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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Washington students flock to computer science, and AI adds to the allure

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Despite the pandemic and recent tech layoffs at industry giants like Amazon and Microsoft, the state’s flagship university is still turning away thousands of students who want to major in computer science — fueled, in part, by their interest in artificial intelligence.

More than 8,500 students who applied to be freshmen at the University of Washington listed their first-choice major as the Paul G. Allen School, the university’s computer science school, this fall. Additionally, there are the hundreds of transfer applicants from Washington’s community college network and current UW students who decide later to apply to the Allen School.

The school is embracing AI and the changes it has already brought to classes and will bring to industry jobs. The nature of software jobs has changed so much in the past 20 years that this is just another change, said Dan Grossman, a professor and the vice director of the school.

The change mirrors what employers are focused on, too: the most recent layoffs at Amazon are specifically so the company can focus more on AI. On Monday, the company launched an initiative to offer free AI skills training and education to 2 million people by 2025.

The Allen School has already grown significantly — doubling in number of graduates in the last five years. In the last 10, the number tripled.

A decade ago, the class of students studying computer science numbered about 160 each year. Now, thanks to funding from the state and donations from the regional tech community that allowed the Allen School to increase capacity and open a new building in 2019, the school’s current sophomore class is about 630 students.

“It’s heartbreaking to turn away so many talented students,” said Grossman.

The pandemic caused many students to decide college wasn’t for them. But despite the downturn, interest in pursuing computer science across the state remained high.

Nearly 1,250 students earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science at Washington colleges and universities last year, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council.

At Washington State University, the number of students pursuing computer science in the last decade has almost quadrupled. At Western Washington University, the number has nearly tripled. And at Eastern Washington University, interest was increasing before the pandemic, dipped slightly, and returned this year to a similar number as in 2014.

“We aren’t surprised by the demand,” Grossman added. “There are so many creative students that have creative ideas for how to have computers do new things.”

Grossman hopes the Allen School can continue expanding to keep up with the demand, but it would need to hire more faculty and teaching assistants, as well as additional budgeting, to accommodate more students.

Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Allen School, said AI is helping students focus on the most interesting part of computer science: answering big software design questions.

Grossman said many of the recent tech layoffs were a response to a huge surge of hiring at the start of the pandemic, when tech companies needed new jobs filled.

There’s still high demand from employers who want qualified computer science majors — so much so that some of the tech world’s biggest employers like Amazon, Microsoft and Google, sponsor programs in high schools to help students get ahead.

Amazon’s Future Engineer program, the tech giant’s 6-year-old global education philanthropic program, aims to increase access to computer science, education and career exploration for students, particularly those from historically underserved communities.

During the summer the company offers an Amazon Career Quest program for rising sophomores, juniors and seniors for two weeks. Students learn skills like how to build a résumé and speak in front of a crowd, and they hear from Amazon employees about their jobs to learn what their options could be.

They also learn computer science skills such as creating music remixes with Python, a high-level programming language, or creating a project with a micro:bit, a tiny circuit board designed to help students learn to code and create technology.

Sahar Abid, 17, a participant in Amazon’s career quest this summer, created a tool to help students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Her micro:bit alerts someone studying to take a pause every 30 minutes and reflect on what they are doing. This could help a student avoid fixating on something that is unproductive, a common problem for students diagnosed with ADHD.

“It is trying to help with mindfulness, to help people manage their schedules,” Abid said. “And it also reminds you to take breaks. … You might forget to eat, drink water or go to the bathroom and take care of yourself.”

Amazon also granted $40,000 scholarships to high school seniors across the country to study computer science or engineering in college and a 12-week paid internship at Amazon after the first year of college. Six of the scholarships went to Seattle Public Schools students this year.

Microsoft offers the Technology Education and Learning Support program, which works to build sustainable computer science programs in high schools. TEALS works to teach teachers how to teach computer science by pairing them with industry volunteers. Microsoft awards scholarships to women and nonbinary people pursuing coding.

Google’s Code Next program also works to train Black, Latino and Indigenous students to be tech leaders. The Generation Google Scholarship financially helps students pursuing computer science degrees.

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