While the overall level of computer competency in the US has likely never been higher, the Defense Department is worried that expertise with Facebook and Youtube doesn’t seem to translate into more students studying in tech-related fields.
The statistics are certainly a bit bleak: according to the Computer Research Association, enrollment in computer science programs went down 43 percent between 2003 and 2006. In response to these figures, DARPA is taking proposals for programs to broaden the appeal of a career in tech.
Given that this wouldn’t be the first time DARPA’s run a student-oriented publicity campaign, the question that has to be asked is “what’s going to make this time different?”
The last time that DARPA ran a campaign like this, the Red Balloons Challenge, the competition was aimed at existing geeks (the three teams on the podium were made up of MIT, Georgia Tech and Harvard students). The new campaign is likely to be aimed at high school and middle school students, to be set up like an extracurricular activity, “perhaps as an after school activity, weekend, or summer event,” and to be set up in a way so that the program “maintain(s) a positive, long-term presence in a student’s education.”
So is it a good idea? It surely seems so. But will it work to the extent the DoD wants it to? I’m skeptical at best. While programs like Formula SAE and other similar initiatives have had some success in this regard, I don’t think a competition alone would drum up the numbers DARPA is looking for. They might find more success if they combine this program with a scholarship initiative for computer science, though.