Voice Of America: U.S. Computer Programmers Losing Ground

By Cameron
July 27, 2006

Voice of America ran an article today looking at issues of education and globalization and impacts on the U.S. computer science pipeline. The article starts by pointing out America’s poor showing in ACM’s international programing contest:

“From 1977 until 1989, the winner was always a U.S. college team. And American students were among the top finishers until the late 1990s. But since then, Asian and East European students have won most of the top prizes. This year, only one American college team was among the top twelve. Last year, there were none. Some analysts say this poor showing by American computer science students should serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. government, industry and educators.”

On the education front, there are two significant issues. First, the number of science graduates in the US is low compared competitors such as India and China. Second, high school curriculum puts U.S. students at a disadvantage:

Mel Schiavelli, President of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania says, “… computer science is based on mathematics, especially algebra, and that these subjects are introduced too late in elementary schools. High school math and science courses are not as challenging in the U.S. as they are in some Asian and European curricula. Thus, entering college students who choose to major in computing, engineering or other sciences often cannot cope with the complexity of college science courses. After their first semester, many of these freshmen switch to non-science majors.”

The article also focused on the impact of globalization and outsourcing on the field:

Doug White, a computer science professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island “The Internet and globalization in general allow Third World countries like India — it’s such a great example — to really improve their situation by creating a wealthy middle class. And that’s great for the world because it means salaries and income levels in those countries, where things are bad, are improving. So that’s good. The scary part is that as those jobs go away, there is going to be a situation where a lot of Americans who are trying to find careers are going to have a challenging time.”

But also pointed out that this perception can hurt the field in the long run:

Some analysts say that in recent years, many American students have shunned computer programming because they fear that job opportunities and salaries in that field will decline. Greg Gagne, Chairman of the Computer Science Department at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, says that as a result, the United States will face a shortage of computer science talent. “Several high tech leaders are concerned that with this dip in computer science enrollments, five or six years from now, there won’t be enough graduates coming out of U.S. colleges and universities with computer science degrees to fulfill demand.” Gagne says the fear of outsourcing must be dispelled because it is only a small fraction of the computer industry.

ACM released a report on the globalization and offshoring of software eariler this year that also discussed these topics.