uwchart

The chart above tells quite a story. That blue line — the one that looks like a hockey stick — shows how interest in computer science from freshmen at the University of Washington in Seattle has skyrocketed since 2010 compared with other engineering fields.

There are more than 250 UW computer science students in one class — intro to coding. Photo via
There were more than 850 students in UW’s introductory programming class last quarter. Total enrollment in the past year was 2,700. Photo via Helene Martin.

The UW is not alone. Countless other U.S. universities, from Harvard to Stanford to the University of Michigan, are seeing similar demand for computer science degrees.

On the surface, it’s an encouraging trend for the tech industry, which can’t get enough new engineers. But beneath the surface is a problem: College students want to become computer scientists, but in many cases there isn’t enough room or faculty to meet the demand.

Young adults today are realizing how computer science knowledge can help them succeed at not just being a software developer, but with nearly any job. Heck, even journalists like us are being encouraged to take a few Javascript and HTML courses.

“Kids are waking up,” said Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the UW. “Every field is becoming an information field, and if you can program at a level beyond an intro course, it’s a huge value to you.”

It’s also becoming the popular thing to learn. Yep, being a geek is cool in today’s world.

“Students feel that computing is socially relevant and even hip,” said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, the computer science department chair at Harvey Mudd College.


singh foundation logoSPECIAL SERIES: This is part of a series of stories by GeekWire, underwritten by the Singh Family Foundation and Seattle-area business leader Steve Singh. The series focuses on important community issues, innovative solutions to societal challenges, and non-profit groups making an impact through technology.

 

But while it may be encouraging to see so many young minds yearning to build technologies and change world, is there a solution to the insane demand?

In search of potential fixes to this growing problem, GeekWire spoke with computer science professors from some of the nation’s top universities; with experts like Code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi and Washington STEM Chief Policy Officer Caroline King; and with those leading new coding trade schools.

What we found, in short, was that universities do not appear prepared for the demand now, nor do they have much planned for the future.

There is hope. The nascent online education industry could provide some help, while programs like Code Fellows and Devbootcamp are proving beneficial for those who want crash courses in coding outside of the typical university system.

But much more needs to be done to satisfy the unprecedented demand for computer science education.

THE THIRD SURGE

csedegrees1
This shows the number of CS degrees granted since 1966 in the United States. Notice the two peaks in the mid 80s and early 2000s. Source: Ed Lazowska, UW.

This isn’t the first time there has been an explosion in computer science interest.

Back in the mid 1980s, there was a surge after the advent of the personal computer. Some argue that universities tried to apply short-term fixes to keep up with demand — a strategy that ultimately led to a substantial fall off just a few years later.

Then there was the big dot-com boom in the late 1990s. Students saw entrepreneurs creating websites that made them millionaires, and they wanted to do the same.

Ran Libeskind-Hadas
Ran Libeskind-Hadas

“There were a small number of highly-publicized cases of this actually happening with our alumni and that helped fuel the frenzy,” said Libeskind-Hadas, the Harvey Mudd computer science chair. “It was something like every college basketball player thinking that they were going to play in the NBA.”

But that dot-com bubble burst, leading to another steep reduction in computer science degrees.

Now we are seeing the third “surge” — though this one differs greatly from the previous spike. What happened in the mid-to-late 90s was financially driven, but the interest today appears to be coming from new technologies and particularly what we’re seeing with the power of smartphones.

“This time around, I see most students choosing to major in computer science because they are genuinely excited about it,” Libeskind-Hadas said. “Good jobs almost certainly factor into the decision in many cases, but I see fewer dollar signs in my students’ eyes and more enthusiasm to contribute something meaningful to society and do ‘cool’ things.”

Eric Roberts, the former Stanford computer science department associate chair, also cited the big demand from employers for graduates with computer science backgrounds. He said that this latest surge is more about “flight-to-quality.”

“It’s the idea that, at uncertain times, people are looking for what will be the best and most stable education that will ensure they will at least have a job,” Roberts explained. “It’s less of the, ‘Wow, I could become a billionaire,’ like we saw in the 90s.”

Lazowska and Roberts gave a presentation last month on the nuances this particular wave in computer science majors. They found that there are huge spikes in demand for the major, for introductory course enrollments, and for upper-division computer science courses by non-majors — those that realize the need for computer science skills in their particular field.

