Frequently-Asked Questions

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Current Students

There are many questions you may have about choosing a discipline and choosing a college. This FAQ addresses the computer science and information systems options at Calvin College. Please do not hesitate to contact us if there are other questions you have (see the last question in this FAQ).


Questions and Answers

What is computing?

Computing (also known as computer science) is the study of all things related to computation or automated problem-solving, including:

  • What computers can do and what they cannot do.
  • Ways that a person can instruct a computer to perform a computation.
  • How information is described and manipulated.
  • Ways that people and computers interact.
  • Algorithms or "recipes" for specific computations and the properties of those algorithms.
  • Strategies, techniques, and methodologies for designing a computation.
  • The machines that perform computations.

Computing is the off-spring of two very different disciplines:

  • Mathematics, particularly the study of mathematical models of computation; and
  • Electrical Engineering, particularly the construction of machines to perform computation.

With these roots, computing is a broad discipline whose areas range from the architectures of specific machines to algorithms to programming languages to formal models of computation. Put differently, computing is the study of the laws and principles that underlie computation.

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Aren't the computing jobs all going to India?

Absolutely not! In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will twice as many new U.S. jobs in software engineering as in the rest of engineering combined! See our Market For Computing Careers page for charts showing the employment opportunities in computing.

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Doesn't computing just focus on programming?

Programming---instructing a computer to perform a computation---is an important part of computing, but it is just one of many areas of computing. Some of the other areas include:

  • algorithms
  • artificial intelligence
  • computer architecture
  • computer security
  • database systems
  • graphics
  • information systems
  • networks
  • operating systems
  • programming language design
  • software engineering
  • theory of computing

The Calvin College Department of Computer Science offers courses in each of these areas (and more).

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What kinds of jobs are there for people with computing degrees?

For a person with a bachelors degree in computer science or information systems, there is a rich assortment of job opportunities. Recent graduates of Calvin's Department of Computer Science have taken jobs in:

  • network engineering
  • systems and website administration
  • software design and development
  • systems analysis
  • computer education and support

Also, a number of Calvin graduates have gone on to study at excellent graduate schools, including Michigan, MIT, Purdue Stanford, Texas, and Wisconsin.

News media have reported that the market for computing-related jobs has cooled off, which has led many prospective students away from computing as a major in college. This is unfortunate because according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more computing-related jobs today than there were in 1999 (at the height of the dot-com boom) and this is likely to remain true for the foreseeable future.

We are experiencing this first-hand: each month, companies send our department job and internship requests -- far more requests than we have students!

A recent study by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) indicates that "despite offshoring, career opportunities in IT will remain strong in the countries where they have been strong". It notes that the most valuable people will be those who have a "strong foundational education", the ability to learn on their own, and the ability to do research. These are things that Calvin focuses on in its CS and IS programs.

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Won't I end up working at a computer in a cubicle the rest of my life (like Dilbert)?

As we pointed out in an earlier question, computer programming is just one of many different areas in computing. There are lots of jobs related to computing technology---ranging from sales to management to support to education and training---that are highly people-oriented and require strong communication skills.

In fact, many employers have told us that communication skills and the ability to work in teams are the first things they look for in a new computing employee. The clear implication is that computing professionals today spend much of their time interacting with people, not just machines.

Finally, there are many unfilled jobs in today's technology sector so no one is going to force you to stay in a lousy job. If you start in a job and find that you don't like it, keep your skills up to date and there will be any number of other companies who will welcome you with open arms. In today's market, computing employees have lots of options!

Don't let the Dilbert stereotype scare you away from one of the most rewarding careers imaginable!

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Does Calvin have a good computing program?

The short answer is that Calvin has excellent programs in computing.

The long answer is that the focus of the Department of Computer Science is the education of undergraduate computing professionals. We are a baccalaureate college, meaning that we only offer bachelors degrees, not masters or doctoral degrees. If you study computing at Calvin, each of your courses will be taught by a professor whose main interest is teaching computing, not a graduate student or professor whose primary interest is research and for whom teaching is strictly secondary.

