DARPA-funded project to spark computer science education

TopCoder hopes its virtual community will increase student interest in pursuing computer science jobs.

To boost computer science education and help middle and high school students strengthen their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills before they enter college and the workforce, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded TopCoder a $5.57 million contract to develop a new virtual community featuring competitions and educational resources.

TopCoder is a worldwide software development community known for its computer coding contests. DARPA representatives said they hope TopCoder’s new virtual community, focusing on computer science education, will entice students in grades 6-12 to pursue a computer science degree or other STEM-related fields.

There has been a significant decline in the number of students graduating with a computer science degree, said DARPA program manager Melanie Dumas—including a 70-percent reduction in students pursuing the field since its 2001 peak.

“We’re not graduating enough people to fill these spots,” said Dumas. “We’re graduating on the order of 15,000 students a year, and we need 45,000 students a year.”

Robert Hughes, TopCoder’s chief operating officer, said he hopes the new DARPA-funded project will help reignite students’ interest in computer science jobs.

“We’ve monitored closely at the late high school and into college years how well the U.S. students are doing versus the global population. We’ve seen staggeringly disappointing results as far as the U.S. population is concerned, both in terms of participation and then, once they do participate, their actual performance,” Hughes said.

TopCoder will construct a virtual community built around computer science activities, including logic puzzles and games. The company plans to engage community members by proposing problems that affect students’ lives and asking members to use computer science skills to solve the problems.

“The intent isn’t necessarily to improve the quality of education that’s out there right now, but more to attract and then retain students … in computer science,” said Hughes.

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