“This vastly outstrips the previous enrollment peak in the late 1990s,” Lazowska said.

The graphs below show what Lazowska is talking about. Here’s the increasing demand for introductory courses (CS50 is about to pass ECON10 for the most popular intro class at Harvard, for example):

cse18

cse22

And increasing demand for the major itself:

cse20

Finally, increasing demand from non-majors:

cse12

So that begs the question: What can universities do about this crazy level of interest?

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS

There are simple answers to that question: Increase classroom sizes and hire more faculty. However, that’s easier said than done.

Ed Lazowska
Ed Lazowska

At a private institution, adding space and faculty can be more doable because of stronger funding. At Stanford, where 95 percent of students take a computer science course, the school does not place a cap on its programs. If, say, 2,000 people want to study a certain subject, Stanford is historically expected to figure out ways to accommodate for that.

Publicly-funded universities have a more difficult time. The UW, for example, couldn’t expand its computer science program until just two years ago, constrained by funding from the state government.

“We’re turning away many students we’d love to have,” Lazowska said. “That’s the tragedy.”

Lazowska offered up a bevy of potential but “crappy” solutions to the increasing demand:

  • Restrict the size of the major
  • Exclude non-majors from upper-division courses
  • Retreat to “the core” — turn over many of our courses to other departments
  • Have enormous class sizes and/or enormous teaching loads
  • Have a beer while the students use Coursera

That last idea — online education — is something that many agree will continue to grow and be used at every level of education, including at universities. Partovi, the Seattle-area technology veteran who co-founded non-profit Code.org to help expose computer science to millions of kids in the U.S., is a big believer in learning to code online.

“The good news is that the absolute best university courses in computer science are also available to study online via platforms such as EdX, or Coursera,” Partovi said. “Although online courses don’t have the same completion rate as in-person courses, for the motivated student who can’t access a university program — due to rising tuition costs, or the shortage of spots in a program — the course-work is still available to them.”

An upcoming class on Coursera: Computer Vision: From 3D Reconstruction to Visual Recognition
An upcoming class on Coursera: Computer Vision: From 3D Reconstruction to Visual Recognition

But while online classes may provide a cheaper and more accessible solution, Lazowska warned that computer science education without face-to-face interaction is simply not good enough. He said that the lessons his UW students learn while working in small teams in upper-level classes is invaluable — and another reason why increasing class sizes could have detrimental implications on the quality of learning.

“We send students in large numbers to Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google because they have team design experiences,” he said. “You may get knowledge of data structure from Coursera, but it’s much less obvious how you learn to work and collaborate in small teams.”

Kristin Smith, who was recently named CEO of Seattle-based trade school Code Fellows, also pointed out inefficiencies with online education.

“Learning to code on your own is frustrating and lonely,” she said. “Graduation rates from full online courses are in the single digits generally.”

Having more companies like Code Fellows is another potential alternative solution to a four-year computer science degree. The program is one of a growing number of for-profit organizations that teach intensive coding bootcamps to those that did not take the traditional route of learning computer science at the university level. It has been growing rapidly ever since launching two years ago and is attractive because it guarantees a job after graduation.

Code-Fellows-logoSmith explained that a group like Code Fellows also has more flexibility than a four-year university because it can respond to “customer demand,” by hearing feedback from hiring partners and perspective students to understand which technologies are most relevant in the workplace.

“I think that trade schools like Code Fellows are going to be a huge part of the solution bridging the gap between demand and supply for software engineers because of the ability to learn more quickly, efficiently, and at a higher quality with a team of experts guiding you,” she said.

But Hakon Verespej, an advisor with Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group who previously worked at Microsoft and a startup, said that while something like Code Fellows has its place in the tech ecosystem, there really is no replacement to the quality of education someone can receive at the university level.

“No matter how smart you are, there is no way to get the breadth and depth from a four-year education at a top-tier university than you would at something like a bootcamp, ” said Verespej, who earned his Masters in Computer Science from UC San Diego. “It’s just not possible.”

Caroline King
Caroline King

If that’s the case, then perhaps universities can get creative with the way they teach computer science. Caroline King, the Chief Policy Officer for Washington STEM, said one solution could be for more collaboration between businesses and higher education. She pointed out a new partnership between the University of Maryland and Lockheed Martin as one example.

