the graduates we produce?  How do we help new graduates and workers currently in the field (though perhaps unemployed) to be lifelong learners, to update their knowledge so that they can meet current needs and the needs in ten years? It may be that all the commentators are right. It's not clear that any of them has a solution.



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