That’s the subject of my new Chronicle of Higher Education column. It notes that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science dropped from over 20,000 in 2004 to less than 10,000 last year, and wonders whether the consequences of exposing fewer students to the rigors of programming are even worse than they seem.
Over the weekend I sent the column to my father, who retired recently after a long career as a computer scientist, first as a university professor and then as a researcher for GE before returning to academia. His response is below. It strikes me as a good question and I honestly don’t know the answer.
I saw, in my brief lifetime, Computer Science go from ground zero to be this intellectually exciting, creative, inventive discipline to one which, to me, was boring at the end in terms of “Computer Science” as a discipline. None of the really cool stuff needed to be learned anymore. Maybe if computers switch from being built out of silicon to something else, new inventions will be needed again.
In a very real way, it has been an example of evolution. The basic machine hardware architecture was defined 1945-50. It was the first truly general purpose machine ever created by humanity; change the program, change the function. People of my generation had to create (invent) all of the means to take advantage of that generality plus invent all of the manufacturing processes to make it smaller and smaller and therefore bigger and bigger every 18 months. Good old Gordon Moore, made his prediction in the early 1970s, right on.
However, once the basic inventions of modern programming languages, computer architectures, memory systems, input/out systems, algorithms for doing this and that, databases, communciation protocols, etc. were done by human beings, all of that invention could then be captured inside of the machine itself and reproduced when the machine was manufactured. It’s almost like a bunch of people like me were needed to give birth to the machine, and once created, we’re not needed any more. The machine now has its arms, legs, muscles, heart, and lungs; the birthing is done. Since then, the general society has struggled with how to use this capability.
Question: If the number of computer science degrees has drastically dropped, what is the trend in degrees from Business Colleges that teach databases, use of tools such as SAS, etc? There have also been a proliferation of science-based computer tools that do statistics, modeling of physical systems, GIS and mapping systems, etc. How many science disciplines teach the use of those tools as part of a degree program? There are also a lot of people using HTML tools – very simple stuff really, but still rigourous per the article – for designing web sites? That can be done in a couple of semesters max, maybe best done at community colleges? Is that happening? Since teaching a lot of people how to program in Pacal, Fortran, PL1, etc. isn’t needed as much anymore, has the type of training/thinking that you describe migrated into other fields? Or are we generating a legion of dumb users and American creativity is really on the wane?