“These partnerships leverage industry faculty to teach courses, design curricula, provide internships and research projects, which have the benefit of enabling students to get work-related experience and industry exposure while earning a degree, a key factor when then looking for full time work,” King said.

Or, as my colleague John Cook suggested 2-and-a-half years ago, maybe it is time for Seattle to launch its own, separate, world-class private technology university, bankrolled by technology investors. Lazowska, however, said that raising money for such a program would be extremely difficult. He also expressed serious doubt that it would succeed.

“People always talk about ‘creating an MIT,’ or ‘creating a Stanford,’ or ‘creating a Georgia Tech,’ ” Lazowska said. “Those are research-intensive universities. There has never been an instance of one being created and becoming truly excellent in less than 35 years.”

Eric Roberts.
Eric Roberts

Roberts, the former Stanford computer science department head who still teaches classes in Palo Alto, said he likes the idea of special institutions teaching the essential parts of the field, or, as he describes it, a “Hogwarts School of Software Wizardry.”

He noted that the industry may be persuaded to fund something like that, much like how Lockheed Martin is partnering with the University of Maryland. But he’s not hopeful about it, nor is he optimistic about other solutions at the university level. In fact, he expects that academic institutions won’t be able to produce enough workers, which may lead to a downturn in the economy.

Roberts compared the dilemma to global warming.

“We all know it’s a problem and that we should do something about it, but it requires an individual sacrifice even though the downstream benefits are shared,” he said. “It’s a classic tragedy of the commons problem. The entire economics structure goes against finding a good way to keep teachers employed with reasonable workloads.”

Roberts cautioned that this is a problem that can’t be fixed with obvious solutions. He said you can’t simply just have existing faculty teach more and more students — it dilutes the quality of education those students end up receiving, and can eventually diminish the quality of computer science graduates going into a workforce that is in dire need of them.

Roberts noted that something similar happened during the 1980s surge.

“Every short-term fix that you try to impose ends up making the environment less interesting and positive for people that you need,” he said. “If we don’t remember what happened in the 1980s, I am quite sure we will repeat it.”

“BUT THERE’S HOPE”

more-jobs-than-students

When asked about the workplace demand for computer programmers coming out of college, Partovi shared the image above. The numbers are a bit staggering — the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be 1 million more jobs than students in just six years.

This is a critical issue not just for universities but for many companies. Robin Andrulevich, a veteran recruiter and the Director of Talent at Madrona Venture Group, said that while there are certainly more computer science graduates than there were five years ago, it’s not enough.

“It still does not meet the demand of today’s employers,” she said.

Partovi notes that in Washington state, there are 27 times more open jobs than there are graduates.

appday
Students learn to code at App Day at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle.

King, the executive with Washington STEM, stressed the importance of computer science education in meeting the demand for future jobs.

“Computer science jobs are growing and pay well. Students who know how to code will have access to the best paying and fastest growing jobs in the nation and Washington,” she said. “It is imperative that every young person have this option — particularly girls, students of color, and students from rural areas who tend to be left out of computer science education, and hence we wonder why tech companies have trouble recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce.”

But unfortunately, no one really has a clear answer as to how universities can adapt to fill those jobs — particularly looking 5-to-10 years down the road. With programs like Code.org and Washington STEM pushing forward K-12 computer science education, you can expect even more high school seniors — likely with support from their parents — wating to study programming in college.

Harvey Mudd’s Libeskind-Hadas said that ultimately, it’s up to the people who have power to control how much money is funneled to schools.

“My advice would be to the folks who control university budgets: Invest the resources to allow computer science departments to meet the demands of all qualified students,” he said. “This investment will pay dividends in the well-being and satisfaction of our students and, ultimately, our economy.”

There may be hope on the horizon. Perhaps governments will allocate funds to allow schools to build more space and hire more faculty. Maybe more high net-worth individuals like Michael Bloomberg will donate their money to help educate tomorrow’s leaders.

“It’s hard to know what the solutions are and I don’t see the resources,” said Roberts, the former Stanford computer science associate chair. “But we’ll keep talking about it. I hope it wakes people up. There’s hope — there’s always hope.”

singh foundation logoEDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a special series of stories by GeekWire, underwritten by the Singh Family Foundation and Seattle-area business leader Steve Singh. The series will focus on important community issues, innovative solutions to societal challenges, and people and non-profit groups making an impact through technology. Do you have ideas for future installments? Contact GeekWire’s Taylor Soper.

