From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Computer science programs around the country are facing an enrolment crisis. The number of students has plummeted since the end of the dot-com bubble. Some schools have half as many students entering computer studies as they did just a few years ago.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports on the downturn and what's being done about it.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The University of Maryland in College Park is an example of just how badly interest in computer science has crashed. Jim Purtilo is associate chair of the department.

Professor JAMES PURTILO (Chairman, Computer Science Department, University of Maryland): We went from somewhere around 2,200 majors around the turn of the millennium to somewhere under 600. It's quite a fluctuation.

ABRAMSON: And that trend is reflected at other schools. Stuart Zweben at the Ohio State Computer Science and Engineering Department recently surveyed schools on their CS enrolment. He says the problem was exacerbated by the bumper crop of computer science students who signed up in the late 1990s.

Professor STUART ZWEBEN (Computer Science and Engineering, Ohio State University): Students went into the programs in the late 90s. They got out in the early 2000s and that was just a long time to get out.

ABRAMSON: Because the tech boom had busted by then. Zweben said that collision of high graduation rates and poor job prospects led to the perception that computer science was a dead end. In fact, demand is strong, thanks to the growth of computer-related work in homeland security, genetics and biotech.

Computing associations are trying to get the word out that the job market is robust but many in the field say they deal with other image problems. Jeannette Wing, of the National Science Foundation, says many young people picking a major think computer science will lead to a dreary life writing computer code.

Professor JEANNETTE WING (Assistant Director, Computer & Information Science and Engineering, National Science Foundation): There's a wrong impression that computer science is just computer programming. And in fact, computer science has a lot of breadth in the kind of activity that we do, ranging from, of course, theoretical computer science, algorithms and complexity theory, all the way to how the humans and computers work together.

ABRAMSON: The National Science Foundation is encouraging schools to revamp their programs so the students will be attracted to an exciting, multifaceted discipline. Jeannette Wing says, the NSF has been awarding grants to help schools with this task.

Prof. WING: And to actually promote that you can major in computer science and do anything.

ABRAMSON: Wing says just as literature majors can become journalists, computer science graduates can choose any career they like. That is what the University of Maryland has been trying to do and there are small signs of success. New computer science enrolments bottomed out a couple of years ago and they've been slowly climbing. Pam Kromkowski(ph) will be graduate from Maryland's computer science department this year. She says that many young people still shy away from the field because they think it will mean social death.

Ms. PAM KROMKOWSKI (Computer Science Student, University of Maryland): That computer scientists and people in the computing field tend to be really anti-social, which is not the case. A lot of our projects are in groups. There are still those few people who would rather spend their whole day in front of the computer but there's many of us who don't want to do that.

ABRAMSON: Kromkowski's presence at Maryland is a symbol of another struggle facing the field.

Ms. KROMKOWSKI: I'm not the only woman in most of my classes, I'm one of the few.

ABRAMSON: The number of women getting computer science degrees continues to decline and it remains a small fraction of the number of men in the field. Computer scientist say by the time women get to college, it's probably too late to lure them in. They say attitudes need to change where they are formed probably in middle school.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.