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The U.S. economy needs more nerds

Think young people know technology? They're not learning what they need for the jobs of the future.

By Teresa Mears Dec 22, 2009 3:43PM

We have this perception that today’s young people are all great with technology. But just try to find a young relative who can set up your wireless network. In my family, the people over 50 provide all the tech support.


The fact that most young people don’t learn any but the most basic computer skills in school is a problem, The New York Times reports.


The U.S. economy needs more nerds.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 854,000 professional information technology jobs will be added between 2006 and 2016, an increase of about 24%. Many of these jobs will not require a four-year college degree, but all of them require a solid background in computer science, the National Science Foundation said in an article advocating better computer education for grades K-12.


The economy needs not just run-of-the-mill nerds, but “cool nerds” who can combine computer skills with other disciplines. Those are the new American jobs of the future.

What kinds of jobs do “cool nerds” have? The Times interviewed several "cool nerds":

  • Dr. John Halamka, 47, was a stereotypical high school nerd who grew up to be chief information officer at Harvard Medical School, a practicing emergency-ward physician and an adviser to the Obama administration on electronic health records.
  • Kira Lehtomaki, 27, was an artist who loved animated film. She studied computer graphics in college and graduated with a degree in computer science. She’s now an animator at Walt Disney Animation studios, working on “Rapunzel.”

Lehtomaki says her computer science education is an asset every day, less for specific technical skills than for what she learned about analytical thinking. “Computer science taught me how to think about things, how to break down and solve complex problems,” she told the Times.


The type of computer education needed is more than “the digital equivalent of shop class,” Steve Lohr, the author of the NYT piece, noted in a post at the Times’ BITS (Business, Innovation, Science, Technology) blog.


As the NSF noted, professionals in fields that aren’t considered computer or tech fields also need more sophisticated computer skills. Some level of knowledge of computer science is required in many professions, including science, marketing, advertising, journalism and the creative arts. Anyone working with large datasets, from scientists to market researchers, use computer programs to analyze data. If you ever watch “Law and Order,” you also know that computer skills are important in law enforcement.

To improve computer education, the NSF is developing a new introductory high school course and trying to overhaul AP courses. It hopes to train 10,000 high school teachers in the modernized courses by 2015.


The effort represents a return to the larger ambitions of computing education in the 1960s, Lohr notes, when professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz developed BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) at Dartmouth College because they thought educated people, and future leaders of America should have some first-hand experience with computing. They were influenced by C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” and the concern that the rise of computing would divide the population into two groups -- those who understood the strengths and weaknesses of modern technology and those who were passively ruled by it.


One irony is that as more computers are placed in schools, students are learning less about them. The percentage of schools that offer an introductory computer science course has dropped from 78% in 2005 to 65% this year, The Washington Post reported, citing a survey by the Computer Science Teachers Association. AP courses declined from 40% to 27%.


The critical thinking skills required by computer science are one of the elements that are lacking in many high school computer courses.


Those courses too often simply teach students how to use software, such as word processing and spreadsheet programs, Janice C. Cuny, a program director at the NSF, told the Times. The Advanced Placement curriculum concentrates narrowly on programming. “We’re not showing and teaching kids the magic of computing,” she said.


The result is that a generation of teenagers who are great at using computers will be unlikely to play a role in the way computer technology shapes lives in the future, Chris Stephenson, executive director of the science teachers association, told the Post.


"Their knowledge of technology is very broad but very shallow," she said.


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