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Comments

  • ThinkAboutEditingYourPiece

    The official name of our country is the “United States”, not “United State”.

    • Taylor Soper

      Thanks for catching, just fixed.

  • Paul_Owen

    Taylor, Thanks for going deep on this one. The peaks in UW CS degrees 1980s to present are telling. How can UW scale up and down to match market demand quickly? What would it take to engage (or disengage) dozens of faculty in year?

  • toddwseattle

    Several interesting comments on this. First, nice to see the emphasis. My understanding was the CS50 had already passed econ as the largest freshman class. It is the largest freshman class at both stanford and harvey mudd. I teach at Northwestern in Chicago as an adjunct in the CS department and like all CS departments we are wrestling with the demand, and our graphs look similar. Creativity is certainly necessary. NU is adopting stanford’s strategy where intro (and popular upper level courses) are uncapped. Intro at stanford is a very large course with a strong cohort of excellent undergrad TA’s who help students in a lab setting. I’m still not sure this is as good as a small class, where you can do things like flip it and get more individual attention (indeed my son’s intro CS at Pomona college was the best of both worlds, 30 people, team taught by 2 PhD’s, with a high quality lab). The thing that affects teaching resource mobility at both public and private institutions that Lazowska doesn’t mention is tenure. You can’t simply reallocate resources in the same way in most american universities. Things like skills also affect the reallocation. SDEs can move from one project to another at Microsoft; but it’s hard to make an english professor a CS professor. While it takes 35 years or so for a research university, I certainly have experience in Africa where with Ashesi where we created a high quality CS undergrad degree with strong placement and results in about 8 years from conception to placed graduates (UW helped us with both faculty and curriculum).

  • http://www.codehs.com Will McCambley

    Awesome article, so much good information here. I work for http://www.codehs.com, a company that has created an high school CS curriculum for schools who need a classroom in a box solution.

    We see SO much interest from schools of all types; public, private, charter, homeschool. The demand for coding professionals will definitely be met; more importantly, I think we’ll see an emerging workforce of code-literate employees in all professions. I’m incredibly interested to see what the next 10-20 years have in store.

  • Will Little

    Fantastic article, thanks Taylor.

    Re: –> “If we don’t remember what happened in the 1980s, I am quite sure we will repeat it.”

    I’d be curious to learn more about this. What happened, exactly? It sounds like a dilution in quality talent as a result of short-term fixes (e.g. simply hiring more teachers and filling up more classes)?

  • RMGH

    I’m going to rain on this parade and throw a bucket of cold water on the enthusiasm. We already have many computer scientists who can’t find work in this country. If there really was a shortage, computer scientists over the age of 50 wouldn’t be pounding the pavement competing against H1-B’s who will work for chump change. You wouldn’t find new graduates making your latte at Starbucks. If there really was a shortage, companies would be wiling to retrain older computer scientists at their expense. If there really was a shortage salaries would be skyrocketing.

    Its great to want to do “cool stuff”. But that doesn’t pay the bills or pay off the loans taken out to get this education. All these graphs show is that we are being set up for an even bigger GLUT than we already have.

    I have a doctorate in a STEM field. It was sizzling hot when I started in the educational pipeline. Critical shortages were predicted through the first couple of decades of the 21st century. By the time I graduated, the bubble had burst and friends of mine are still post-docing (working for peanuts as indentured servants) 9 years later! I was older than most of them, saw the writing on the wall and bailed. The point is that I’ve seen this hand-wringing about STEM shortages that never really appear in the past. Indeed, STEM is infamous for big boom and bust cycles. This leaves students at the end of the boom holding the bag with loan debt and no job.

    Remember that industry and academia have a vested interest in producing MORE graduates than are readily employable. Academia makes money on the students while businesses make money with employee gluts because wages are kept low

  • http://rturpin.wordpress.com/ Russell Turpin

    Here’s a solution not mentioned: impose solid math prerequisites. Ask incoming students to make an A or B in two semesters of calculus, the course for engineers not teachers, before they take upper level CS courses. That will pare down the flood in the right way. And send the right message to high school students.

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