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Originally published July 6, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified July 6, 2013 at 9:20 PM

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State’s students flocking to computer-science programs

Students are flocking to computer science and engineering majors, even as the state sets aside $18 million to grow those programs at state universities. But the money may not be enough.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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For the past few years, educators and parents have been imploring students to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields.

It looks like they’re listening.

Public universities across the state are seeing a big increase in the number of students who want to major in computer science, engineering and other high-tech fields.

The number of incoming freshmen who listed computer science as their desired major has more than doubled in just three years at the University of Washington, which has one of the nation’s top computer-science schools. Western Washington University has seen the number of its computer-science majors and pre-majors double in two years.

At Eastern Washington University, computer science and engineering have become such popular majors that the programs are physically running out of room, even though they’re in the newest building on campus.

“The field is hot again,” said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington.

The Washington Legislature has appropriated $18 million to boost engineering and computer-science programs at the UW, WWU and Washington State University. But interest is growing so fast that the money almost surely won’t be enough.

At the UW, where hundreds of students are turned away from the computer-science program every year for a lack of space, the money “still won’t meet the demand,” Lazowska said by email. “But every journey begins with a few steps, and these are important steps.”

Meanwhile, a new state effort to recognize computer science is likely to expose even more high-school students to the subject. Legislation approved by lawmakers gives high-school math or science credit to students who pass Advanced Placement (AP) computer science, and helps schools with equipment and training.

Its sponsor, Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, says it was sorely needed; currently, only 35 of the state’s 771 high schools offer AP computer science. He acknowledged that the legislation might actually worsen the university bottleneck for a time, as more high-school students become interested in the field.

Michaela Montstream is one of those students. A student at Holy Names Academy, an all-girl Catholic school in Seattle, she signed up for AP computer science — “kind of a small, unheard-of elective,” she said by email. Many students were hesitant to enroll in the class because its subject matter was unfamiliar, she added.

But almost immediately, Montstream was taken with the field. An internship at Microsoft last summer cemented her interest, and she was admitted directly into the UW’s Computer Science & Engineering program, where she’ll start her freshman year this fall.

“The kids were ready for it,” said Holy Names math teacher Sam Procopio, who began teaching the class in 2011 and now has more than 70 girls signed up for three classes this fall. The numbers are especially noteworthy because girls’ involvement in computer science lags significantly, both in high school and in the industry.

After they take the Holy Names AP class, nearly half say they’re considering it as a major or minor in college, Procopio said. And more than a third of his students are doing full-time, paid internships this summer.

Lazowska, with the UW, said he thinks students are realizing that, “Computer science has ‘change the world’ potential like no other field.” Montstream, for example, hopes to use her degree to help improve rural health care in developing countries.

Students are also seeing that both computer science and “computational thinking,” a problem-solving method that uses computer-science techniques, is valuable in many fields, Lazowska said. Many of UW’s computer-science grads go on to study such fields as biology, law, medicine and bioengineering, he said.

And of course, the degree can lead to a good job. All of EWU’s spring computer-science grads — about 90 students — were offered jobs in the Spokane area, and many of those jobs start at $80,000 a year, said Steve Simmons, computer-science professor emeritus. Not bad for a bachelor’s degree, he said.

Business leaders have long complained about a dearth of highly skilled tech workers in Washington and called for more state money to try to bridge the training gap. A March study released by the business group Washington Roundtable said 25,000 high-skill jobs have remained vacant for three months or longer because qualified workers can’t be found to fill them.

Nirupama Suneel’s school, Skyline High in the Issaquah district, didn’t offer computer science last year, but Suneel learned programming after she joined the school’s robotics team. Working with robots has “piqued my interest in problem solving and creative thinking, and as a result, programming,” she said by email. She also has been admitted directly to the UW’s computer-science program as a freshman this fall.

And so has Payton Quinn, who took an introductory programming class online through Stanford University because his Catholic school, Seattle Preparatory, didn’t offer AP computer science.

Interest in computer science flagged somewhat around 2008, when the economy tanked. “We were still suffering under the crash of the dot-coms, as if the whole industry went away,” said EWU’s Judd Case, dean of the College of Science, Health and Engineering.

But that has changed. The UW’s College of Engineering — of which computer science is a part — produces about 1,426 degrees a year and hopes to increase that by about 340 degrees a year with the new money approved by lawmakers.

WWU expects to triple the number of computer-science grads, to about 135 by 2015-16, said spokesman Paul Cocke. WWU will also use the money to turn its engineering technology program into a fully accredited engineering program.

Growing STEM programs when money is limited is a challenge because it costs more to educate STEM students: Lab work can require expensive equipment, and there’s a need for one-on-one mentoring and smaller class sizes.

“It’s a big, interesting, complicated problem that no other state has figured out how to fix,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, who sponsored the AP computer-science bill along with Habib.

“Hopefully, we made some progress this year,” he said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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