Since this is the case at many baccalaureate colleges, how does Calvin compare to similar institutions? Like many other departments across the US, we require all CS seniors to take the Educational Testing Service's Computer Science Major Field Test each year. The past several years, Calvin's institutional averages were above the 95th percentile -- our "average" students beat the average scores at 95% of the colleges and universities nationwide, so by this measure, Calvin's computer science program is in the top 5% in the U.S.

National Science Foundation (NSF) data shows this is no fluke. In its last comprehensive study Undergraduate Origins of Recent (1991-95) Science and Engineering Doctorate Recipients, the NSF found that during the period of the study, nine Calvin College graduates completed PhDs in computer science. Using this measure, Calvin College is ranked #1 among baccalaureate colleges. Even more interesting, by this measure Calvin is tied with the #1 masters-granting university. Only twenty-three PhD-granting institutions produced more computer science PhDs over the years 1986-1995. (And each of the other institutions is many times larger than Calvin.)

What also sets our Computer Science department apart is that our Bachelor of Computer Science degree has been accredited by the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET, While this is especially good for any student who wants to challenge taking all of the extra mathematics and science courses the BCS requires; it also benefits all of our degrees because all of our courses have to be up to the standards set by ABET.

Quite simply, you’ll have a hard time finding a better undergraduate computer science education anywhere, particularly at a Christian college.

The strengths of our program include:

  • Our faculty. Many of our faculty are recognized around the world for their expertise in different areas.
  • Our academics. By blending the study of the principles that govern computing with practical training, our curriculum prepares our students to succeed as computing professionals in the worlds of today and tomorrow. Our students study modern programming languages like C++, Java, Ada, and Smalltalk, and learn to use industrial strength platforms like Linux, Solaris (Sun's Unix), and Oracle.
  • Our environment. Our computing laboratories and library facilities combine to create a rich environment for learning about computing.
  • Our students. Our computer science club Abstraction and CSX help our department maintain a rich learning environment.
  • Our mission. It is our calling to use our technical gifts and abilities to serve Jesus Christ, and we seek students who are similarly called.

Calvin alumni have an amazing record of accomplishment. Some have gone on to graduate study at distinguished universities like Stanford, MIT, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Utah, and Waterloo, and are now administrators or professors at major universities. Others have taken positions of responsibility at companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Oracle, Boeing, and Ford Motor Co. Others serve at smaller companies. Companies who hire our graduates value them for their work ethic and integrity.

Come and join our tradition of excellence in computing at Calvin College!

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I'm interested in computing; what can I do to get started?

While programming is not the only thing computing professional do, it is a good starting point. Programming is best learned by writing programs. If you can take a programming course at your high school or a local college, do so. A reputable course would cover object-oriented programming with a main-stream language like Java, C++ or VB.Net. It's possible that taking such a course could get you out of Calvin's introductory CS 108 course and into a more advanced course. Talk to us at advising time if you have questions about this.

If you can't find a programming course, you can always wait until fall and take CS 108, Calvin's introduction to computing course. CS 108 doesn't assume any prior programming experience. We also offer CS 108 online over the summer; see Calvin Online for details.  However, if you'd like to get at least some programming experience before tackling CS 108, then you can play around at bit with Java programming. Sun Microsystems provides a good Java development environment and a Java programming tutorial.

The materials are all free and they work for Windows, Linux or Mac. You can go through them as far as you'd like knowing that what you learn will give you something of a head start on CS 108.

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How is computing different from computer engineering (CE)?

Computer engineers tend to focus on the hardware aspects of computing---those "below" a computer's operating system, including digital logic, circuits and gates, building the physical devices to perform or support computation, and so on.

Computer scientists tend to focus on software aspects of computing -- the skills, concepts, techniques, and theories used to build computing systems, from the software applications a person runs to the operating system.

Computer scientists learn just enough about hardware to design software intelligently; computer engineers learn just enough about software to design hardware intelligently.

To make this a bit more concrete, consider a tablet computer like the iPad. The tablet that you hold in your hand was mostly likely designed by computer engineers. The operating system (iOS) and the multitude of apps that you can download from the App Store were most likely designed by computer scientists.

