As educators encourage students to pursue higher degrees and careers in STEM professions, a bit of a waiting game has ensued while students work their way through the higher education system, but the STEM initiative is paying off.
In the state of Washington, public universities are noting large increases in the number of students who wish to major in STEM fields. At the University of Washington, the number of incoming freshmen seeking computer science degrees has more than doubled in the past three years. At Western Washington University, their numbers have doubled in just 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.