Our mismatch between the skills required for available jobs and individuals with those skills is growing faster than all but one other state, Delaware.

The Magic of “Computational Thinking”

Training  More Folks Who Can Get Jobs?

In response to OPED at the Seattle Times.  Rosemary McAuliffe, State Senator  and Ed Lazowska , UW Prof. pof Computer Science

Like evangelicals of the past, Senator . McAuliffe and Professor Lazowska, have a call to the faithful:

“Washington students, parents and schools, wake up: Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are where it’s at!”

I have lived through this before … past drives have focused on rocket engineers,  accountants, health care minions, teachers, and … most notable for the US economy our HUGE over production of MBAs!

McAuliffe and Lazowska claim, and I believe they are correct, that WA state “ranks among the bottom producers on a per-capita basis.”  “Producers” here is an odd choice of term but I would guess they mean the local output of employable engineers who can out compete the product of “Producers” located in Texas, Beijing, Boston, Mumbai, and Paris?

The Senator and  Professor write “Look no further than our Amazon, Boeing, Google, Microsoft and biotech campuses to realize Washington is a technology hub.”   That list is a good place to start.  First, in regard to Boeing, the evangelists seem to be unaware that the bulk of jobs there are  production line jobs.  As for biotech, McAuliffe and Lazowska might want to see how many jobs are available at ICOS.  ICOS is such a big success, that Lilly bought it out and closed everything in Seattle.  Jobs for biotechies from Seattle are now in parts of the US with more entrepreneurial cultures or collections of big pharma … San Francisco, Boston, Pennsylvania, San Diego leave us in their dust.

Even more striking to me is the tech evangelicals’ attention to Starbucks, the Alaska trade, or the Port.  These are not high tech employers.  McAuliffe and Lazowska even overstate the computational aspect of business at Microsoft or Amazon.  The software engineers employed there work for business types .. people who decide on marketing strategies and “just in time” warehousing methods.  Will more “problem solving” classes in Toppenish High School”make us more competitive in these industries?

From that point the essay goes in the expected directions .. that is everywhere from adding “problem solving” and “computational” approached to K-6 to increasing “higher-education capacity.”  McAuliffe and Lazowska go on to say that “A human tragedy is unfolding. Our mismatch between the skills required for available jobs and individuals with those skills is growing faster than all but one other state, Delaware.”

The problem with this statement is the implication that McAuliffe and Lazowska know the future.   Let me point them to a timely example … Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Steve Jobs. If Jobs is the model, then we ought to be giving classes in Buddhism and industrial design.  Jobs colleague, Wozniak, did the scut work .. like a lot of other contemporaries, Steve Wozniak bounced over the kludgy design of the Altair.  Jobs built Apple by his emphasis on design, marketing, and salesmanship.  McAuliffe and Lazowska might also look at Microsoft and ask how important was Gates’ college drop out programming skills were vs. his business decisions about marketing MS basic or partnering with IBM to sell DOS?

How important were “‘computational thinking”  to these decisions.  If it is true how does “computational thinking”  effect literacy, the ability understand Thomas Jefferson or James Baldwin?  Would Herman Cain be more employable  if the Pizza magnate had enough history to understand that China has been a great nuclear power for decades?

I do not think that Cain would be better prepared if his parents had known that “Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are where it’s at!”   Even if “STEM” is where it is at, McAuliffe and Lazowska  need to be careful that they know what they are advocating.  McAuliffe and her colleagues just passed legislation that cheapens computer science degrees by allowing Western Governors University  to award Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees that would never have passed muster at any Washington State university.  Will our state or are students benefit from the com sci equivalent of more constrction workers?

Finally, whatever their intent for highs schools and K-6, I would like to assume that the Senator and Professor realize that premier American schools, including the UW, far outrank almost all foreign schools.  If what we are doing in providing a more rounded education is so bad, why does all the world want to study here?  Do they really think the fact that UW ranks 16th world wide is because we have a great Comp Sci Department?  How do they explain the prestige of Harvard and  Princeton or — oh the local scene — Evergreen, Whitman, Reed, and WWU?

I worry that, with all good intentions, the effect of McAuliffe and Lazowska would be to further dumb down out education system.

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, left, represents the 1st Legislative District and is chair of the Washington state Early Learning & K-12 Committee. Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington.