An interim report issued by ACM and the WGBH Educational Foundation as part of a project to improve the image of computer science among high school students confirms a significant gender gap among college-bound students in their opinions of computing as a possible college major or career. The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, found that 74 percent of boys — regardless of race or ethnicit — reported that a college major in computer science was a "very good" or "good" choice for them, but only 10 percent of girls rated it as a "very good" choice and 22 percent rated it as "good." The report, which covers the first phase of the New Image for Computing (NIC) initiative, seeks to answer why interest in studying computer science in U.S. colleges and pursuing computer-related careers is declining.
"We know that the number of computer science majors is not meeting projected workforce needs," said John White, ACM CEO and co-principal investigator for the project. "Many factors contribute to the low interest in computer science, but the image of the field is a key element in current perceptions among this population."
The gender gap extended to computer science as a potential career choice as well as a field of study. From a selection of 15 possible careers, computer science came in fourth among the respondents, with 46 percent rating it "very good" or "good." However, while 67 percent of all boys rated computer science highly as a career choice, only nine percent of girls rated it "very good" and 17 percent rated it "good."
In an unexpected finding, the research showed little racial/ethnic differentiation in young people's attitudes toward computer science. In fact, computer science was held in high regard by college-bound African American and Hispanic boys, but these two groups remain underrepresented in both academia and the computer science workforce. The reported concluded that the image issue might not apply in these cases. ACM and WGBH indicated they would seek separate support to explore this finding further.
The report, based on a nationwide online survey of 1,406 college-bound teens in late 2008, was developed in response to a UCLA study that found the number of undergraduates choosing a computer science major was down 70 percent from 2000–2007. In addition, a 2007 Computer Research Association (CRA) Taulbee Survey reported double-digit declines in enrollments for graduate degrees.
NIC is currently in the first stage of a planned multi-phase project aimed at understanding the attitudes held by high school students toward the study of computing in college and potential computing careers. The project will also create a set of market-tested messages that resonate with young people to reshape the way computer science is portrayed and perceived by that age group.
White cited a finding from a 2006 conference sponsored by the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) that 80 percent of today's college freshman — the very students that grew up with computers — said they had no idea what computer science majors actually do. "The results of this initiative will provide us with the tools to turn around the misplaced notions and lack of information that surround the world of computing and reinforce the critical and exciting role computing plays in driving innovation in a global economy," said White.
The full report is available at the ACM Web site.