Microsoft Tries New Approach to Computer Programmer Shortage

The company dispatches its engineers to high schools to teach computer programming

17 October 2012

High-tech companies worried about where the next generation of computer programmers will come from have decided to take matters into their own hands by sending their engineers to the front lines: high school classrooms. Microsoft is one of them. According to a New York Times article, “Fostering Tech Talent in Schools,” the company is concerned about the shortage of computer science graduates, so it’s sending more than 100 engineers to schools in Seattle and other locations.

It has reason to be concerned. The Association for Computing Machinery is forecasting that about 150 000 computing jobs in the United States will be opening up each year through 2020, but last year fewer than 14 000 American students received undergraduate degrees in computing science. The article also cited a report from the U.S. Department of Education that the percentage of graduates who earned credits in high computer science classes fell to 19 percent in 2009 from 25 percent in 1990, making it the only subject among science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses to experience such a drop.

Microsoft isn’t the only company sending its engineers into classrooms. Google, IBM, Intel, Lockheed Martin, and other high-tech companies have similar programs. And then there are the grassroots efforts by hundreds of individual engineers who volunteer in their local schools such as IEEE Fellow Les Vadasz, who we are profiling this month.

Another issue the New York Times article raised is that Microsoft’s volunteers have little teaching experience, so one of the tenets of its program is that the engineers must give some instruction to the teachers so they can eventually run a computer programming class on their own.

These issues are nothing new for IEEE, which has been concerned for some time about the shortage of computer programmers as well as the importance of teaching teachers how to introduce STEM into their classrooms. It has launched several programs over the years including a website devoted to educating youngsters and others about computing, a programming contest, and training teachers how to introduce STEM concepts in their classrooms.

Helping to make computing education resources available for preuniversity students, their teachers, school counselors, and parents is the new IEEE website developed by IEEE Educational Activities and the IEEE Computer Society. This computing education portal aims to raise awareness of and spark student interest in computing and associated careers. On it you’ll find information about universities with accredited programs, profiles of computing professionals, lesson plans, and more resources.

To get more university students interested in a career in computer programming, there’s the IEEEXtreme programming competition that kicks off at 0:00 GMT on 20 October. Celebrating its sixth anniversary, this global challenge involves teams of IEEE student members competing to solve a set of programming problems during a 24-hour span. Check out our article about the upcoming event.

Training IEEE volunteers around the world to teach educators how to apply engineering, science, and math concepts in their classrooms has been going on for the past decade. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year is the IEEE Teacher In-Service Program. To date TISP has organized 25 workshops, reaching more than 2200 volunteers in all 10 IEEE regions. Those volunteers in turn have given nearly 175 professional development presentations to more than 4200 educators, who have taught IEEE-developed lesson plans to an estimated 460 000 students. Lessons have involved, for example, harnessing wind energy, building a robot arm, testing the strength of a team-designed watercraft, building weight-bearing structures from plastic straws and playing cards, and designing a better candy bag.

Do you think putting engineers in classrooms is the right approach for getting students excited about computer programming? Do you believe there’s a shortage of computer programmers?

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the bloggers and do not represent official positions of The Institute or IEEE.

Photo: Ryan Burke/iStockphoto

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