WPI Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Computer Science Department

Frequently Asked Questions
by Prospective Undergraduate Students
and their Parents

Thu Jul 25 17:14:31 EDT 2013
{Note that the printed version of this document does not show
the many web links to useful sources of information}.

These questions below are based on real questions from real people. Please let us know if they're helpful. Many more detailed questions about the Computer Science Department (CS) can be answered by looking around our web pages. The Undergraduate Admissions Office has a great web site that can help you with admissions related stuff, and also with general questions that you might have. And of course there are plenty of web pages about WPI to browse through.


Computers Class size Java Advanced CS Excel/Word
Course info TAs Majors/Minors BS/MS Projects
Research Post WPI Advising Teaching AP credit
Math Inventions CS (or ECE) Why study? Jobs

* Do I have to buy a computer, and, if so, which one?    ...and...
* Which computers can I use, are they free, and how do I get an account?    ...and...
* Are the dorms wired?
* Is there wireless access?
We do not require you to buy a particular computer, or even buy one at all. There are many computer labs that are open to all students for general use. Other labs are available to support particular CS and/or IMGD courses that have special needs. For example, the Zoo Lab, located in Fuller A21 is equipped with 25 high-end PCs. This is accessible to all students registered for CS courses. In addition, the IMGD Lab is a 27-seat teaching/research facility that features Mac and PC workstations equipped with the latest software for building games and creating art.

A guide to what computers are appropriate to bring or buy has been provided by WPI's Information Technology Services (formerly CCC). All our dorms are wired, along with the rest of the campus. It is easy to connect your computer to the WPI Residence Network. That plus campus-wide high speed wireless networking will give you access to all the computing services on the campus.

Computing and Internet access at WPI is free. You'll be given an account during orientation when you first arrive on the campus. You can use it until you graduate and leave.

* How large are the CS classes?
Classes vary in size from about 15 to about 130. Senior level classes in more specialized subjects, and those about less `popular' topics, tend to be smaller, while introductory courses, that are also taken by students from other majors, are the largest.

We try to provide you with lots of additional assistance. Large classes break out into smaller groups for seminar sessions with graduate teaching assistants (TAs), undergraduate senior assistants (SAs) and with faculty. Office hours, and perhaps also help sessions, are provided for every course. Both faculty and teaching assistants are available during office hours to provide help to anyone from the course who wants it.

Help is also available for all courses by email from the course instructor and the TAs, and usually via information posted on the web. Every course has a dedicated web site. Some courses use the myWPI web-based course support system.

In addition to the regular instructors, an extra faculty member is specifically assigned to the introductory courses. Their job is to help with the coordination of the courses.

WPI's plan of undergraduate studies also requires students to do projects where students interact directly with one or more faculty members. This provides the equivalent of six courses of direct faculty-student contact.

The growth in enrollment for CS programs in the universities with the best return on investment has challenged all of us to provide high quality education. Over the years we have gradually increasing the number of faculty -- making sure we hire new faculty with a unique blend of strong teaching ability and high quality scholarship. We are committed to providing a "high touch" education, where students deal with people who provide customized care, and do not just interact with technology.

* Do you teach a course in C/C++/Java/...?
Well ... yes and no. None of our courses are intended to just teach you a programming language. They use one or more programming languages to teach Computer Science concepts. Once you've learned the first language and the essential concepts you'll find that additional languages can be learned more easily. Different languages have different strengths and can be used for different tasks -- we'll show you which.

In response to changing technology, the needs of industry, and student requests, we change courses and course content every year. Over time, the languages we've used in our introductory courses has included Fortran, Pascal, Scheme, C, C++, and, most recently, Java. We keep evolving.

* I'm interested in Databases/Graphics/AI/... Can I do that here?
We have lots of advanced courses, so the answer is almost certainly "Yes". Take a look at the list of 4000-level CS courses in our Undergraduate Catalog. Other areas might be covered by combinations of courses (perhaps including 3000-level or even graduate courses).

* Do you teach a course on Microsoft Excel, Word or other PC software?
It is unusual for us to teach the use of specific software, except when it supports the content of a course. However, the College Computer Center does offer a training program for software tools such as Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, and Excel.

* Where can I find information about WPI's CS courses on the web?
For each course you can also see catalog descriptions, including the recommended background. All of our undergraduate courses have associated web pages. Our list of course web pages takes you to the information provided by the instructors of current and past courses.

* Are all courses taught by faculty?
Courses are never taught by Teaching Assistants: they just "assist". Almost all courses are taught by regular faculty, with some being taught by carefully selected Instructors.

