In my previous blog, titled “Why Computer Science is in Your Future,” I answered the question of “Why should I major or study Computer Science?” In my answers, I provided reasons why students should consider Computer Science as a major, but not what Computer Science actually is. Unbeknown to me until later was the fact that students in particular and people in general think they know, but still don’t really understand what Computer Science is. After a bit of thought, I realized, and it also made logical sense, that knowing is not the same as understanding, just as understanding a job description doesn’t necessary equate to understanding a field. So when students started coming to my office asking the question “What is Computer Science, again, Dr. Gang?,” I thought about extending as well as expanding the answer that I typically give them to a much wider audience hoping for a greater benefit. This is the purpose of and inspiration for this blog post.

Because Computer Science is a relatively new field when compared to fields like Biology, Engineering, Math, etc., many new questions still surface often – with some still not sufficiently answered. So the attempt to define Computer Science and answer some of the most common questions, here is an effort to contribute to the small body of knowledge that is currently available with respect to these issues.

What is Computer Science?

Computer Science is the study of computers and computational systems. Specifically, it is the study of the feasibility, structure, expression, and mechanization of the methodical processes (algorithms) that underlie the acquisition, representation, processing, storage, communication of, and access to information, whether such information is encoded in bits and bytes in a computer memory or transcribed in genes and protein structures in a human cell. Put another way, Computer Science develops students’ computational and critical thinking skills while showing them how to create, not simply use, new technologies.

Is Computer Science an art or science?

Computer Science is a science. One of the several strong arguments that I have encountered in the past is that what you do can only be characterized as technology or art, for science only deals with fundamental law of nature, and computers are man-made. This is true. But it is also true that there is a vast amount of natural information processes for which computers are used as tools to predict, study and implement. This makes Computer Science a science.

Isn’t Computer Science the same thing as Information Technology (IT)?

This is a very common question, especially among students who want to establish a clear distinction between the two when choosing a degree program, and the answer is no. IT, which may be described by monikers like Information Systems (IS) or System Administration (SA), is concerned with all aspect of managing and processing information. While Computer Scientists are described as the “makers” of technology, IT professionals, on the other hand, are often described as the “users” of technology.  According to Blanchard, IT utilizes existing operating systems, software and applications in tandem to create a larger system that solves a specific business problem. IT constructs a network from established building blocks to carry out a task, such as an automated supplies ordering service. Computer scientists focus on the theory of computational applications. That means they understand the “why” behind computer programs. Using algorithms and advanced mathematics, computer scientists invent new ways to manipulate and transfer information. Computer scientists are generally concerned with software, operating systems and implementation.

Is Computer Science the same thing as Computer Engineering?

No. Computer Engineering is the branch of engineering that integrates electronic engineering with computer sciences. Computer engineers design and develop computer systems and other technological devices. Put another way, computer engineers make computer parts work together. They are responsible for the research, design and development of computer equipment like circuit boards, microchips, routers, and video cards.

The Computer Science and Engineering Department at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, in an effort to equip its graduates with the tools necessary to succeed in the real world, offers three of today’s widely used high level languages (C++, C# and Java). We invite you to visit our department and if you’re interested in pursuing a degree in Computer Science and Engineering, come by for a visit.