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Universities Retool Computer Science

The number of new computer science majors has steadily declined since 2000, falling from close to 16,000 students to only 7,798 in fall 2006. And the downward trend isn't expected to reverse soon. About 1 percent of incoming freshmen have indicated computer science as a probable major, a 70 percent drop in the numbers from 2000.

The lesson plan was called "Artificial Unintelligence," but it was written more like a comic book than a syllabus for a serious computer science class.

"Singing, dancing and drawing polygons may be nifty, but any self-respecting evil roboticist needs a few more tricks in the repertoire if they are going to take over the world," read the day's instructions to a dozen or so Georgia Tech robotics students. They had spent the last few months teaching their personal "Scribbler" robots to draw shapes and chirp on command. Now they were being asked to navigate a daunting obstacle course of Girl Scout cookie boxes scattered over a grid.

The course is aimed at reigniting interest in computer science among undergraduates. Educators at Georgia Tech and elsewhere are turning to innovative programs like the Scribbler to draw more students to the field and reverse the tide of those leaving it.

At risk, professors say, is nothing less than U.S. technology supremacy. As interest in computer science drops in the U.S., India and China are emerging as engineering hubs with cheap labor and a skilled work force.

Schools across the country are taking steps to broaden the appeal of the major. More than a dozen universities have adopted "media computation" programs, a sort of alternate introduction to computer science with a New Media vibe. The classes, which have been launched at schools from the University of San Francisco to Virginia Tech, teach basic engineering using digital art, digital music and the Web.

Others are turning to niche fields to attract more students. The California Institute of Technology, which has seen a slight drop in undergraduate computer science majors, has more than made up for the losses by emphasizing the field of bioengineering.

"Many of our computer science faculty work on subjects related to biology, and so this new thrust works well for us," said Joel Burdick, a Caltech bioengineering professor.

At Georgia Tech, computing professor Tucker Balch says the brain drain is partly the fault of what he calls the "prime number" syndrome.

It's the traditional way to teach computer science students by asking them to write programs that spit out prime numbers, the Fibonacci sequence or other mathematical series.

It's proven a sound way to educate students dead-set on joining the ranks of computer programmers, but it's also probably scared away more than a few.

That's why Balch, who oversees the robotics class, is optimistic about the Scribbler, a scrappy blue robot cheap enough for students to buy and take home each night after class but versatile enough to handle fairly complex programs.

Read full article at NewsFactor Network
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