Report: Where's the 'Computer Science' in STEM?

Schools should be doing a lot more to promote the study of computer science as a discipline. At the high school level, only about a quarter of schools have CS classes, and many of those focus on computer use or coding rather than CS principles. At the college level enrollment in such courses is often restricted to those in the major or bloated with extra fees.

According to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a non-profit science and technology think tank, while there's a certain "groundswell of interest" in CS in the United States, it's still not enough to address the high demand for skilled workers among employers.

In a new report, "The Case for Improving U.S. Computer Science Education," the foundation pointed out that "the most important STEM field for a modern economy" not only lacks its own initial in STEM but has the fewest number of high school students taking its classes. Skills in CS don't exist just in IT professions, but in all segments, according to the foundation.

On the secondary school front, the report stated, CS is still considered "secondary" to the "biology-chemistry-physics framework" that has dominated high school science education since the 1890s. In fact, while the percentage of students taking a class in chemistry rose from 49 percent to 70 percent from 1990 to 2009, CS actually lost ground, "sinking" from 25 percent of students in 1990 to 19 percent in 2009.

Currently, only around a quarter of high schools offer CS, and those tend to be concentrated in affluent schools, the report noted. Just 18 percent of schools accredited to offer Advanced Placement exams offer the CS AP exam.

The report said that only half of states count computer science as a math or science credit rather than an elective, and the majority of states (29 in total) lack CS teacher certification programs.

The gender "disparity" for AP exams also is at its largest in CS; 22 percent of students who take the AP exam in computer science are female. Less than a tenth of students who take the AP CS exam are Hispanic, and less than four percent are black.

At the university level, while this country "boasts" strong CS programs that "draw students from across the globe," schools still aren't keeping up with demand, wrote authors Adams Nager and Robert Atkinson. They cited two main reasons for this. First, as with most STEM-focused degrees, the costs for delivering CS courses is higher than for classes in liberal arts or social sciences programs. Second, fast response to growing need in new fields faces internal resistance.

To address growing appetite and the lack of "head room" in CS courses, the report stated, the institutions respond by limiting enrollment through restrictions, higher admission standards, charging a premium for CS classes or imposing introductory "weed-out" courses designed to keep students out of the major. The result is a cycle of "artificial constraints" that "disproportionally" affect women and under-represented minorities.

The authors offered several recommendations for federal and state policymakers to leverage the on-going momentum that currently exists in the realm of CS instruction in order to address existing gaps in high schools:

  • Allow CS to count as credit in math or science requirements in high school;
  • Teach CS in all high schools;
  • Push to reform the curriculum in existing technology classes to focus on the core concepts of CS in primary and secondary schools;
  • Increase the number of qualified CS teachers by providing resources to train and recruit; and
  • Double the number of STEM-focused public charter high schools.

At the university level, the report suggested:

  • Creation of incentives for universities to expand their offerings in CS through grants from the National Science Foundation;
  • Providing more funding to offset the higher costs of training CS majors; and
  • Prioritizing the retention of students interested in majoring, minoring or taking courses in the field.

"Despite the growing use of computers and software in every facet of our economy, computer science education is just beginning to gain traction in American school systems. It should be an urgent priority to make much greater progress," said Nager, an ITIF economic policy analyst, in a prepared statement.

"Graduates with skills in computer science are an incredibly valuable resource for the U.S. economy," added Atkinson, the foundation's president. "It is not enough to rely on the 'market' to determine the number of workers with computer science skills, if for no other reason than because key educational institutions do not adequately respond to market signals. It is incumbent on states and the federal government to require or incentivize educational institutions to further develop their ability to train a broader group of students in computer science. Expanding computer science education should be considered an essential component of U.S. innovation and economic growth policy."

The complete report is openly available on the foundation website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.