Microsoft chairman and multi-billionaire Bill Gates will speak at the University on Oct. 12 to encourage students to seize the many opportunities available in a computer science career.
With enrollment levels in computer science majors declining nationwide, Gates hopes to boost interest in computer-related fields by embarking on a three-day tour of the nation’s top engineering and science colleges, starting with the University of Michigan.
“The opportunities for computing to change the world have never been greater, and the ideas and excitement of today’s computer science students are driving the future of innovation in our industry,” he said in a statement.
Since the dot-com bust in the late 1990s left a backlog of computer scientists in the job market, interest in the field has plummeted. Nationally, incoming students who expressed interest in a computer science major fell by 60 percent from 2000 to 2004, according to a study by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles
University enrollment figures parallel that trend. From fall 2002 to fall 2004, students majoring in computer science and computer engineering decreased by 31 percent.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Prof. John Laird said before the dot-com bust when computer science careers were a hot job field, enrollment levels in the department exceeded the available capacity.
“You could make lots of money (by going into the field),” Laird said. “There were lots of people not because they had a love of computer science but because they saw it as – a lucrative career.”
But with the hemorrhaging of jobs that followed the dot-com bust, coupled with fears of outsourcing, the computer science degree gained a negative image it has yet to recover from, Laird said. Now enrollment levels in these subjects have declined so dramatically that experts and software developers fear there may be shortage of computer scientists in the near future.
“Without having the right number of computer science (students), it’s going to cause problems and will affect our competitiveness internationally,” Laird said.
Ronald Gibala, interim dean of Engineering, said although he does not anticipate a shortage of computer scientists in the future, students need to realize there are many careers available to computer science majors despite the outsourcing of tech jobs abroad.
“Bill Gates would not be coming to speak. Larry Page (co-founder of Google) would not be coming back to hire for Google. (There are) many large and small companies that want this kind of talent.” Gibala said. “I (would) be very surprised if the computer science major diminished to nothing.”
In response to lagging enrollment figures, the electrical engineering and computer science department devised new programs to encourage student enrollment. David Munson, chair of the department, said administrators created a learning study program to aid freshman and sophomores who have difficulties with their computer science courses.
Laird also said the department established the CSE scholars program in fall 2004. Currently led by about 40 computer science students, the program mentors, along with promoting computer science to high school students.
In the past few years, Bill Gates has addressed this issue by holding college tours and inviting students and professors to meetings calling for more computer scientists
Along with the efforts of software giant Microsoft, computer-chip manufacturer Intel has also worked to encourage students to enroll in computer science majors, but at earlier levels of a student’s education.
Intel spokeswoman Tami Casey, said the company has focused its efforts on expanding math and science education in K-12 schooling.
“We truly believe that if you don’t equip students in middle school and high school with basic math and science they need, they don’t arrive to college prepared for those type of degrees,” she said.
Gates’s speech will be the Goff Smith Lecture, the most prestigious external honor awarded by the College of Engineering and given for outstanding achievement in science and engineering.
On the significance of Bill Gates’s lecture, Laird said, “You can say this is a somewhat selfish because it will help Microsoft down the road. But clearly it’s not. – He’s not doing this just for Microsoft. He’s doing this for the whole country. He’s made this a whole priority.”