Finding the Titanic

The closing keynote TCEA was given by Dr. Robert Ballard of oceanographic explorer fame. It was a talk that was both interesting and inspiring. One thing he said was particularly thought provoking to me. I think it is highly relevant to the current and worsening recruitment problems we are having in computer science – especially with non-traditional CS students.  Dr. Ballard explained that for many years he was making important discoveries in science. Uncovering secrets of the earth and of life that caused people to throw away the old textbooks. Revolutionary discoveries. And yet all his graduate students were from over seas. Children had never heard of him. There was no excitement in the field outside of the field. Then he found the Titanic!

Within weeks he’d received 16,000  letters from young people with two questions on their mind – "What do I have to do to do what you do for a living?" and "The next time you go, can I go with you?"  From relative obscurity he and his field had grabbed the imagination of young people in a way that was unprecedented. These days all of his graduate students are Americans and many young people grow up wanting to be like him and make the sorts of discoveries that he and his teams are making.

It makes me wonder – what is the computer science equivalent of finding the Titanic? What is that one thing that will grab the imagination and inspire a generation to enter the field?

It may not even be central to the field. In fact I suspect that it will not be. Perhaps it is some tour de force that proves a controversial concept or theory. After all finding the Titanic was a great demonstration of equipment that was really designed to do other more centrally scientific things. I don’t know what it will be but I am pretty sure that we need to find it. Slow and steady is losing us ground. So … any ideas?


PS: A good review of Ballard's TCEA talk here.

Comments (2)

  1. I think the Titanic of computer science rests somewhere within the realm of digital media. Pixar’s Randy Nelson discusses a new model for the workplace <a href="">in this video</a>.

    Somehow, we have to get past the stereotype of the computer programmer spending hours holed up in a cubicle isolated from all human contact. The Pixar model works toward this goal.

    Part of the problem, I think, is the amazing work that Pixar produces is so realistic, it doesn’t occur to kids watching that it might be an exciting and rewarding career option. They simply don’t understand the kind of work involved in creating it.

    Computer science is not normally seen as a "creative" field, although the most exciting work is absolutely appealing to those with a creative bent.

  2. I think "the Titanic of CS" is particularly tricky since CS often supports other interesting discoveries, or creations, and receives little-to-no credit.

    More immediately, it seems useful to start with things that people are already familiar with and show how, by studying CS, they can start using their own ideas. Hackety Hack ( ) seems like an excellent step in that direction. O’Reilly Media publishes quite a few books that function as hands-on introductions, e.g. Programming Collective Intelligence and the "hacks" series.

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