Cantwell: More U.S. Students Need Computer Programming Skills
During hearing, Cantwell calls for incentives for expanded computer science education to keep America competitive
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called for expanded access to computer programming classes to keep American students competitive in the 21st century. Cantwell also urged strong investments in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as Congress continues to move forward on a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act.
Her comments came during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing yesterday entitled, ‘America COMPETES: Science and the U.S. Economy.’ Cantwell has been a key advocate for the advancement of the America COMPETES Act. She was an original cosponsor of the bill when it was first introduced and passed in August 2007, and she helped secure Senate passage of its reauthorization in 2010.
Cantwell raised the issue of strengthening the availability of computer science education to maintain America’s innovation edge while questioning Dr. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd University.
Video of today’s hearing available here.
“To me the most important language today is computer programing language,” said Cantwell at today’s hearing. “Should we look at incentives at the federal level to encourage states to make something like C++ or Java as part of a one year curriculum requirement for high schools or incent high schools to do that? So more and more people are exposed – just as I was forced to take typing – get people exposed to what really is going to be the language of the 21st century.”
Dr. Klawe replied: “I think there are many initiatives but the one thing that’s not there in most places is the requirement to take some computer science either in middle school or in high school. And we need it. So yes, that would be a wonderful thing to have happen at the state level and any help from the federal government would be very welcome.”
Economists estimate that Washington state’s 381,000 jobs in the technology industry support nearly 827,000 other jobs across the state. In total those 1.2 million jobs account for 42 percent of Washington’s total. A recent Washington state study projects that over the next five years, Washington state schools are expected to graduate only enough credentialed students to fill 56 percent of the anticipated openings in the computer science field.
The America COMPETES Act invests in key science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) research and education programs. The legislation also reauthorizes the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) which supports cutting-edge research in breakthrough energy technologies. COMPETES also provides innovation and competitiveness grants as well as other research projects and opportunities funded under the Office of Science and Technology, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation.
Cantwell has long believed it is critical to America’s competitiveness to invest in preparing America’s students for careers in STEM-related fields. In 2010 she joined colleagues in introducing the bipartisan Engineering Education for Innovation Act, which invests in integrating engineering education into K-12 curriculum and instruction. In January 2011, she met with education officials, students and workforce representatives in central, eastern and southwest Washington to discuss the importance of STEM education to address workforce shortages in key technological jobs.
A full transcript of the hearing follows:
Senator Maria Cantwell: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for this important hearing and bringing up these points about sequestration. Because as a state that heavily depends on research with the Pacific Northwest Lab in Richland, Washington, and the University of Washington getting so much funding from the National Institute of Health. We are definitely impacted and just NIH alone those jobs of research – about 8,000 jobs in the Puget Sound area – to say nothing about the jobs at the lab.
So I think a few years ago the Chairman of Microsoft, Bill Gates, and the Cummins, Inc. CEO advocated for a very large increase in Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy as a way to say this is what we were missing – as far as the opportunity to continue research there. And I certainty appreciate everything that’s been said about STEM today.
So I guess I have a couple of questions for you Dr. Klawe. My understanding is there something, and this was a few years ago, a need in the U.S. for something like 300,000 computer scientists in which we graduate 70,000 a year, so we’re constantly falling behind. And thereby the immigration issue becomes an active debate. And so part of it is making up – as you are saying – with the female population. I once asked an Asian engineer why there are so many women engineers in China and she said because we have national saying that women hold up half of the sky and she said we know that it’s part of our responsibility.
Here, I am not sure we have the same incentives and certainly now today money is part of the issue. So two questions I have for you. One, do you think taking some of these resources of America COMPETES and directly increasing the number of slots at our major engineering facilities as a way to catch up to that number that we need on an annual basis is a good idea? And then the second idea is as I go down my statement we’ve met many people – there’s a former NAACP Chairman Carl Mack who has an organization that is just Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK) summer experience for engineering for kids – that’s focused again on minority kids that there are doing great things getting younger kids more involved.
When I went to high school I ended up taking Latin and typing. Typing was the requirement; Latin was part of the language requirement. To me the most important language today is computer programing language. Should we look at incentives at the federal level to encourage states to make something like C++ or Java as part of a one year curriculum requirement for high schools or incent high schools to do that? So more and more people are exposed – just as I was forced to take typing – get people exposed to what really is going to be the language of the 21st century.
Dr. Maria Klawe, President, Harvey Mudd College: I had to take home economics, which I was really bad at. Anytime I get near a sewing machine it breaks. Computers on the other hand – so let me start by answering your first question and then I’ll get to your second question. The answer is yes in both cases but let me explain why. Every institution I know of is overloaded by the number of students who want to study computer science right now. So just to give you an example at Mudd – we are a tiny place.
We have 800 students in total. We used to be graduating roughly 25-30 of our 200 majors a year in computer science. Now we have 80 of the 200 majors. And plus we have a huge overload from the other colleges who all want to take our CS courses. So just to give you a sense – the number of faculty in our computer science department is ten.
The number of faculty in our engineering department which used to graduate 80 or 90 majors is 19. I cannot as president take an engineer over here and say ‘hi, wouldn’t you like to be a computer science faculty now?’ There is just no way other than increasing the size of the college – which is the most politically difficult thing, it’s worse than sequestration, its worse than anything you can imagine – we have just decided to do that because I’ve got no way to deal with it. There is just no way to deal with it at all.
So could we use help from federal and state levels in terms of addressing, being able to fund additional positions? Absolutely, that would be huge. And we are a tiny place but the issue is the same at UCSD, the whole UC system, University of Washington. We are all seeing it. And we basically can do one of two things – we can cut the number of slots so that we don’t kill our faculty and that’s not meeting the needs of the nation. Or we can let our course sizes grow to a 1,000 people in a classroom which is not good either.
I think help from the federal government would be enormously appreciated. Now let me talk about efforts to provide more exposure to young people about how cool – and yes Chairman Rockefeller you’re absolute right – computer science is fun and cool and creative and anyone can do it. So right now there is an organization called code dot org that is working really hard to provide opportunities at elementary school, middle school and high school for students to learn how to code.
And I’ll tell you that my favorite coding language is not C++ or Java but Python. Now it’s not because my son met his girlfriend at a Python meet-up. It’s because Python brings many things to the table that Java, and C++ and other programming languages don’t. One is that it’s much more forgiving. It’s much easier to learn. It’s something that certainly a fifth-grader can learn. Whereas C++ and Java are not. But two, it’s actually used in industry, it’s the favorite prototyping language of most software developers. They will develop it first in Python and then they will take the parts that need to run fast and they’ll re-code it in C++ or Java.
And so it’s actually something that once you’ve learned Python you can get a summer job. Which is really important to many of our young people – particularly young people from low-income backgrounds. So there are efforts out there. I think there are many initiatives but the one thing that’s not there in most places is the requirement to take some computer science either in middle school or in high school. And we need it. So yes, that would be a wonderful thing to have happen at the state level and any help from the federal government would be very welcome.
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