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Computer Science
Bethlehem PA

Looking Back: Computer Science

Jeff Maher on Sunday, 20 May 2007. Posted in Coursework, Student Life

In retrospect, I really had no idea what computer science (CS) is before I arrived. I figured I’d come to school, learn lots of programming languages, and leave knowing all that there is to know about computers. Much to my surprise, my first day in CS I showed that such a plan was not going to happen. In fact, we weren’t even going to touch any code until the second or third week of the class - surely the focus wasn’t going to be on programming languages -- and it rarely would be throughout my college career.

While people don’t say it so much anymore, the universal comment about computers in the 1990s was that they were always changing. This is really a truth about any field, but because of the nature of computers and the ease of change through software, it’s faster and more apparent in the computing industry. If you buy a computer this year, it’ll still be fine next year, but it’s already on its trip into obsolescence. To use a more CS-like analogy, you can learn the Java programming language, but then something newer and better comes along and all that Java knowledge does nothing for you.

For that reason alone, computer science is more about thinking. Let’s ponder something simple: sorting text in a list alphabetically. If you only learn Java, then you only know how to do sorts in Java. However, if you learn how sorting algorithms work, you can make them or use them in any programming language you want - provided a reference book or website to look up specific syntax. If this sounds confusing, what I’m trying to say is that how computers do things doesn’t change that much, even if the tools and hardware do. Therefore, in order to be a good programmer and be able to change with the times, you need to learn how think about how things happen “under the hood.” Computer science teaches that.
My friend Karl, also a computer science major, and I were reminiscing about how much strong er our skills are now that we have our degrees. When we started, we were afraid that we didn’t know the right languages or that we wouldn’t know enough to complete a task. However, as Hank Etlinger, undergraduate program coordinator for the RIT CS Department put it, we learned how to learn. Now, no programming task seems out of reach, even if we’re not initially sure how to do it. It just takes a little research and the application of the methods we were taught.

In summary, computer science makes you feel like you can do anything with a text editor and a compiler because it teaches how to approach, research, and solve software tasks.