* Can I just minor in Computer Science?    ...and...
* How can I combine an interest in Electrical Engineering/Management/... with CS?    ...and...
* Do you have an Information Technology degree?    ...and...
* Can I study Software Engineering?
If you want to choose a different major, such as Electrical and Computer Engineering, or Management, and also do a minor in Computer Science that is certainly possible. You'll need to take six CS courses for the minor. Other possible combinations are to do a double major (i.e., two disciplines), or to major in CS and add some other minor.

A good example of an area that can be studied at WPI as a combination of disciplines is Information Technology (IT). IT can be defined as the study of the use of technology to store, communicate or process information. The focus is more on the information and its uses, than on the technology. WPI has no degree with that name, and we feel that it is not needed, as the subject is somewhere between Computer Science and Management. Depending on a student's interests and abilities, there are several ways that a degree can be obtained at WPI that covers the IT area.

Software Engineering is both a specialized area within Computer Science concerned with designing large software systems (e.g., CS 3733), and also the general task of producing software. It's what most of our graduates end up doing, and what most of our courses are about. We have increasing our course offerings in the specialized area, in response to recent trends.

* What's the BS/MS program?
The combined Bachelor's & Master's Program allows undergraduates to earn both a bachelor's and a master's degree in less time than would normally be required. This is done by counting some undergraduate credits towards the master's degree, and overlapping the two programs. If you're interested, apply at the beginning of the junior year.

* What kinds of Major Qualifying Projects (MQPs) do CS students do?
WPI students have been doing significant projects as part of theiry education since 1970. Support for projects is built into WPI's fabric. Projects include a senior thesis, called a Major Qualifying Project (MQP) here at WPI. MQPs are done in a wide variety of areas. Topics are suggested by students, faculty members, or by industry. The Projects Program web pages allow you to search through WPI's database of project titles and abstracts.

All MQPs are presented in public, and most students make web pages that summarize their project.

Here are some sample MQP titles:

  • The Photo-realistic Computer Animation of Combustion
  • Dynamic Load Balancing in Java
  • Semantics and Structure of Clustered Internet Documents
  • MPEG Jitter
  • The Java Beans Component Architecture
  • Application of Genetic Programming Techniques to Network Flow
  • Multimedia Multi-casting
  • Computational Graph Theory
  • Web Art
  • The Use of Intelligent Agents in Newspaper Layout

* Do students have opportunities to work with faculty on their research? On what kinds of problems?
It is possible for students to work with faculty on their research. Many faculty take pieces of their research projects and turn them into MQPs. Sometimes these collaborations result in conference or journal publications. The range of research areas can be seen by looking at the list of the CS Department's Research Groups and by looking at the projects described on those web pages. Although research group meetings are mainly targeted at graduate students and faculty, most also welcome undergraduates.

* Where do your students go after they graduate?
Most students go to industry. WPIs Career Development Center helps students with all aspects of the job search process. Most major companies come here to interview, or they can access the web-based resume book.

Some students decide to attend graduate school for a Master's degree or a Ph.D. at schools such as Stanford, CMU, Illinois, Ohio State, etc. Some students stay at WPI to take advantage of the BS/MS program, gaining a Master's degree in less time than it would normally take.

* Can I get good advice about my selection of courses?
Every student is assigned an Academic Advisor who is a member of the faculty. They can help with questions about courses, requirements, and schedules. There are days set aside for every freshmen and other students to meet with their advisor to plan their courses. A rough plan of your four years in CS is available to help you pick courses, and you and your advisor can work with a Program Tracking Sheet to actually chart your progress.

WPI has an Academic Advising Office that supervises advising on campus, and also helps students with special academic problems. WPI also has a Committee on Advising and Student Life, with both faculty and students members, that is responsible for continuing development of the student advisory and counseling programs. We take advising very seriously.

* Are faculty serious about teaching, or do they just do research?
WPI is very serious about teaching. We always have been. Faculty promotion, tenure and salaries really do depend on good teaching, as well as on research. That isn't true everywhere. Students evaluate every course, and that course evaluation information is available on the web for everyone to see. In addition to student reviews, CS faculty are also peer reviewed: i.e., we sit in on each other's classes and provide comments about the teaching. WPI's Morgan Teaching and Learning Center runs courses and events to help keep the level of teaching high. The CS department also has its own discussions and presentations about teaching methods.

* Should I take CS Advanced Placement classes? Will I get credit for them?
If you are taking or have taken advanced placement or accelerated courses in high school then you are probably qualified to begin your WPI courses with CS 1102 (our first course for experienced programmers) instead of CS 1101 (our introductory course for novice programmers). If you take the Advanced Placement Examination and score a "4" or "5" you will receive elective credit at WPI (does not count towards the CS major). An additional credit for CS 1000 is granted for a score of "4" or "5" on the AB exam.

