Wednesday, April 20, 2005

'We're No. 17'--Why U.S. coders fell flat

By Charles Cooper, CNET News.com

“Even before the Association for Computing Machinery's International Collegiate Programming Contest began, everyone knew the United States had its work cut out for it.

So when the final results came in, Uncle Sam was fortunate to have placed 17th in a tie with the likes of Russian powerhouse Perm State University, perhaps best known as a must stopover for countless '80s glam rockers. Who knows? If we try hard enough, maybe next year the U.S. will be able to catch up to No. 9 Izhevsk State Technical University, way out in the not-so-cosmopolitan reaches of Russia's eastern hinterlands.

All silliness aside, the United States' mediocre showing has rightly become a topic of concern in Silicon Valley, where technology leaders are already fretting about the quality of technical talent in tomorrow's work force. The question is whether this was a harbinger of deeper trouble or simply a one-off item that most folks won't bother with--let alone remember--six months from now.

"The truth is that we're mediocre. Other countries are pushing their best and brightest to math and the sciences. And what are we doing? Every parent knows we are not spending money effectively. But I don't know that our country has the stomach yet to fix what needs to be fixed. Can we and should we? Yes, but in a way that has to be successful."

…Shortly after the publication of the ACM results, I had a conversation with a chief executive from one of the technology industry's leading companies. This CEO spoke on the condition of anonymity. For this Valley big shot, the primary issue was the education, or more precisely, the undereducation of students in this country. For this CEO, years of falling test scores have forced him to reach an uncomfortable conclusion:

"The truth is that we're mediocre. Other countries are pushing their best and brightest to math and the sciences. And what are we doing? Every parent knows we are not spending money effectively. But I don't know that our country has the stomach yet to fix what needs to be fixed. Can we and should we? Yes, but in a way that has to be successful."

And there's the rub. What's the best way of getting from here to there? People have been talking about education reform in this country ever since the first public high school opened its doors in the early 19th century. But there are increasingly insistent calls to take the bull by the horns. A recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked 15-year-olds from the United States as 24th in math out of 29 industrialized countries! As if that were not bad enough, their science skills were even worse.

Why can't Johnny program? By Ed Frauenheim, Special to ZDNet

Q&A The organizer of a recently global coding contest in which a U.S. team finished 17th reflects on the educational system.If David Patterson had his way, the president of the United States would congratulate top code jockeys just like the commander-in-chief applauds the Super Bowl champs.

That would send a message about the importance of technology smarts and skills, argues Patterson, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a group that runs a major student coding contest.

"(Our presidents) meet the winners of the football championship, right?" Patterson says. "Gee, wouldn't it be wonderful if the presidents would meet the winners of the programming contest? Wouldn't that be a better world?"

After U.S. students earlier this month made their worst showing in the 29-year history of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest, Patterson and others are wondering whether the United States does enough to encourage programming talent. The top U.S. school finished in a tie for 17th place. Students from China's Shanghai Jiao Tong University took the top honors, continuing a gradual ascendance of Asian and Eastern European schools during the past decade or so. The last time a U.S. institution won the world championship was in 1997.

Some argue the results don't necessarily mean much, given the way foreign schools may put more emphasis on the contest. What's more, the number of entrants has mushroomed, from fewer than 650 teams in 1994 to more than 4,100 this year.

Patterson, though, thinks there's more to the U.S. decline--viewed by some as a sign the country's tech leadership is in trouble.

ACM's leader knows a thing or two about creating important technology: He played a key role in the development of so-called reduced instruction set computers, or RISC, and was involved in a Berkeley networking project that led to technology used by Internet companies such as Inktomi.

CNET News.com recently spoke with Patterson about ACM's contest, the state of student tech talent in the United States, and how outsourcing is affecting the field.

http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9593_22-5676484.html

http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9589_22-5675227.html
con·cept: 'We're No. 17'--Why U.S. coders fell flat