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Computer Science vs. Computer Engineering

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Students who are interested in a career centered on computers and technology will likely choose to pursue a degree in either computer engineering or computer science, two of the most popular technology-related degrees in the modern era. Indeed, both of these degrees are centered on computers, and specifically their use and application in order to provide solutions to problems and further increase the efficiency of everyday life.

Of course, these two degrees share a number of similarities, as they both require an in-depth study of the computer. That being said, they do retain a wide array of differences as well, and aspiring students should be well aware of these dissimilarities before making a decision to pursue one or the other. In light of this, we have provided a brief overview of these degrees, as well as a side-by-side comparison for additional convenience.

Similarities, Differences and Overlap

Degrees in computer science and computer engineering share a number of similarities, both obvious and subtle. To begin, both are largely concerned with the use and application of computers as a tool to help develop modern technology. Indeed, both of these degrees require extensive study of computer programming, computer operation, and computational processes.

However, beyond this, the two paths of study begin to differ in their specifics. In general, computer science, as described by Duke University, is “traditionally more concerned with the theoretical underpinnings of computation and of programming.” More specifically, since it focuses on the processing, storing, and communication of data and instruction by computational devices, a student in this field will likely take courses on algorithms, programming, and numerical analysis, as well as the theory of computation overall.

In contrast, computer engineering, as a subfield of engineering, “focuses on the practical aspects of development and use of computers.” Here, students will receive education on computer programming, along with digital logic design, processor interfacing, devices, and solid state physics. Many institutions even offer a combined degree in computer engineering and electrical engineering, since these two fields share certain overlap regarding the physical construction of computer hardware.

In sum, a degree in computer science will prepare a student for solving abstract problems, and provide him or her with the ability to research and develop new computational processes regarding the management of data. A degree in computer engineering, on the other hand, develops skills to assist in the design of software and hardware, or systems that integrate the two. Ultimately, however, the overlap between these two fields of study demonstrates the equal concern for the study of computers and their use and application in the modern world.

Side-by-Side Comparison

Below this paragraph we have provided a side-by-side comparison of both computer science and computer engineering degrees, including the courses covered in each field of study, their status within an educational institution, what types of specializations exist within the field, and more. Any individual interested in obtaining a degree in either of these two areas should reference this information before making a selection.

Computer Science Computer Engineering
How do the fields define and differentiate themselves? Computer science is a field of study concerned with the theoretical workings of computers and computing devices and programming languages, as well as the processing and management of data by technology. Students in this field must have a thorough understanding of computers and their application, yet must apply this to approach abstract problems

Computer engineering, as an engineering subfield, is largely focused on the development and application and use of computers and computational technology. Those in pursuit of this degree will obtain extensive knowledge of the interaction of hardware and software, as well as the overall construction of both.

What bodies of knowledge will students focus on in pursuit of this degree? According to the Computer Science Curricula 2013, guidelines developed by the Association for Computing Machinery and the IEEE-Computer Society, students in this field will cover the following 18 subjects:

  1. Algorithms and complexity
  2. Architecture and organization
  3. Computational science
  4. Discrete structures
  5. Graphics and visual computing
  6. Human-computer interaction (HCI)
  7. Information assurance and security
  8. Information management
  9. Intelligent systems
  10. Networking and communications
  11. Operating systems
  12. Platform-based development
  13. Parallel and distributed computing
  14. Programming languages
  15. Software development fundamentals
  16. Software engineering
  17. Systems fundamentals
  18. Social issues and professional practice
In a 2010 report titled A Computer Engineering Technology Body of Knowledge, the authors present a set of courses to be included in an undergraduate degree in computer engineering, which include the following:

  1. Numerical problem solving tools
  2. Engineering technology problem solving in a Windows/UNIX environment
  3. Basic networking concepts
  4. Circuits and electronics
  5. Computer systems and architecture
  6. Computer scripting
  7. Web applications development
  8. Enterprise computing
  9. Virtual resource management
  10. Computer and network security basics
  11. Mathematical foundations of IT
  12. Simulation methods
  13. Service oriented architecture
  14. Business continuity, disaster recovery, backup
  15. Advanced web application design
  16. Implementation and management of security and networking systems
  17. Network infrastructure
  18. IT project management
  19. Database systems
Is hardware training part of the curriculum? Students of computer science must understand the interaction and function of hardware as it relates to software; however, specific hardware training and development is generally not required. Because computer engineering focuses on the development and construction of computer systems, students in this field will certainly take courses on hardware training.
Is algorithmic training part of the curriculum? Pursuant to the Computer Science Curricula 2013 detailed above, students of computer science should cover courses on algorithms and complexity. Students of computer engineering most often take courses on algorithms and mathematical tools, as this knowledge is necessary in creation and expansion of programming languages and applications.
What department is the program typically part of within the educational institution? The computer science program is most often housed within the engineering department.  It may sometimes reside in the Computer Information Systems department, or a similarly-named equivalent. The computer engineering program is housed within the engineering department in most every case. And, as mentioned above, some institutions even offer it as a specialization of electrical engineering.
What type of specializations are available in pursuit of this degree? Although the availability of specializations will certainly vary depending on the institution, students may focus on mobile development, artificial intelligence, data science, information technology, networking and operating systems, and graphics and visualization. Fields of specialization available to students of computer engineering include hardware and computer architecture, software, computer communications and networks, cyber security, computer systems, and trust and dependability, among others.
What current occupations will students be prepared for after receiving a degree? A degree in computer science will prepare the recipient for a career in a number of positions described by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including as database administrators, computer network architects, computer programmers, web developers, and many others. Those who have obtained a degree in computer engineering may obtain employment as computer hardware engineers, as well as software developers, computer programmers, computer and information research scientists, and others, all of which are detailed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What emerging occupations will students be prepared for after receiving a degree? Individuals with a degree in computer science may find they are prepared to excel in work in emerging fields, including those related to mobile computing, artificial intelligence, and cyber security. Emerging occupations available to those with a degree in computer engineering may include mobile technology engineers, artificial intelligence and robotics technology engineers, and careers developing hardware or software in any other future technology.
Name seven schools that offer degrees in these fields. The following is a list of seven schools that offer online degree programs in computer science:

  1. Georgia Institute of Technology
  2. Colorado State University
  3. Dakota State University
  4. Stanford University
  5. Trident University
  6. University of Florida
  7. Rasmussen College
The following is a list of seven schools that offer online degree programs in computer engineering:

  1. Iowa State University
  2. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (master’s in electrical and computer engineering)
  3. University of Arizona (master’s in electrical and computer engineering)
  4. Villanova University (on-campus attendance may be required for some classes, making this more of a hybrid program)
  5. University of Delaware (master’s in electrical and computer engineering)
  6. Virginia Tech
Bottom Line: Specifics of Each Overall, students pursuing a degree in computer science should expect to become intimately familiar with the computer and computing technology, as well as their applications and functions. Although software development may be covered in this field of study, students will focus much of their time on other related subjects, including algorithms and mathematical tools, networking, and data management and processing. Ultimately, computer science retains a combination of function and theory within the realm of computing technology. In contrast to computer science, computer engineering is more concerned with the practical application of computers and computing technology. Within this field of study, students will learn about software and hardware interaction, and the use of computers and computational technology and their application on modern issues. Indeed, a degree in computer engineering provides a student with an in-depth understanding of the inner working of computers (both in regards to software and hardware), as well as the tools necessary to create and utilize functioning machines.

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