American computer science students used to be ahead of their counterparts from other countries. But in recent international competitions, East European and Asian programming students have outperformed them.

The Association for Computing Machinery, an international organization for the advancement of computing as a science and profession, sponsors an annual contest for computer programming students all over the world. Teams of undergraduate students are given eight-to-ten programming problems. The winner is the team that correctly solves the most problems.

From 1977 until 1989, the winner was always a U.S. college team. And American students were among the top finishers until the late 1990s. But since then, Asian and East European students have won most of the top prizes. This year, only one American college team was among the top twelve. Last year, there were none.
Some analysts say this poor showing by American computer science students should serve as a wake-up call for the U.S. government, industry and educators.

Science Education on the Decline 

Mel Schiavelli, President of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, says one cause for concern is the declining number of U.S. students majoring in computer technology and other sciences.

"If you look at the rate of production of individuals either with bachelors' degrees or advanced degrees in those disciplines in the United States, it's about half the rate of production of those of let's say India and China, which are the two major producers. Said another way," says Schiavelli, "In the United States, less than a third of students who go to college decide to study a science or technology or engineering mathematics discipline. Whereas when you get to China, it's closer to 70 percent."

Schiavelli says there is also a general decline in U.S. science education. He says the problem starts early on, "Mathematics programs and the training of mathematics teachers for K [i.e., kindergarten] through eighth grades have been left frequently to other than mathematicians and more to mathematics educators. To teach mathematics in elementary schools, while you have to be [a] certified [teacher], you don't have to have a degree in mathematics."

Schiavelli says computer science is based on mathematics, especially algebra, and that these subjects are introduced too late in elementary schools. High school math and science courses are not as challenging in the U.S. as they are in some Asian and European curricula. Thus, entering college students who choose to major in computing, engineering or other sciences often cannot cope with the complexity of college science courses. After their first semester, many of these freshmen switch to non-science majors.

Doug White, a computer science professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, says that in order to keep students in computer science programs, many colleges have made courses easier.

"University programs are faced with a challenge of: 'If we want to keep our jobs, we have to keep our students.' So then they start dumbing down their programs to keep more of their students when there is a sign they are going to leave, and what happens is then you turn out students with even lower levels of skill," says White. "And so you don't see the level of rigor in computer science and computer information systems programs, which lead to programming careers that you saw 25 years ago."

Globalization and Outsourcing

At the same time, Professor White says, China, India and some other developing countries have seen a technology boom with numerous job opportunities in software development and computer programming. This has enticed millions of young people to flock to universities that offer computer science programs.  Doug White, who has helped develop programming tests for international companies hiring computer specialists, says corporations are increasingly interested in programmers from Asia because they are not only more skilled, but also work for less than American programmers.

There is a growing concern in the United States about the outsourcing of computer technology jobs to developing countries. But Professor White says there are benefits.

"The Internet and globalization in general allow Third World countries like India -- it's such a great example -- to really improve their situation by creating a wealthy middle class. And that's great for the world because it means salaries and income levels in those countries, where things are bad, are improving. So that's good," says White. "The scary part is that as those jobs go away, there is going to be a situation where a lot of Americans who are trying to find careers are going to have a challenging time."

Some analysts say that in recent years, many American students have shunned computer programming because they fear that job opportunities and salaries in that field will decline.

Greg Gagne, Chairman of the Computer Science Department at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, says that as a result, the United States will face a shortage of computer science talent. "Several high tech leaders are concerned that with this dip in computer science enrollments, five or six years from now, there won't be enough graduates coming out of U.S. colleges and universities with computer science degrees to fulfill demand." Greg Gagne says the fear of outsourcing must be dispelled because it is only a small fraction of the computer industry.

Many analysts say educators and industry leaders must join forces to improve America's science education. They say math and science must be taught at an earlier age, and that high schools must better prepare students for the challenges of college computer and science programs in order for Americans to compete in the 21st century.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.