Seeking smarts

Bright college students are majoring in finance and economics, not computer science, writes Nick Schulz in Revenge of the Frosh-Seeking Robots. Bill Gates, who says he’s in the “IQ business,” worries the brainiest young people will choose investment banking over programming.

The number of smart kids studying computer science peaked a few years ago and has dropped dramatically since. The number of new computer science majors today has fallen by half since 2000, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. Merrilea Mayo, director of the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable at the National Academies, says the drop-off was particularly pronounced among women.

Meanwhile, elite schools are reporting that the number of economics majors is exploding. For the 2003–2004 academic year, the number of economics degrees granted by U.S. colleges and universities increased 40 percent from five years previously. Economics is seen by bright undergraduates as the path to a high-paying job on Wall Street or at a major corporation.

Microsoft thinks the dotcom bust and the offshoring of information-technology jobs have turned off potential computer students. They also see an “excitement deficit.”

The way computer science is taught in colleges and universities, says Bryan Barnett, lead program manager for Microsoft Research, “turns kids off almost immediately.” They typically spend a year learning basic theoretical concepts and code syntax. There’s little concrete to show for such work.

So Microsoft has partnered with Bryn Mawr and George Tech to create “a $2 million pilot program called the Institute for Personal Robots in Education that is developing an easily programmable tabletop robotic device to introduce to first-year computer science students.”

Within the first weeks of a class, students will be able to write elementary code that prompts the robot to do simple tasks like drive forward or back. But even simple code-writing with immediate, physical results like this can have an impact that energizes students. Or so it is hoped. Eventually, students can write more complex code—programming their personal robots to emulate a moth.

Via Hit and Run.

Crime-solving shows featuring forensic scientists (CSI) and mathematicians (Numb3rs) are making scientists cool, writes Virginia Postrel in The Atlantic.

What these shows have done is to make science and math alluring — without invoking an imagined future, an alternative reality, or travel to distant worlds.

. . . CSI and Numb3rs align scientific curiosity with justice. Science, they promise, will judge fairly. It will not be warped by politics or public opinion. By pursuing and revealing the truth without prejudice, it will protect the innocent.

And scientists and mathematicians are a lot better looking on TV than they are in the old sci-fi movies.

About Joanne


  1. The broader problem is that kids often pick their majors based on what’s hot at the moment…and by the time they get out of school, or at least by the time they get beyond the entry level, it isn’t hot anymore.

    How many people picked computer-related majors in the late 90s based on the dot-com boom? Meanwhile, very few were picking chemical and petroleum engineering, which turned out to be very lucrative fields a few years later.

  2. Also, the decline in stock option issuance (due in part to the expensing of options) reduces the probability of a CS or engineering graduate being able to make a lot of $ at an early age. This is also true, of course, of finance and other business graduates who pursue careers in corporations–but these individuals also have the option to work for investment banks or consulting firms, which often pay substantially more.

  3. In the old scifi movies there was always at least one good looking scientist, either male or female, and then a good looking person of the opposite sex for a romantic interest. Often they were both scientists, but sometimes one of them was in the military or was a cop. If the good looking scientist was a woman, she was frequently the daughter of the “world famous scientist father”. (I guess the idea that a woman could be the world famous scientist didn’t occur to them, or was considered too out there even for movies about giant insects or invaders from space.)

    I have a young friend who is a really exceptionally gifted programmer (MS from MIT at 20, and an even better programmer than that would imply) who complains to me that he was born too late to make money as a programmer. I think that this is nonsense, since any high tech idea is going to involve the use of computers, and while the chances of making money for doing nothing (e.g., are much worse, there are plenty of problems whose solutions will be worth a lot of money.

    I actually think that this is a great time to make money as a mathematician or programmer, but only if you really have a gift for it. Even the average kid from MIT isn’t going to be good enough for this, so perhaps they are right to do something else, if all they care about is how much money they’ll make the first 10 years after they graduate.

  4. Most of the “smart kids” who would potentially major in CompSci have probably been writing programs for 5+ years by the time they get to college. Perhaps programming at universities should be handled more like a conservatory than a science program. A smattering of theory, with more available to those who are interested, plus a lot of individual practice and ensemble work.

    The biggest thing missing in young programmers’ skill set is usually collaboration, which is essential once they get into the real world.

  5. This kind of trick has been tried before. In the 1970s the computer language Logo was developed in order to appeal to children: it’s a simple language for driving a “turtle” around the screen, drawing as it goes. Sort of a programmable Etch-a-Sketch or Spirograph. It’s lots of fun for children, but doesn’t really lead to wanting to be a computer science major, because in the long run it’s just a toy, and so is this robot.

