Solving America’s STEM Shortage Requires More Than Boot Camp Education

The Learn to Code movement. It’s hard to ignore.

Politicians, nonprofit organizations such as Code.org and hundreds of top Fortune companies have lauded what they view as a necessary skill for tomorrow’s workforce: coding. And with more than 100 coding boot camps around the world that claim to transform students with zero to limited coding experience to fluent coders in a matter of 12 weeks, this movement is catching the attention of employers, academics and students.

At ABET, we agree that coding and a basic understanding of computers are critical skills for the 21st century and represent the language of our time. President Obama last year called computer science “a basic skill, right along with the three ‘R’s.” But employers must be realistic about the differences between learning to explore a new language and mastering a field of study. Coding is a very basic skill associated with Computer Science, so expecting boot camp graduates to have as much, or more, knowledge about computing than students who graduate with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree is unrealistic.

According to a recent McKinsey study, 87 percent of IT leaders rate themselves poorly in terms of their ability to bring new ideas to market quickly. Yet today’s 21st century businesses and industries demand a workforce that can evolve as quickly as the scientific and technological capabilities surrounding them. This, as well as the economic projections indicating a need in the U.S. for approximately 1 million more college graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields by 2022, is vital if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology. We have to provide our students what they need to thrive in dynamic, high-paying STEM fields. But does the answer lie in a 12-week program?

It’s true that coding boot camps can provide a critical boost for prospective employees by helping them develop some basic computer skills, but as a single solution, they fall far short of addressing America’s need to build well-rounded leaders in STEM fields — leaders that have the knowledge, skills and experience to forge new paths for their organizations. But, what are the unintended consequences of investing too heavily in training future employees on single skill sets alone, given how quickly technologies emerge, evolve and become obsolete? Without a commitment to providing a well-rounded education and encouraging students to become lifelong learners, we will never develop the robust STEM workforce we need for our country to succeed.

At ABET, we understand the key to meeting this demand is to allow education to evolve in response to market demands, while at the same time preparing our future STEM leaders to succeed. The educational experience — experimentation, growth and collaboration — that comes with a two- or four-year academic program is key to developing employees focused on solving complex problems in a way that no boot camp can do.

All over the world, institutions are developing innovative student experiences that are truly focused on meeting the needs of their local business and communities. Many of these programs will choose to pursue ABET accreditation because they understand that accreditation will not only enhance the educational experience of their students but will also make them more attractive to potential employers. These institutions help prepare their graduates for entering a competitive, global workforce while providing them with both the necessary STEM breadth and depth, as well as the leadership skills to drive innovation in their future workplaces — making them the flexible, adaptive leaders the STEM industry needs. As an organization, we have also evolved and kept pace with these changes. We now have accredited programs in the emerging disciplines of cyber forensics and information security and electronics and computer engineering technology, to name a few.

The disruption caused by the changing dynamics in industry and the popularity of boot camps has led some to question the value of a college degree. This disruption has also led many institutions of higher education to develop innovative approaches and new programs, which may provide us with the best chance to create the STEM workforce that can deliver what 21st century industries demand.

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