Poor-quality math and computer science courses threaten technological leadership

One would surely think that first-world nations, in a bid to retain leadership in science and technology, and to fend off the very real challenge of the “Asian tigers” (India, China, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan), would pull all stops to ensure that university students in mathematics, computer science and related fields obtain the very best education possible.

To a certain extent, this has been done with relatively more funding in these fields (particularly computer science) from national sources, compared with many other academic disciplines. Yet there are storm clouds ahead.

For instance, in the U.S., leading computer science departments, stung by a 10-year-long reduction in the number of enrollees (a most unfortunate and irrational public reaction to the dot-com collapse of the early 2000s), have in many cases reacted by watering down both their entrance requirements and their course offerings. And in most cases this watering down consists of eliminating mathematics-related prerequisites and coursework.

As a result (as one of the present bloggers can personally attest), it has been increasingly difficult to find qualified Ph.D. graduates whose skills and education span both computer science and mathematics. Either the person’s training and skills are entirely in computer science, with little background in modern mathematics (linear algebra, group/field theory, differential equations, numerical analysis, etc.), or else the person has a reasonably good math background, but, aside from some limited coding experience, is largely untrained in modern computer science (algorithms, complexity, database structures, architectures, performance, etc.). It has been surprisingly difficult to find anyone who truly spans the two realms.

Similar trends have been seen in Canada and Australia (to which the other present blogger can personally attest). As in the U.S., there has been significant watering down of computer science curricula. While the number of required “hard” computer science courses continues to drop, “soft” degrees in Information Technology and Graphics abound. In many cases, computer science departments have found it necessary to import faculty from mathematics departments to handle such topics as algorithms, complexity theory, cryptography and numerical methods. In both Canada and Australia, very positive government rhetoric is unmatched by significant action.

Now concern is also being raised in the U.K. A feature article in the 9 January 2012 issue of the U.K. Guardian warns that Great Britain is facing an increasingly severe shortage of workers not only of programmers in general, but even more so of persons with broad-ranging knowledge of both mathematics and computer science. As Ian Wright, Chief Engineer for vehicle dynamics with the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One team explained, “There’s definitely a shortage of the right people. What we’ve found is that somebody spot on in terms of the maths can’t do the software; if they’re spot on in terms of the software, they can’t do the maths.”

Even in the U.K. gaming software industry, firms have had difficulty finding the right people. Kim Blake of Blitz Games Studios noted that “We do really struggle to recruit in some areas; the problem is often not the number of people applying, which can be quite high, but the quality of their work.” She adds, “There is still a basic level of maths and physics skills, in particular, which are alarmingly absent in all too many candidates.”

Alex Hope, managing director of the visual effects firm Double Negative (which handled some special effects for the Harry Potter movies), explained as follows:

The way you create that is people who understand computational fluid dynamics, they know how water moves. They take the physics that’s used in modelling rivers and the flow of water and apply that in our world. People doing it need an artistic sensibility as well. An understanding of maths and science is fundamental to many of the disciplines in our industry.

Several of the U.K. firms have pointed fingers at computer science departments and their coursework offerings, which they characterize rather baldly as “sausage factories.”

The U.K. government is planning an initiative to significantly upgrade education in computer science at all levels. For details see Guardian article.  The question is: Will decision makers in the U.S., Canada, Australia and other first-world nations take similar actions?

Along this line, the Australian Mathematical Sciences  Institute is sponsoring a  National Forum: “Maths for the Future: Keep Australia Competitive” on 7-8 February 2012:

The forum brings together business, industry and educators to address the supply ofmathematicians and statisticians for Australia. A keynote address will be by Prof. Celia Hoyles who has been so influential in the UK mathematics education. The UK has succeeded in increasing both the number of students studying mathematics at school and at the tertiary level. See http://www.amsi.org.au/events/forthcoming-events/773-maths-for-the-future-keep-australia-competitive .. .

Comments are closed.