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When the high-tech industry of the early 1990s came crashing down to earth, there were more than job losses and weakened tech stocks lying on the ground. What burst from the dot-com bubble landed on many who could no longer see a university computer science degree as a path to a promising career.
McGill's School of Computer Science (SOCS) has been the victim of a North American development. Like other computer science departments, it has seen a sharp decline in student enrolment. This past academic year, SOCS taught 43 percent fewer full-time-equivalent undergraduate students than at its peak in 1999-2000. "This drop in interest in our field seems to be related to the perception that jobs are no longer to be found," wrote director Denis Thérien in last year's annual report. Thérien softens that blow by pointing out that the number of honours and graduate students has remained stable.
SOCS has been working to reverse the trend. It has been matching computer science with other disciplines, such as biochemistry, and is planning a graduate degree in the emerging field of bioinformatics. It is also developing strong ties with the departments of electrical and computer engineering.
But there is one initiative that may make the biggest impact on increasing the number of computer scientists.
At the end of mid-summer week, 27 Grade 10 and 11 students from across Montreal applauded one another as they went up to accept their certificates attesting to their time at McGill's summer computer camp. "A Computer Scientist for a Week" was the logo on their T-shirts. All had been chosen to be part of this free education adventure, doing the likes of creating graphics and harnessing artificial intelligence.
Amina Kreps, 16, wasn't bothered that the computerized colony of ants she helped program didn't always respond to the code written by her and her teammates, who won the week's challenge against others who programmed feats like putting a robot through an obstacle course. Classmate Charles Lacasse, 17, admitted that on the first day of the crash course, he wondered if he would survive the week, and Mona Ghassemi, 16, says the camp gave her an appreciation of programmers.
"They got a tiny taste of logical thinking and creative problem solving," says Sue Whitesides, who as the school's Undergraduate Program Chair had fostered the program.
School of Computer Science lecturer Joseph Vybihal was the week's main organizer along with Special Projects Coordinator Judy Kenigsberg. Both logged in many hours planning, bringing in volunteer student-teachers to lead the teams and finding sponsors to underwrite costs.
Vybihal admits it's hard to find employment as graduates compete with laid-off experienced programmers. But the situation's not as bad as many perceive. The average time for a computer science graduate to find a job is three months compared to nine months for a biology student, according to Statistics Canada. As well, both Google and Microsoft say they are having a hard time finding qualified programmers.
The industry demand for computer scientists is cyclical. Whitesides, who becomes director of the school this month, says that although McGill has seen lower enrolment during the past four years, you can't predict the state of the industry four years from now.