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Educators, innovators call for earlier intro to computer science

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By Bobby Kerlik
Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

Producing computer scientists and engineers to fill the demand from domestic companies should be a national priority, said Jeannette Wing, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University.

"It's a concern that's been weighing on me for years," said Wing, who headed the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Computer & Information Science & Engineering in Washington from July 2007 to June 2010.

Educators believe schools need to introduce computer science to students as early as kindergarten.

"The demand by industry is far greater than supply. It's not just Google and Microsoft. It's all sectors: health care, transportation, manufacturing. Every sector is demanding more and more expertise in computing."

Private companies say they are developing programs to mentor students and sustain interest in computer science and engineering.

"The economy grows on innovation -- new products, new designs. Engineers are usually at the core of that," said Jim Ice, director of talent management at Cranberry-based Westinghouse Electric Co. "There's never enough engineers. A business like ours relies on engineering talent."

The number of applications is rising at many engineering and computer science schools, such as Carnegie Mellon, but American students might find themselves in the minority in tech-heavy programs. The Class of 2012 at Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science drew 2,390 applicants -- 590 from the United States, 602 from India, and 678 from China; the rest came from other countries.

"Most (U.S.) students are not exposed to computer science in the same way they are to biology and physics," Wing said. "We have to incorporate computer science at the K-12 level. It's not easy to do, but this is what is needed."

Martin Weiss, associate dean of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, said the school runs a four-week residential program aimed at introducing minority college students to hi-tech professions and programs.

"We do it with the hope they go on to graduate school," Weiss said.

Westinghouse runs several programs with schools and colleges to encourage science, including the Westinghouse Science Honors Institute. The program enables high school juniors to attend lectures and work on group projects for 10 Saturdays at the George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park in Churchill.

The company sponsors teams of engineers who visit schools to run student and teacher workshops related to engineering.

Government regulations limit or prevent Westinghouse, which designs nuclear reactors, from recruiting engineers from certain foreign countries, Ice said. Foreign nationals who would have access to nuclear material and information must come from countries that adhere to U.S. mandates for non-expansion of nuclear weapons, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

"We actually seek out diversity because we're a global company, but we do have some limitations on where they come from," Ice said.

Jordan Newman, a spokesman for Google, said about 200 people work for Google at the company's Bakery Square offices in East Liberty, primarily in engineering. The office continues to grow.

Newman said people typically become interested in engineering and computer science careers at an early age.

"We regularly invite student groups into the office," Newman said. "We want to show them the challenges that computer science can solve."

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