Computing: It’s Not Just For Geeks Anymore
12.22.09 | The jobs of the future depend on computing literacy, according to a consensus of educators, major technology companies and professional organizations. But stereotypes of “nerds” and “geeks” may be preventing a new generation from acquiring the skills they need.
Photo by iremixphoto.
“In other words,” writes Steve Lohr in The New York Times, “the nation’s economy is going to need more cool nerds. But not enough young people are embracing computing — often because they are leery of being branded nerds.”
Reporting on the recently concluded National Computer Science Week, Lohr discusses the variety of efforts to make computer science classes in secondary schools more enticing and relevant. The National Science Foundation, for example, is revamping the Advanced Placement computer science curriculum—which concentrates too heavily on programming and not on the “magic” of computing, according to program director Janice C. Cuny. The foundation hopes to train 10,000 teachers in the new courses by 2015.
“We need to gain an understanding in the population that education in computer science is both extraordinarily important and extraordinarily interesting,” said Alfred Spector, vice president for research and special initiatives at Google. “The fear is that if you pursue computer science, you will be stuck in a basement, writing code. That is absolutely not the reality.”
Los Angeles County is experimenting with a new introductory course, “Exploring Computer Science,” which attempts to get students beyond word processing and social networking by having them create projects that address topics of interest, like gang violence and recycling, or by creating games.
Improving “computational thinking,” which is the focus of much of the new curriculum, will be essential to finding a job in the new economy, according to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
“Most of them will not be pure technology jobs, designing computer software and hardware products, but they will involve applying computing and technology-influenced skills to every industry,” said Reich.
To inspire the next generation, educators can point to Kira Lehtomaki, who grew up adoring animated Disney films from a purely pencil-to-paper artistic perspective. But once she realized, upon watching Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” when she was 19, that the coolest animation was computer-based, she decided to major in computer science at the University of Washington. Now, as an animator at Walt Disney Animation Studies, she is crafting “Rapunzel,” one of Disney’s next big films.
Plus: Lohr wrote a companion blog post the same day discussing the power of the words “nerd” and “geek”—and the stereotypes behind them. David Anderegg, a professor of psychology at Bennington College, believes that the words, like racial epithets, should be avoided because they are preventing younger generations for seeing computer science in a positive light.
Lohr notes that many “cool nerds” have re-appropriated the terms (think “Geek Squad”)—and excising the words from our collective vocabulary might not be so easy or desirable. The overwhelming majority of commenters on the post recoiled at Anderegg’s suggestion, claiming that terms like “nerd” and “geek” are, for many, terms of endearment that reflect an appreciation for intelligence.
At least one commenter, however, wonders whether a celebration of the terms assumes a position of privilege and power: v writes, “[…] I’m convinced that the ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ stereotypes are a factor in repelling women, and possibly other under represented groups, from studying math and science.”
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