REDMOND, Wash. — Dec. 8, 2009 — It’s difficult to imagine a future without computers. Just about everything people do has a computer component, whether it’s using a PC, using the Internet to research a school paper, talking on a mobile phone or checking a hiking map while trekking through the wilderness. Just about everything we do is becoming more efficient through the efforts of computer scientists.
“Computer science today is critical to almost every other field of science and engineering,” says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research.
To boost the pool of qualified computers scientists, Microsoft executives helped urge Congress to designate the week of Dec. 7 as National Computer Science Education Week. Joining the effort were the Association for Computing Machinery, Google Inc., Intel Corporation, the Computer Science Teachers Association, National Center for Women & Information Technology and the Computing Research Association.
The U.S. Department of Labor has projected that by 2014 there will be more than 2 million job openings in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the U.S. As the economy fights to lift itself out of recession, it becomes even more important for the U.S. to equip its teachers and students with the skills and tools to take advantage of these opportunities.
Computer science is just a part of the STEM job category, but it holds a key to increasing the quality of tools for all tech workers. Ever since computers were first used to solve complex math problems, humans have been freed up to work on other tasks. None of this is possible without computer scientists.
“A computer scientist is someone who uses the ideas embodied in computing to solve problems in a wide range of areas,” says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. “Computer science today is critical to almost every other field of science and engineering. It is revolutionizing the way we do biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy and healthcare. And it lies at the heart of the best ideas we have for improving the environment.”
People talk about computer literacy and point to how basic computer skills can open doors, but simply using a computer isn’t enough to keep innovation moving forward. The heart of computer science is breaking down complex problems into chunks that people can solve with the help of computing power.
As Rashid puts it, computer science involves a specific way to tackle puzzles.
“Success in the field of computer science is really about learning a new way of solving problems — what has sometimes been called computational thinking,” Rashid says. “Computation thinking takes a problem and breaks it down into parts and then determines the steps needed to solve it. Computation thinking means being able to think creatively about problems at different levels of abstraction and to find ways to compose pieces of a solution into a working whole.”
Microsoft supports computer science education initiatives such as its Students to Business program, DreamSpark, the MSDN Academic Alliance, the Microsoft IT Academy, Partners in Learning, Club Tech at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Microsoft Math Partnership, DigiGirlz, and the WorldWide Telescope.
The first week of December has been designated National Computer Science Education Week in honor of Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneer in the computer science field who was born on Dec. 9, 1906.
In the United States the focus of computer science education has mainly been at the university level. However, students as young as grade school can learn the fundamentals of computing and solving complex problems.
Computer Science Education Week was developed to remedy the inadequacy of the nation’s computer science education system at the K-12 level. Backers aim for this to be the beginning of a broad community effort between governments, schools, educators and leading technology companies to introduce computer science as part of the core curriculum at all levels of education.
Microsoft Doing Its Part
Microsoft is involved in many educational endeavors to empower students and teachers through the benefits of technology.
From providing free access to professional-level developer tools to equipping teachers with training and support to bring technology into the classroom, the company is committed to helping educators prepare students for the future.
For instance, the Imagine Cup is Microsoft’s annual worldwide competition showcasing young technologists who take on some of the world’s biggest challenges. Students gain real-world experience by designing software applications and creating innovative solutions that help them explore new opportunities in the technology industry. Since 2002, young people in more than 140 countries have tackled tough issues such as extreme poverty, HIV/AIDS, universal primary education and environmental sustainability.
To make computer programming more accessible for children, Microsoft Research created the Kodu visual programming language specifically for creating video games. The programming environment runs on Xbox, allowing rapid design iteration using only a game controller for input.
Another science education tool is a new Web site called “Be a Martian,” a joint effort by NASA and Microsoft to give students of all ages a chance to view hundreds of thousands of images of Mars. One of the goals is to spur interest in science and technology among students.
Microsoft is also involved through education programs including its Students to Business program, DreamSpark, the MSDN Academic Alliance, the Microsoft IT Academy, Partners in Learning, Club Tech at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the Microsoft Math Partnership, DigiGirlz and the WorldWide Telescope.
Teachers Face Biggest Challenges
Microsoft and other technology companies can only do so much by providing tools and opportunities for students. The quality of the education students receive will ultimately be determined by their individual teachers, professors and instructors. It’s an important and challenging task for each educator, especially as technology education works its way into younger students’ classrooms.
One problem, says Rashid, is that there are few educational prerequisites for teaching programming and computation concepts.
“It has been shown over and over again that you can teach children to program as early as grade school,” Rashid said. “But very little computer science education occurs in K-12 in the United States. That leaves the task of educating the next generation almost completely to colleges and universities.”
Teaching computer science to high school students doesn’t necessarily mean each child has to be transformed into a programmer before he or she can earn a diploma. In many cases, computer science education means learning to think and solve problems in a new way. Learning computer programming languages can come at any time, but certain skills must be mastered before a programmer can be successful.
“Success in teaching computer science is really success in teaching students how to think computationally,” Rashid says. “Students need to learn first and foremost how to break tasks down into their constituent parts, find common sub-tasks, abstract and compose their piecewise solutions into a working whole. Sometimes people confound learning how to program with computer science. Knowing how to write is an important skill, but only a part of what it means to be a computer scientist.”
When educators are successful at meeting these challenges, the U.S. will see more computer scientists thinking and working computationally to solve climate change problems, help the country meet its increasing energy demands in a sustainable way, make high-quality healthcare and education more affordable and accessible, and take on problems we have yet to anticipate.