Filling the STEM Pipeline


According to DARPA, the research and development office for the U.S. Department of Defense, the downward trend in college graduates with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees is particularly pronounced in computer science.

"While computers and Internet connectivity become daily fixtures in the lives of Americans, we are steadily losing the engineering talent to program these systems," DARPA stated in a January 2010 report.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the industry is having difficulty finding software engineering talent to develop and maintain their software systems.

"I think it's fair to say that certainly just looking at the numbers - compared to the U.S. - India, Pakistan and China are pretty systematically churning out computer science engineers at a much faster rate that we're capable of doing at this point. We've got a little bit of catching up to do," said David Eve, MCLA computer science professor.

At MCLA, students who major in computer science learn skills that will make them immediately employable upon graduation, in the fields that have the most opportunities: They focus on software development, with a substantial amount of other areas for context and breadth.

Professor Mike Dalton, chair of MCLA's computer science department, said there always will be a need for software developers. "Even during tough times, people still buy software."

To help students become as employable as possible, a goal of the computer science program is to partner with various companies and organizations so the students might develop software for them.

"It's really important for the students to gain real-life experience," Eve said. "You go through the degree program and you will get the foundation. You will get the building blocks. You go through a number of different exercises and you're developing proficiency, but I think employers really want to see what you can do."

This summer, for example, two students are serving an internship with the Massachusetts Woodlands Institute and the Kinerson Group on a secure Web interface. They are developing software that helps groups monitor their properties and what's happening in terms of forest management plans.

"When they're done, they will be able to point to these projects and say, 'This is a real-life application and I played a significant role in designing and developing this data base with this Web interface,'" Eve said. "That's something that I think will be a difference for the students out there trying to compete in the job market. They'll know what they're doing when they graduate. It's an important step."

Students who have the skill set and the energy, said Eve, will find employment in the computer science field. "It's a global economy. You've got people out there who are more than happy to outsource and take the work and do it for you. But, if you can offer a face, a resource to a local company, they will take care of you."

At MCLA, computer science classes range in size from six to 14 students.

"You can get individual attention. Since you get to know your professors, there are projects that they can get you involved with," said Eve.