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Educating NITRD

As far as obscure government acronyms go, NITRD is a pretty good one. It stands for the National Information Technology Research and Development program. This program cuts across numerous federal agencies to carry out and coordinate investments in IT R&D. In 2007, the President's Council of Advisory on Science and Technology (PCAST… another doozy of an acronym) issued a report making recommendations for some reforms of the NITRD program. One interesting issue it touched on is the need to improve computing education and strengthen the IT workforce pipeline. With Congress now using this report as basis to look at what changes it would make to the program, ACM joined with the Computing Research Association and National Center for Women and Information Technology in a letter outlining ideas of how NITRD could be improved to address computer science education issues, particularly at the K-12 level.

While R&D is clearly the focus of the NITRD program, it has an education component. The overall program is broken into several (acronym alert) Program Component Areas (PCAs). Each one deals with a field of research but its Social, Economic, and Workforce Implications of IT PCA is charged with addressing workforce and education issues. In truth, this part of the program is small and the Nation Science Foundation dominates the contributions to it. Further, it really does not have a K-12 focus and the Department of Education dropped out of the overall program some time ago. It is time to revitalize and expand this area.

The community letter to Congress seeks to strengthen the pipeline by expanding, better leveraging, and coordinating existing education efforts within the NITRD program. We outline four recommendations (and specific legislative language for the wonks out there):

* Promote computing education, particularly at the K-12 level, and increased exposure to computing education and research opportunities for women and minorities as core elements of the NITRD program;
* Require the NITRD program to address education and diversity programs in its strategic planning and road-mapping process;
* Expand efforts at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to focus on computer science education, particularly at the K-12 level through broadening the Math Science Partnership program; and,
* Enlist the Department of Education and its resources and reach in addressing computer science education issues.

Each of these recommendations would bring a much-needed federal focus to issues in computer science education at the K-12 level. More and more conversations are occurring within the community about what needs to be done to improve computing education, and the discussion often turns back to the K-12 level. Computing and the innovations it yields are critical to the domestic economy. The ubiquitous nature of computing has spread its reach into everyone’s daily lives. Securing our cyber-infrastructure, protecting national security, and making our energy infrastructure more efficient are among numerous issues all depending on computing. However, the current pipeline will not satisfy the demands of an industry that includes some of the country's most innovative and successful companies. Nor will the existing education system give students the kind of background knowledge in computing and skills they need for the 21st Century.

We must do more to expose kids to a quality computer science education program at the K-12 level, support teachers and bring innovative new curricula into the schools. Opening a serious education front in the NITRD program would be a good start to this ambitious goal.

Cameron Wilson
ACM Director or Public Policy

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