    Just as students get more excited about English if they read real literature instead of predigested edubabble, they’ll get more excited about computers if they do something real. How about if the freshman class develops an online store of some kind instead? Or installs and manages their own web server? This robot is the Cliff’s Notes of programming.

  6. Bill Gates and Microsoft poured billions into India in order to develop a huge supply of cheap programmers that they could bring over to the US and undercut salaries.

    So he can drink a big ol cup of shutup and quit pretending to wring his hands. In fact, this is probably just a prelude to another cry for more H1B programmers.

    He was one of the major causes of the devaluation of computer programmers. He can quit whining about their scarcity.

  7. This is a funny coincidence. This morning I stopped at a 7-11 (convenience store) and the guy in front of me in line had on a t-shirt for some college. The guy behind the counter said, “hey, that’s my school!” and they talked a bit.

    Seems that the guy waiting on us had a degree in economics from their mutual alma mater. Oddly, he professed this without the least embarrassment or irony. I think economics must be one of those degrees where your only route to a good job is via graduate school…

    As for programming, there is still good money to be made at it (say $75k to $150K per year), but you have to be good at it and have some sense (and luck) in choosing your employer.

    The real problem is that, to today’s bright kids, a paltry $75K is worthless. They’re interested in jobs that make millions. There was a brief time, during the dot-com boom, where there was at least a chance at millions for programmers. Those days are pretty much over, now, even though there are still companies with good stock option plans.

    I think these kids are going to find, however, that the world only needs a small number of investment bankers.

  8. Computer Sci has a very short half-life- many grads are laid off after some years experience and replaced by entry-level staff or overseas staff. Same thing for Engineers in general – why study that hard to be too expensive or obsolete 5-10 years down the line.

  9. Yeah, investment banking must be very easy to break into. Surely any field where people make millions a year must have a critical labor shortage.

    I interviewed at a financial software place once, where they insisted that they needed people with math and programming backgrounds, but when you talked to the programmers they said that the programming was trivial but the math was hard, and when you talked to the math guys (who were mostly people with PhD’s in physics), they said that the math was trivial, but… The funny thing was that each group discouraged me from joining because I was vastly overqualified for their work, so I ended up not getting an offer from the place, while a friend of mine who was less qualified in both areas was pushed hard to join. (He interviewed a couple more times, but then decided that ONLY thing the job had to offer was the very high salary. I also asked him what the “real reason” I didn’t get the job was, and he said that it was actually that I was overqualified — the people in each group were sure that I wouldn’t stay long.)

    I went to grad school with someone that works on Wall Street, putting together derivatives of some kind, and she makes a boatload of money, and really likes the work. Her husband, another grad school friend of mine, did much the same thing, and hated it, so he stays home with the kids. I realize that I didn’t know anything about anything when I chose my major in college, but at least I chose it based on what I liked, rather than trying to chase a buck. But I guess 7-11 can still use more people with economics degrees.

  10. > when you talked to the math guys … they said that the math was trivial.

    Math guys ALWAYS say the math is trivial, even if it’s multivariable calculus.

  11. Can someone tell me why ANYONE inferred that the high IQ kids were the ones who previously went into CS, and who supposedly now went into Econ?

  12. A Business degree is very marketable – particularly with concentrations in Accounting or Marketing. I always thought a BA in Econ (a social Science field) was a way to get a bank teller’s job with advancement opportunities down the road. But it comes back to your own initiative.

  13. Management consultant Michael Hammer has some contrarian thoughts on undergraduate education for business.

  14. Multi-variable calculus isn’t much harder than single variable calculus, if you understand it (the tangent space has an N in it instead of a 1). What they meant by saying that the work was trivial was that, once you knew the fairly simple math required to do the work, the job required very little day to day thought. They told me that I’d be bored by lunch the first day, and I believed them. One of them also told me that the only reason that he didn’t quit is that he was making more than 2.5 times what he could get doing physics.

  15. Oh wow, I don’t have to register for comments here anymore…

    I took a year of CS (in 1995); the real major was math. Now I’m a programmer.

    The first class I took in CS was in Scheme, a lambda-calculus language which no-one EVER uses in the field. That class also had a look at assembler, also not used in the field anymore unless you are a troll. The second class was in C++, which means pointers and header files and memory management – which, once more, is not used in these days of .NET and Java. That class was also almost entirely algorithm based; binary trees, charts, etc. Again! I’ve never used any of this.

    I’ll tell you what *is* used in the field: relational databases, O.O. design patterns, event raising, the Internet, handling a graphical user interface, naming conventions, and threads. Nowhere did I mention linked-lists, trees, pointers, and destructors in this.

    There are plenty of good books on database design, the “for dummies” book on design patterns works well, and the Microsoft certification exams are helpful in memorising the Microsoft way of expressing all those concepts. All I got out of college was object orientation, which is admittedly the basis for everything, but not nearly enough.