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Friday, June 13, 2014

Op-Ed: To Get Ahead in STEM, the Key Is C -- Computers


By Evan Charles

STEM is more than a buzzword or a fad. President Obama has built a significant portion of his education policy around increasing interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, from hosting White House science fairs to launching a “master teaching corps” of STEM educators.

The STEM focus is based, in large part, on an assessment that STEM fields will produce the most high-wage jobs and entrepreneurial innovation in the near and long term. Focusing on STEM is a smart investment based on pretty solid evidence.

But at the same time, we may be under-emphasizing the best STEM opportunities out there.

According to research from the University of Washington, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71 percent of all future STEM jobs will be “computer occupations.” This chart from the research hits you over the head: It shows that nearly three out of every four jobs we expect to be open in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math will be in technology – in particular, computers. Computer coding, software design, data and system management.

The next highest percentage of future STEM jobs is in engineering – at 15 percent. No other single projected STEM-related occupation tops 4 percent. When U.S. News ranked the best jobs of 2014, the first two spots were software developer and computer systems analyst. Web developer was No. 9.

Computer skills will be essential to success in non-STEM fields as well. As Ed Lazowska, the author of the University of Washington report, pointed out: “Fields from anthropology to zoology are becoming information fields. Those who can bend the power of the computer to their will – computational thinking but also computer science in greater depth – will be positioned for greater success than those who can’t.”

Perhaps it’s time we start thinking of future workforce opportunities – and our corresponding investments – in terms of C for computers and then E, M and S for engineering, math and science. “CEMS” isn’t as pretty an acronym, but it’s a lot more accurate.

The challenge is that our education system – from primary schools through graduate schools – simply isn’t training people fast enough to fill these computer-related jobs. According to Code.org, in 2013, 14,000 more high school students took the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in Art (44,000) than the exam for computer science (29,555). Five times as many high school students – 151,477 – took the AP Spanish test.

And less than 3 percent of college graduates are earning degrees in computer science.

It’s not too surprising then that the growing need for employees with computer skills has put pressure on educators and training providers to close the skills gap. I’m partial to one such solution – the coding camp. And not just because I run one. I’m partial to them because coding camps address the problem more quickly and directly than changes to our overall education can or will.

To me, coding camps are a fast pass to the STEM job market. And the fact is that this type of skip-ahead option isn’t viable in most other fields – especially the STEM ones. Nobody wants an engineer skipping ahead in school. And unless you’re Doogie Howser, you don’t get to do your undergraduate education and medical school in three years.

Of course, no computer coding camp will make you an expert in eight to 10 weeks. The truth is that computer technology is changing so quickly, you’ll never stop learning, whether you invested years earning an advanced degree or months at a coding camp.

But the good news is that years of school isn’t the only option.

The demand – both now and in the future – is too high for the long lead time it will take to make computer literacy a core component of middle and high school education, although that needs to happen, too.

It’s time we start to focus as much on computer education as we have on STEM in general, and include computer education more directly and prominently as we adjust our classrooms to meet our workforce needs. It’s time, also, to welcome computer coding camps as an indispensable part of that conversation.

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