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Feature

By The Book

Declining computer-science enrollments should worry anyone interested in the future of the U.S. IT industry.

Topics such as information assurance and security are becoming a core part of the computer-science curriculum. At Boston University, the subject isn't just a single course or two but is embedded into the coursework of all basic computer-science classes. "That's what everyone must understand to function in today's world," Zlateva says. "Terrorism or no terrorism, information security must be in place."

Teaching concepts broader than specific skills comes naturally to college educators. Because of their research, academics can identify trends five to 10 years before they're widely adopted by business, though they tend to have a harder time predicting the tools needed to implement those trends. Academics saw the coming of enterprise computing years before SAP and the Web became part of the lingua franca of the business world. Still, they didn't know until recently what specific tools the marketplace would adopt to help make that happen. "We can better tell you what things will happen in 10 years than what specific technology will win this year or next," Zlateva says. "We knew something like the Java enterprise platform or .Net platform would be important. The ideas behind them have been known for years. We just didn't know it would be Sun or Microsoft behind them."

That's why computer-science programs shy away from specific languages and platforms and emphasize broader topics. "We don't train, we educate," Engel says. "The biggest thing you buy a university graduate with a computer-science degree is the ability to adapt."

Angelo State president Hindman recently got into a lively discussion on that topic with Business Control Systems' Francis, the IT services executive who's also a Texas State University System regent. With only about half of the students who declare computer-science majors completing the program, Francis proposed that the school provide certificate training on specific technologies. "We need to do something with the spoilage rate," he says, referring to the students who dropped out of the program. "We need to get people prepared for life." But such training, Hindman responds, belongs at community colleges and other technical training schools, not university computer-science programs. He sees a university computer-science education not as vocational training but as a foundation for a professional career, one that could even lead to the CEO suite. "Knowledge of computer science is a stairway to reach that point," Hindman says. "That's the difference between education and training."

Booch of IBM agrees with the distinction but says there's another way to fill the need that universities aren't meeting. He's on the board of a new for-profit Utah school, Northface University, that's essentially designed to provide ready-to-work software developers. He describes it as a true university where students develop into "whole people," but greater emphasis is on technical skills as well as work skills such as the social dynamics of teams, project-based work, and real-world problems such as designing for the complexities of Java 2 Enterprise Edition and .Net. "There's a fine line here," says Booch, who also sits on the board of a school of theology. "The last thing you want is to corrupt the educational process and become a trade school."

Julie Horsman, human-resources manager for the IT organization at truck maker Paccar Inc., says university computer-science programs need to educate people who are adaptable and able to handle a wide range of business-technology challenges. "We want employees with broader set of skills, as opposed to a large number of people doing .Net or Java development," she says. "How many people do we need to crank out C++ code if we use rewritten components?"

Not all companies are like Paccar. It's the marketplace that makes schools such as UConn teach students the language de jour. As part of a course that teaches the concepts behind programming, Connecticut requires students to learn C++. This fall, it will offer Java to half its freshman computer-science class. Engel isn't comfortable with that approach, but he understands why it's being done. "The trouble with C++--or Java, for that matter--is that they're horribly complex languages. Instead of concentrating on how computers solve problems, we can get mired in the details of C++ or Java, and that's regrettable," Engel says. "But it's a reflection that people want to have skills so they can walk out and get a job. This is the kind of thing personnel departments look for. In the '70s, you put Cobol on your resumé, and you got a job."

Soft skills that help facilitate teamwork and collaboration are being integrated into many computer-science programs. Boston University requires students to work together on projects; one class has four or more students developing an application for which each person is assigned a specific responsibility that mirrors the workaday world. Sometimes the students collaborate in person, other times over the Web, simulating the experience IT managers face when working over the Internet with business partners in India. "Computer science requires teamwork," Zlateva says. "There's no such thing as one person developing one kind of application. On top of that, it does require very good understanding of the business environment to make a product successful. ... What's not going away, and where we need to educate our students, is on the high level of coordination and project management."

Angelo State requires computer-science students to take courses in public speaking and either scientific or business writing because communication is an important skill for most IT professionals. "We have to document everything," says recent Angelo State computer-science grad Ryan Cleere, who took a technical writing class, of his work as a systems administrator for Northrop Grumman in San Angelo.


Parents used to steer their children into computer science because it was lucrative, says Carnegie Mellon's Mark Stehlik, assistant dean of undergraduate education. Photo by Richard Kelly

Parents used to steer their children into computer science because it was lucrative, says Carnegie Mellon's Mark Stehlik, assistant dean of undergraduate education.

Photo by Richard Kelly
Carnegie Mellon computer-science students learn collaborative skills by taking a project-based course in which students from computer science and other disciplines such as art work together to create a software-based virtual world viewed through a head-mounted display. "We're teaching our students the ability to work in teams, helping them develop communications and interpersonal skills, so they can communicate with those who are not necessarily as tech-savvy," Stehlik says.

This interdisciplinary approach might be the salvation for computer science and could eventually attract a different breed of student than from an earlier generation. "The students who come in want to do more than just hack," Stehlik says. "Some students have political designs; they're interested in greater issues that confront society: security, privacy. We're seeing students who are extending the notion of computer science."