Battle of the Nerds: AP Calculus Versus AP Computer Science

A Geek Gap?

Once again America is in danger from a looming under-supply of nerds. The latest figures from the College Board show that not a single girl took the college-level AP (Advanced Placement) Computer Science coding test in two states and no black students took the test in eleven states, including Mississippi, which has the biggest black population in the country. Even worse only 31,000 students in the United States took the AP Computer Science test in 2013. “America’s Coming Geek Gap” shrieks the left-liberal Mother Jones. America, or at least Google, is in danger of collapsing without millions of high school students taking the AP Computer Science Exam.

It’s pretty clear. America’s high school students — male and female, black and white — aren’t excited by formal computer science classes. Indeed, the more advanced AP Computer Science AB exam was discontinued after the May 2009 exam due to lack of interest, a tiny number of test takers.

Let’s face the unappealing factoids for the fortieth or fiftieth time since Sputnik! American students are wimpy intellectual light-weights who could not code a “Hello World” program if their lives depended on it and wouldn’t want to even if they could. Yes, and the American STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) educational system discriminates horribly against women and non-white students lacking ancestors from India (as in Gandhi) or Asia. Pass the hanky and watch the latest video to feel a little better.

But wait! Don’t count America’s young nerds out just yet. In 2013, College Board statistics show that a whopping 147,704 young men and 135,410 young women took the AP Calculus AB Exam and 62,164 young men and 42,319 young women took the more advanced AP Calculus BC Exam in the United States, a total of almost 400,000 students taking an AP Calculus Exam. The number of students taking the AP Calculus Exams is surpassed only by the 476,277 students taking the AP English Language and Composition Exam and the 385,576 students taking the AP English Literature and Composition Exam.

Let’s set aside those eight-hundred thousand bright young people who have a strange desire to communicate well in the language written and spoken by almost all US citizens. Wimpy humanities majors hoping for careers deconstructing the hidden patriarchal messages in Jane Austen novels — one and all! That’s really not a topic for the Math Blog.

What do the AP Calculus versus AP Computer Science Exam numbers really tell us?

America’s young nerds in training, both young men and young women in large numbers, are rolling up their sleeves and taking the harder classes. They are learning the calculus of Newton and Einstein, Nicola Tesla and Enrico Fermi, Werner von Braun and Robert Goddard, none of this “Hello World” stuff. They are learning the calculus and other advanced mathematical skills needed for physics and hard-core engineering. As “Peak Oil” and global warming loom (well, maybe) they are learning the difficult skills that will probably be needed to solve these and other Big Problems.

Yes, Virginia, calculus and advanced mathematics are harder than Java programming (AP Computer Science is Java-based). If we want cheap, reasonably clean energy for seven billion (and growing) people, Java and object-oriented programming isn’t going to cut it. We need table-top fusion reactors, flexible, paper-thin easily manufactured solar cells, and other technological marvels — not much Java there. If we want to cure cancer, a detailed mastery of the Git version control system is not going to get the job done. If we want food for that seven billion and growing population, AP Biology (203,189 US students took the AP Biology Exam in 2013) might be a better investment than AP Computer Science.

Mother Jones “America’s Coming Geek Gap” cites an alleged 1.4 million projected software engineering jobs to be created between 2012 and 2022 (10 years). Rather curiously, the article links to a BLS study that seems to report a total employment of “software developers, application” of 613,000 in 2012, projected to grow to 752,900 in 2022, an increase of less than 200,000 jobs in ten years. The 1.4 million projection appears to be based on combining the “software developers, application” category with several other computer-related categories not listed on the BLS web page referenced by the Mother Jones article.

However, for the sake of argument, let us accept the 1.4 million projection, which is similar to the number given in’s video. In 2013, about 382,000 high school students took the AP Calculus AB or BC Exam. In ten years we can expect at least 3.8 million students to take the AP Calculus exams, a much larger number than 1.4 million.

Many seminal figures in computer science such as the late Dennis Ritchie, inventor of the C programming language and a key contributor to the original Unix operating system, and Grace Hopper, inventor of COBOL, had or have degrees in mathematics. Indeed, many programmers to this day do not have formal CS degrees, with degrees in everything from English Literature to Physics. Such high profile figures as Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg lack CS degrees or, in fact, non-honorary degrees of any kind.

The left-liberal Economic Policy Institute, which is closely affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has claimed that only forty-three percent of workers in computer related jobs have a CS degree based on “unpublished tabulations of the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates provided to EPI by Dr. Nirmala Kannankutty, senior advisor, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics at the National Science Foundation”. A GAO report in 1998, citing a Commerce Department report, claimed: “According to
the National Science Foundation, only about 25 percent of those employed
in computer and information science jobs in 1993 actually had degrees in
computer and information science.”

There seems little doubt from decades of experience in software that bright students able to take the AP Calculus Exams can fill the nation’s needs for software engineers even if they do not choose to pursue a formal CS degree. Indeed, STEM fields such as physics or mathematics will likely provide a stronger training for the highly mathematical software development that is likely to grow in importance in the coming decades. We can already see this happening with the current “data-science” software jobs which are often filled by non-CS degree holders.

This is the paradox. America’s public policy and public schools produce large numbers of young nerds well-trained to tackle the Big Problems. Our young people, both men and women, are taking the tough topics as never before in either US or world history. There is no “geek gap” now nor is one likely in the future. Nonetheless we are inundated with news reports about “geek gaps” and other factually unsupported assertions.

Here is the real problem. Go to any job board — LinkedIn, Craig’s List, Monster — and search for jobs requiring calculus. You will find a literal handful on a global scale, mostly in quantitative finance. Search for jobs to develop new energy sources and you will find a few more, but still a tiny number. There is little evidence of those wonderful green alternative energy research programs in BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” advertising campaign or ExxonMobil’s 2008 “Meet Our Nerdy Researchers” advertising campaign. The demand is not there. Our industry reports it is sitting on trillions of dollars in cash and it is amusing itself with developing computer programs that sell pet food over iPhones and similar ephemera.

Gasoline Prices

Gasoline Prices

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Oil and energy prices have soared over the last fifteen years. The US seems to have spent over one trillion dollars devastating Iraq’s oil production and blocking construction of pipelines from central Asia through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean during this period. Leading political figures in the US continue to advocate for further attacks on oil-rich nations such as Iran(the current leading target), Venezuela, and perhaps Saudi Arabia. We are experiencing the serious economic problems on a global scale that we would expect if inexpensive energy supplies were running out. The problem is obvious. The market opportunity is immense. Hmmm. What to spend money on? Oh, I know. Twitter! Facebook!

Is it good public policy to try to build a national or global economy around selling pet food over iPhones or selling advertising on YouTube? Should young people really be taking AP Computer Science instead of AP Calculus?

The answer is no. The enormous computational power of today’s computers is vastly underutilized because we lack the algorithms and advanced mathematics needed to properly exploit these devices to solve our problems, especially the Big Problems like energy, food, and health. Our future geeks will need AP Calculus and not AP Computer Science. Fortunately, that is what they are doing. USA! USA! USA!

A Serious Point

The serious point of this article is that we need to solve the actual problems that we have, not worry about fantasy “geek gaps.” Business and industry can do this by investing the trillions of dollars that they claim they have in the research and development of new energy sources and other solutions to the Big Problems that we have neglected while pursuing housing bubbles and weird, usually unprofitable schemes to sell pet food or other retail items using new technologies.

© 2014 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, MATLAB, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at [email protected].


  1. Vincent Johns January 21, 2014
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