Interest in computer science is volatile

Reading an NYT article about the dearth of women in computer science, I was struck by this figure, which shows the percentage of college freshmen who say they might major in computer science.computer_science.png The article focuses on the fact, clearly visible from the figure, that women are increasingly underrepresented in computer science since the 1970's and early 1980's, when computer science really started taking off as a discipline.

What also struck me, however, was how volatile the baseline interest in the field has been. I was in college in the late-1990's, when majoring in CS was definitely viewed as a practical and lucrative thing to do, and I'm not surprised to see that interest has fallen off since then. But the fall-off shown here was much steeper than I would have imagined. Have enrollments declined at that rate as well?

Even more surprising to me was that there had been an earlier, equally dramatic boom-and-bust cycle. I knew from watching Triumph of the Nerds that PC sales really took off around that time, and I know about movies like Tron and WarGames, which came at the peak of the earlier wave shown here. But I didn't know there was such a steep drop-off in interest then either. Was that one because of the collapse of a tech bubble too?

Two more questions:

Does anyone want to chime in on why women are less and less represented in CS since the early 1980s? My thought was that professionalization of education in general, and hardening of ideas about who works in the IT profession, would be leading causes. There were a few theories in the NYT article (subtle messages from families, the rise of a very male gaming culture) but it seemed like there was a lot more to be said.

Do any other disciplines have enrollments this volatile?

Posted by Andy Eggers at November 17, 2008 5:00 PM