Why study Computer Science?

Computing technology occupies a central position in the twenty-first century world. It’s difficult to think of another factor that has as much impact on daily life, both in the workplace and at home. Networked computing is arguably the most representative symbol of the fundamental changes that have taken place in recent years throughout the world. Even though the rush to create “dot-com”s in the 90’s oversold the immediate demand for computing at impossibly high levels, that doesn’t mean demand for computing competence will fade away—instead, the need for individuals with good computing skills and understanding will continue to grow, consistently and at realistic levels.

Knowing that computing is here to stay, what can students do to prepare themselves for the many ways computer and communication technology will enter their lives? The problem is that nobody can predict just how computers will be used ten or twenty years from now, or even five years in the future. For example, when desktop computers first appeared in the mid-1980s, few could have forseen the “web” and the impact it would have on day-to-day life barely ten years later. Also, futurists of 40 years ago envisioned a “knowledge utility” available as a free public source of information, now provided by web search engines such as google, but few if any anticipated the nature of this information service, distributed over millions of loosely cooperating “server” computers located throughout the world, with no central controlling authority apart from the technology of the communication itself. Finally, we can now access the Internet through wireless telephones and hand-held miniature computers. What forms will computing take twenty, ten, or even five years from now?

If nobody can foresee just what programs or devices will they will need even a few years from now, then learning only current technology will not be enough preparation for the unimaginable future. The best way to prepare for such unknowns is to study the principles of computing, which are fundamental to all computer systems and enable one to see deep connections between forms of computing that may appear to be very different. Thus, having skills empowers you to use today’s software and hardware, but that’s not enough. Knowing the basic principles of computing gives you insight and “savvy”, preparing you further for both present-day systems and to approach new kinds of computing systems, which will serve you throughout your career.

Computer Science (CS) is the academic study of those principles of computing and their applications in software and systems. Whether you plan to enter the computing industry per se or only to use computing as a tool for other purposes, computer science and the liberal arts together make a great preparation for the future. Studying CS at St. Olaf provides exactly that kind of preparation, combining CS principles, ethics and liberal-arts education, and interdisciplinary applications. From the no-prerequisites, breadth-first introductory course to the advanced electives, we provide background for people to make significant contributions to the increasingly computational world.