You don't have to take the Advanced Placement Examination in order to select a more advanced-level course. However, you shouldn't select an advanced course unless you have mastery of the material that's recommended to come before it.

* Do you have to be good in math to do CS?
You don't have to be good in math to do CS, but it certainly helps a lot. Mathematics promotes the sort of clear, logical thinking that is needed to analyze problems and to design and write computer programs. In addition, mathematics is used in many CS courses, for example to analyze or predict the performance of computer programs and computer systems. There's also a formal, theoretical branch of CS that uses mathematics. So, if you do badly in our Math courses, you'll probably do badly in our CS courses.

* What is WPI's policy with regard to `intellectual property', and who owns the students' projects?
WPI projects are an important educational experience, and the MQP is a graduation requirement. WPI owns the rights to the results of an MQP, unless it chooses to relinquish or share those rights.

Royalties resulting from a patent are shared between WPI and the inventor, according to the degree of ownership. A sponsor of a project (external to WPI) will own the rights to a project if the project was based on proprietary or confidential information supplied by the sponsor. WPI is not currently in the business of providing venture capital for start-up companies.

The full, legal details are described in WPI's Policy on Inventions, Patents and Copyrights.

* What's the difference between Computer Science and Computer Engineering?
There are some overlaps between the topics in the two disciplines. However, the crude way to distinguish between them is that CS is concerned with Software, and CE is concerned with Hardware. By "software" we mean computer programs, and by "hardware" we mean electrical and electronic devices.

In CS we are concerned with how to make computers do what we want using software, while in Computer Engineering they are concerned with designing and building the computers themselves. However, some topics, such as designing, building, and evaluating networks of interconnected computers, cross the boundary. Of course, to find out the details of both disciplines you ought to attend presentations from both departments, visit the web pages, and talk to faculty representatives.

* Is Computer Science the major for me?
Different people have different abilities and talents. Until you try Computer Science it's hard to tell whether you have the right blend to succeed in this field. However, if you are only interested in developing web pages, playing computer games, using existing software, or using computers in support of some other area, then this might be a signal that you need to reconsider whether Computer Science is the right major for you.

* After high school some of my friends went directly to work as programmers and they are making big money -- why should I bother with college?    ...and...
* How can you teach me about computers and languages that will only be invented after I graduate?
Computer technology changes very rapidly. It's estimated that the details of what you learn in a B.S. degree may last you about 5 years. However, we try to prepare you for change by emphasizing CS concepts that will support you as you continue to learn throughout your career. If you don't know the full range of concepts, then keeping up-to-date will be very difficult. With those concepts you will be able to learn about computers and languages that will only be invented after you graduate. Computer Science concepts change relatively slowly.

In addition, the wide range of courses, teaching techniques, and projects help you learn `how to learn'. A four year degree from an accredited program -- we are currently accredited by CSAB -- is the best way to obtain those essential CS concepts, and to learn how to learn.

Your friends who choose immediate money over an investment in education are likely to lose in the long run. You'll be able to continue to learn and adapt to change, allowing your salary to grow for much longer. Of course, money isn't the only or even the `main' reason for going to college!

* My father says that soon computers will program themselves and nobody will hire CS people. Is this true?
Everyone agrees that there is and will continue to be a high demand for computer scientists.

The U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the Computer Programmers section of the 2002-03 Occupational Outlook Handbook, says:

    "Systems analysts, computers scientists, and database administrators are expected to be the among the fastest growing occupations through 2010. Employment of these computer specialists is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations as organizations continue to adopt and integrate increasingly sophisticated technologies. Growth will be driven by very rapid growth in computer and data processing services, which is projected to be the fastest growing industry in the U.S. economy. In addition, many job openings will arise annually from the need to replace workers who move into managerial positions or other occupations or who leave the labor force."

Business Week (21 July 97) says:

    "The Information Revolution is racing ahead of its vital raw material: brainpower. As demand explodes for computerized applications for everything from electronic commerce on the Internet to sorting out the Year 2000 glitch, companies are finding themselves strapped for programmers. In the U.S., alone, which accounts for two-thirds of the world's $300 billion market in software products and services, some 190,000 high-tech jobs stand open, most of them for programmers, according to the Information Technology Association."

    "And relief is nowhere in sight. Experts predict the gap between computer-science students and expected demand won't ease for a decade, if then."

The Commerce Department's Office of Technology Policy reports that the whole IT field was responsible for more than a third of the growth in the U.S. economy between 1995 and 1997, and that it accounts for almost half of the nation's long-term growth since World War II.

However, in general, fathers (and mothers!) are usually right.     ;-)

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