The next information technology revolution will be sparked by the invention of a practical quantum computer, which will harness the quantum mechanical behavior of atoms and molecules to provide computing power that far exceeds the capabilities of today’s conventional computers built with transistors. The professionals who develop the first practical quantum computers will be physicists and engineers – those who understand the basic science that governs the behavior of matter at the molecular scale.
The present drive by the organization code.org, which advocates for the expansion of computer programming education in the K-12 schools, and its corporate patrons (including Google and Microsoft) argues that the push to improve K-12 education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is misguided because the only STEM field in which employment prospects are bright is computer science. Nothing could be further from the truth. Opportunities for computer and electronics engineers are plentiful. And according to the American Institute of Physics, physics graduates at the bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. levels are recruited not only for scientific roles but also into occupations that involve engineering, information technology and financial services.
One of the primary strategies that code.org has adopted in its advocacy work is to coax states into allowing high school students to replace math and science course requirements with programming courses. Ironically, this strategy may actually reduce the number of engineers and physicists that our nation educates – which would decrease the probability that the first practical quantum computer will be developed in the United States. Many states require that students take biology to graduate from high school, and 95% of high school students take biology prior to graduation. In addition, 70% of high school graduates have taken a chemistry course. Because physics is last in the standard high school science sequence of biology-chemistry-physics (only 36% of high school grads have taken a physics course), a student who decides to replace a science course with a computer programming course will most likely skip physics, all but eliminating engineering and physics as career options.
Even though computer science, physics and engineering are presently competing for students, the fields are natural partners. Many advances in physics and engineering education rely on the expansion of the role of computing in classroom and laboratory experiences.
Furthermore, physics and engineering share an unfortunate characteristic with the field of computer science – severe shortages of women, African-Americans and Hispanics. Strategies that work in attracting students in underrepresented groups into one of these fields would probably work in the others as well. It seems that educators in these fields should be cooperating, not trying to crush each other.
So Hadi (Partovi, founder of code.org), if you’re out there and want to talk, give me a call. Otherwise, the physicists and engineers will start firing back. In a shooting war you’d almost certainly win (and you’re winning) because you have Google and Microsoft backing you up. But still, we could get so much more accomplished as partners rather than antagonists.