Posted by Rane Johnson-Stempson
Education & Scholarly Communication Principal Research Director, Microsoft Research Connections

Here’s a sobering fact: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that, by 2018, there will be 1.4 million open technology jobs in the United States and, at the current rate of students graduating with degrees in computer science, we will fill only 61 percent of those openings. These predictions are all the more dispiriting when you realize that the latest advances in improving healthcare, protecting the environment and upgrading manufacturing have come from technological innovations. I believe that no other field offers as much opportunity for students and society as computer science does.

This is why Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek)—the week of computer pioneer Grace Hopper’s birthday (Dec. 9)—is so important: it’s our chance to inspire as many students as possible to pursue this field. CSEdWeek recognizes the critical role of computing in today’s society and the imperative to bolster computer science education at all levels.

In a way, it’s surprising that more young people aren’t going into computer science. As I travel the world and meet with students in middle school, high school and college, I encounter a reoccurring theme: these students want a career where they can make an impact. They want to take on social issues and world issues and be part of something bigger. This is where I explain to them that computer science is the field they want to pursue. Innovations in combating HIV, understanding the human genome, protecting the environment—these, I tell them, are just some of the urgent global needs that are being addressed with technology. It’s imperative that bright young people see the enormous potential for doing good through computing.

Rane Johnson-Stempson teaching students from Kent-Meridian high school how to do industrial design and create a few prototypes.

Rane Johnson-Stempson teaching students from Kent-Meridian high school how to do industrial design and create a few prototypes.

This is why, in conjunction with CSEdWeek, representatives from Microsoft Research and the newly formed University of Washington Women in Informatics headed to the Kent Technology Academy (a middle school) and Kent Meridian Technology Academy (a high school), to share with students what can be accomplished in the fields of computer and information sciences. We demonstrated how technology can help students understand the universe (with WorldWide Telescope); bridge the gap between science and the humanities (with ChronoZoom); develop games (with Kodu); and create mobile applications (with TouchDevelop) and rapid prototypes (with .NET Gadgeteer). We showed how social media can help us better understand human emotions and behaviors, which can lead to better healthcare, and, above all, we strove to convey the excitement and fulfillment that comes from engineering innovations and making tools that are used by millions across the world.

I came away with a renewed respect for the teachers, as we hustled through six 55-minute sessions with only a short, 30-minute break for lunch. Typically, the teachers hurry through their meal and then grade papers during this short timeout, but they broke with their normal routine to talk with us about their students, their curricula, and the challenges and opportunities offered by computer science. It was heartening to hear their optimism about their pupils and the future of technology, and extremely humbling to be thanked for our participation in their efforts. I think Susan Whitehall, the principal at Kent Meridian Technology Academy (KMTA), said it best:

“At KMTA, our goal is technology integration. Our teachers involve students in projects that are not necessarily about technology itself, but use technology to expedite, enhance and expand all areas of learning. The partnership with Microsoft allows students to see what can happen when knowledge, technological expertise and creativity all come together. Our students get to work with excellent role models and engage in high-interest, hands-on activities. Most importantly, this partnership helps remind students that they themselves are amazing human beings with limitless potential.”

That amazing potential was on full display during our visit, making it an enjoyable experience for everyone. For me personally, the most fun was working with students as they learned about rapid prototyping and industrial design through our .NET Gadgeteer platform. The students learned that computer science isn’t just sitting at a computer, programming in isolation. They discovered that the field also involves working on teams and creating tools that people use every day—items like digital cameras and media players. Given the short class periods, we could do only simple projects, but these were enough to make the students’ eyes light up and to prompt questions about where they can buy a kit. My eyes lit up, too, at the possibility of having inspired hundreds of budding computer scientists.