Darpa: U.S. Geek Shortage Is National Security Risk

By Katie Drummond @ DarpaWatch

Sure, we’re all plugged in and online 24/7. But fewer American kids are growing up to be bona fide computer geeks. And that poses a serious security risk for the country, according to the Defense Department.

The Pentagon’s far-out research arm Darpa is soliciting proposals for initiatives that would attract teens to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), with an emphasis on computing. According to the Computer Research Association, computer science enrollment dropped 43 percent between 2003 and 2006.

Darpa’s worried that America’s “ability to compete in the increasingly internationalized stage will be hindered without college graduates with the ability to understand and innovate cutting edge technologies in the decades to come…. Finding the right people with increasingly specialized talent is becoming more difficult and will continue to add risk to a wide range of DoD [Department of Defense] systems that include software development.”

The agency doesn’t offer specifics on what kinds of activities might boost computing’s appeal to teens, but they want programs to include career days, mentoring, lab tours and counseling.

Of course, Darpa’s launched student-oriented publicity stunts before. But events like last year’s red balloon hunt were directed at pre-existing geeks — the balloon-finders were a team of MIT aces.

Now, Darpa’s now hoping someone, somewhere, can come up with a way to make future philosophy majors change course. And they want to get ‘em while they’re young: Darpa insists that programs be “targeted to middle and high school students, and include methods “to maintain a positive, long-term presence in a student’s education.”

A long-term presence that includes evenings and weekends. Rather than incorporate computer-based activities into academics, Darpa wants the programs to be extracurricular, “perhaps as an after school activity, weekend, or summer event.” Tween girls and minorities take note, because Darpa’s especially got it out for you:

Finally, the decline in degrees in CS [computer science] is particularly pronounced for women and minorities…. Proposals that have plans that specifically increase the number of women or minorities in their activities are encouraged.