TITLE: Rebooting the Public Image of Computing
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: January 19, 2009 9:53 AM
In addition to my
more general comments
on the Rebooting Computing summit, I made a lot of
notes about the image of the discipline, which was,
I think, one of the primary motivations for many
summit participants. The bad image that most kids
and parents have of careers in computing these days
came up frequently. How can we make computing as
attractive as medicine or law or business?
One of my table mates told us a story of seeing
brochures for two bioinformatics programs at the
same university. One was housed in the CS department,
and the other was housed with the life sciences. The
photos used in the two brochures painted strikingly
different images in terms of how people were dressed
and what the surroundings looked like. One looked
like a serious discipline, while the other was
"scruffy". Which one do you think ambitious students
will choose? Which one will appeal to the parents of
prospective students? Which one do you think was
housed in CS?
Sometimes, the messages we send about our discipline
are subtle, and sometimes not.
Too often, what K-12 students see in school these days
under the guise of "computing" is applications. It
is boring, full of black boxes with no mystery. It
is about tools to use, not ideas for making things.
After listening to several people relate their
dissatisfaction with this view of computing, it
occurred to me that one thing we might do to immediately
improve the discipline's image is to get what currently
passes for computing out of our schools. It tells the
The more commonly proposed solution is to require CS
in K-12 schools and do it right. Cutting computing
would be easier... Adding a new requirement to the
crowded K-12 curriculum is a tall task fraught with
political and economic roadblocks. And, to be honest,
our success in presenting a good image of computing
through introductory university courses doesn't fill
me with confidence that we are ready to teach required
CS in K-12 everywhere.
Don't take any of these thoughts too seriously. I'm
still thinking out loud, in the spirit of the workshop.
But I don't think there are any easy or obvious
answers to the problems we face. One thing I liked
about the summit was spending a few days with many
different kinds of people who care about the problems
and who all seem to be trying something to make things
The problems facing computing are not just about image.
Some think to think so, but they aren't. Yet image is
part of the problem. And the
stories we tell
-- explicitly and implicitly -- matter.