STEM Beats - November 2011

Computer Science Makes a Comeback

November 28, 2011

The message seems to be getting through in some quarters: It pays to study computer science.

PC World reports that the computer science major is getting hot again, at least at some of the country's top colleges. Professors at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Harvey Mudd and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology are seeing a surge in students declaring majors in computer science. (All four colleges top US News and World Report's list of the best comp sci and engineering programs).

Why the sudden popularity of the major? The Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs of the world have no doubt helped by giving the field a lot of pizzazz. But there seems to be a more prosaic reason: Computer science grads are getting jobs and high salaries, which counts for a lot these days.

According to an assistant dean at Carnegie Mellon, "One hundred percent of our seniors were placed last year. About 15% went to graduate school. The rest had jobs. We saw the return of the six-figure offer."

Even women are getting into the game at Harvey Mudd, where they make up 42 percent of computer science majors. Yes, that's less than half, but it sure beats 19 percent, which is the national share of computer science BAs earned by women.

At least, that was the national percentage in 2007. More recent national data on the computer science major are tough to come by.

So, does the trend at Stanford and its peer institutions represent what's going on in the nation as a whole? Are graduates of less prestigious institutions doing as well, or at least much better than they were, say, two years ago? Could women finally be venturing back into the field?

It may be too early to tell, but it sure wouldn't be surprising.

Tags: computer science

High Schoolers Discuss Their Future

November 23, 2011

Today's New York Times includes a very unscientific survey of 15 high schoolers' plans for the future. They run the gamut from fearful to optimistic. One striking feature: Many of these teens are striving for careers that will require math and science in one form or another. Another: Very few foresee a straight and narrow path from high school to college to career. Some prefer a more circuitous path, and others feel that college costs will force them to make detours.

Here's a sampling of what they had to say:

Only one of the students, a senior near LA, seems to have internalized fears about economic competitiveness:

In all honesty, I am not positive about my future because I know that life out of high school is nothing more than a big competition, and I know that I am not even a challenge to the millions of people I will be with, competing just to live the American dream.

Another senior from the same school is keeping to the straight and narrow, but worries that financial pressures might divert him:

I plan on getting a job with computers after graduating from college.... At this time I doubt that my relatives or family members will be able to help me out financially in any way, which is why I work so hard...I am pretty sure about my plans and my future after high school, but you never know what may happen. I try to take it a day at a time.

A third strives for a career in aerospace engineering after a detour through auto mechanics. His dreams are inspiring, and his optimism is infectious:

After graduating I am going to a community college and getting a part-time job to pay for college. I hope to get a job at AutoZone to learn more about cars and car parts and to gain experience from working there.
I would eventually like to go to a four-year college to become an aerospace engineer. I am very intrigued by how the robots work that are sent into space. Also I am fascinated by space and what space looks like. I want to be able to say that I built a robot that found new life or discovered a planet.
I am pretty positive of my ability to make a living after high school. As long as I try hard, I know I will be able to succeed.

Here's hoping that all these students avoid the biggest pitfalls and realize their hopes.

Should We Pay Students for Test Scores?

November 21, 2011

Should we pay students to do well in school? Will money buy performance? A story in yesterday's New York Times strongly suggests that cash for grades is a bad, bad idea. On this point, the Times is both right and wrong.

In the end, it depends on what you're paying for and what else you're doing to improve performance. In 2010, Harvard economist Roland Fryer found that paying students for test scores didn't work, because it didn't help students understand what they should do differently to get higher scores. If anything, the practice may have discouraged them from thinking beyond the test and learning for love of the subject. He guessed that paying students to do what it takes to get higher grades--read more, do the right kinds of homework, etc--might  be more effective.

The AP Training & Incentive Program (one of CTEq's Featured Programs) offers another effective model. You can pay students to stretch themselves by taking on more challenging courses, but you have to give them and their teachers a lot of support to help them do well. As our story about the program shows, APTIP has dramatically raised the numbers of students taking and passing AP tests in math, science and English. It has had an especially strong impact on black and Hispanic students, who have long been underrepresented in AP classes.

Cash for grades sounds terrible, and a lot of people--parents and teachers among them--question the idea for good reasons. But used right, cash incentives might show real promise.

The Feds Grease the Wheels for STEM Education

November 18, 2011

The glory days of federal stimulus may be over, but the feds are offering a few new shots of money for education. At least two give science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) a central role.

The U.S. Department of Education just announced its second round of Investing in Innovation (I3) awards, which (as the name suggests) aim to promote innovative strategies to improve learning. STEM came out as the big winner, garnering the highest number of awards and almost a third of the total $150 million pot.

The Department has also announced the third, much smaller, round of Race to the Top, a competition among states for $200 million in federal money. To win a piece of the pie, states have to show how the money will advance their rerform agendas and improve learning in STEM.

Neither federal program offers huge sums of money, at least not in proportion to total spending on schools. But both seek to make a little bit of money go a long way by nurturing strategies and programs some see as especially promising. They also give us an opportunity to build our knowlege of what works in boosting STEM learning.

Keep your eye on those programs. If all goes well, we'll learn a lot in the next few years.

Back to the Future: Should We Return to Apprenticeships?

November 17, 2011

College is losing much of its luster for some education advocates. All too many poor and middle income students who enter college leave with no degree, no job, and a mountain of debt. Good Magazine has another idea: Bring back apprenticeships!

Good points to P-Tech in New York City, a new technology-focused high school created by IBM and the City University of New York. It’s worth noting that you won’t find your grandfather’s apprenticeship at P-Tech. The school will offer internships as part of a sophisticated program that allows students to get a high school and associate’s degree in six years. Their work experience might pave the way to jobs at IBM or other city employers.

So the choice isn’t between four years on a leafy campus and two years with a master shoemaker. Students who finish an apprenticeship can go on to that leafy campus, or they can go right into the workforce. They can also work for a few years and then go on for another degree or certificate if they need new skills.

Is this a viable model? Should we reinvigorate the apprenticeship?