A dozen years or so ago, over 200 students were enrolled in the Computer Sciences Department at Morehouse College. Today, there are fewer than 150. Kenneth Perry sees that as symptomatic of a waning interest in computers as a career nationwide. But he suspects that the National Science Foundation's (NSF) efforts may be able to turn that around.
While the ultimate goal of that program, according to Jan Cuny, its director, is to grow interest in computing as a career for everyone, the immediate focus is on women, minorities, and students with disabilities "who make up 70 percent of the population but don't participate much in computing," she says.
At Morehouse, the catalyst that may turn blasé students into techies is the Glitch Game Testers program, funded by the NSF to the tune of $194,260 a year for three years.
"We're taking high school students who enjoy playing videogames and, first, training them to be videogame testers, and then giving them part-time jobs while they're still in high school," explains Perry. "By introducing them to game testing, we're showing them how the games can be modified by the use of software, which is their introduction to the world of computer programming."
Twelve students were selected to work throughout the summer last year and, now that they're back in school, they spend their Saturdays gainfully employed — at $8 an hour — as videogame testers for a variety of local game developers, including GameTap, Cartoon Network, and others.
"There's a lot of demand for our students as testers which can be tedious work," says Perry. "But we try to keep them interested with not only a paycheck but a competitive atmosphere where the student who finds the most bugs each week gets an award."
The success of the program will be measured in the long term by how many of the students decide to take computer science courses and, perhaps, choose to major in computer science if they move on to college.
"When we first started the program, three of the 12 students said they had an interest in computer science which might be one of their top three picks for a major," Perry recalls. "After the summer, nine of the 12 said computer science would either be their first or second choice for a major. It's such a small sample, but we thought that was pretty significant."
So significant, in fact, that Perry wants to keep the momentum going even after funding runs out. His department plans to start a media computer sciences program with a track dealing with gaming and simulations. And there are plans to spin off a game-testing company to keep high school students interested in computers — and employed.
The NSF's Cuny is concerned that some people see no need for programs like hers. "They believe there are no jobs out there but that's just not true," she says. "The Bureau of Labor Statistics has said that computer science occupations are projected to be responsible for nearly 60 percent of all science and engineering job growth between now and 2018. That means we're going to need a lot of computer scientists — which is why we're trying to inspire students today."
Paul Hyman was editor-in-chief of several high-tech publications at CMP Media, including Electronic Buyers' News.