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.
Hughes spoke about using the program to allow students to monitor their ecological impact or tackle the issue of cyber bullying.
“We’re trying to produce an online viral game or program or collaboration event that gives [students] an outlet to try and have an impact on that kind of social issue, but do it in a way that requires a desire to understand basic mathematical or technological elements,” he said.
Hughes said this kind of system will help to highlight the effect that computer science can have on improving people’s lives.
“We recognize through observation that these students in this kind of age group are motivated and compelled through activities that have a social impact,” he said.
TopCoder hopes to show students that computer science jobs can be lucrative and exciting. To do this, the organization aims to create an online community that students can take part in outside of school.
“We would rather it be much more a social community, where it spreads virally by students … and not [just] something that’s being pushed through the school system,” Hughes said. “Once it feels like an assignment, it starts to lose that motivation and that edge of being the student’s own thing.”
Dumas said a key reason students fail to pursue a computer science degree is owing to misinformation.
“DARPA did a study last year that suggests two things,” she explained. The first is that the dot-com bust around 2001 has led students to believe there are no more computer science jobs available. And the second is that “all computer science jobs are being outsourced overseas. As a result, parents and counselors are not encouraging kids to [pursue a computer science degree], even though the opposite is in fact true; the highest growing job category is in computer science.”
Filling computer science jobs is of particular importance to DARPA.
“The lack of qualified technologists has really driven the prices [of hiring] to almost a prohibitive level, where new technology development is almost prohibitive because of the cost. Because there’s so many restrictions on what types of people and their citizenship and their ability to get classified work for the government, it’s such a small group. … We’re already behind 20,000 to 30,000 technologists just for defense and government work as it sits right now,” said Hughes.
Hughes said TopCoder hopes to have a soft launch of the program as early as January, and the organization is aiming to introduce a number of activities by March or April. TopCoder hopes more content will be developed by participants as the online community grows.