Calvin provides programs in both of these areas.

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What's the difference between all of the computing-related majors that Calvin offers?

The department offers programs in the following computing-related areas:

  • The BCS is for students who want to challenge themselves with our strongest program in computing, mathematics and science.
  • The traditional BA in Computer Science is for students who want a broader education, perhaps with a second major in some other area of interest.
  • The BA in information Systems (IS) is for students who want to focus on applying technology to the business environment; it's a great blend for someone choosing between computer technology and business management. Our IS majors have go on to diverse careers as systems analysts, technology support specialists and software developers for business applications.
  • The BA in Digital Communications is for students who are interested in applying computer technology to mass media; students take a lot of administration courses from us and several courses from CAS.

You can find more information on these programs at our academics page.

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Does Calvin have a program in video game design and development?

Video game design and development is a multi-disciplinary field that includes work in computing, mathematics, graphic arts, theater and management. Calvin doesn't offer a specific "major" in this area, but rather allows you to major in Computer Science, Mathematics, Art, Theater or some related area, and then to collect a set of relevant supporting courses from the other areas. Relevant courses at Calvin would include programming, computer graphics, acting, discrete mathematics, communication design, and video production.

While we're pleased that so many people have become interested in computing through computer games, we hope that computing students don't narrow their focus too soon. There's a whole range of computing-related vocations out there to be discovered. God might use you mightily in the field of computer game design. Alternatively, God might show you another path into one of the high-growth areas of computing, such as enterprise software design and development, network and security administration, and information systems.

We believe that you would do well to find a school that provides you with the broad training you'll need in the long run as opposed to the more narrow courses you want at the moment. This idea is central to Calvin's approach to education in computing.

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What kind of background do I need to study computing?

Students who study computing at Calvin arrive with a wide diversity of backgrounds. On average, students with previous programming experience seem to have an easier time in the first course (CS 108), but some of our best students have been those with no previous programming experience. So prior programming experience may be useful, but it is not essential.

Many of our best students have taken as much high school mathematics as possible, because computer science and mathematics each require the same kind of rigorous thinking. That said, a recent study found that the SAT verbal score was a better predictor for success in computer science than the SAT quantitative score.

Our best students are those who like to solve puzzles, because the same patience and analytical ability that helps a person figure out a puzzle helps a person figure out how to automate the solution to a problem.

The main personal qualities that seem to make for a good computing professional are

  • creativity, because there are few limitations beyond one's imagination when it comes to writing software applications;
  • love of learning, because computing technology changes so rapidly, a computer scientist will be learning the rest of his or her life;
  • attention to detail, because a computer will only do what you tell it to do, not what you want it to do; and
  • perseverance, because as in other fields, success in computing is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.
If you have these qualities, come and study computing at Calvin!
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Are there any scholarships for computing students?

The Computer Science Department offers computing-related scholarships, descriptions of which can be found at the scholarships and awards page. Applications for these scholarships are solicited by the department during the spring semester.

In addition, Calvin offers scholarships and financial aid for all students.

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What is Calvin's policy regarding the Computer Science Advanced Placement (AP) tests?

Students taking the Computer Science Advanced Placement Tests are exempted at Calvin College from the following courses, based on your score:

Score Computer Science A Computer Science AB
1,2 none none
3 none CS 108
4, 5 CS 108 CS 108 & CS 112
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How can I learn more?

Come for a visit!

Calvin's Admissions department hosts Fridays at Calvin visitation days most Fridays during the academic year. See their website for more details.

If you are unable to visit but would like more information about Calvin College in general, please fill out an on-line information request form at the Admissions website and their staff will mail you the information. Or take the virtual tour of the campus.

If you have specific questions about Calvin's Department of Computer Science, feel free to contact us.

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Questions and Answers

What courses should I take?

Start by studying the academics page, which has links for each major program; those pages include sample schedules which take into consideration prerequisites and semester-by-semester course offerings. Also look at the schedule of all our courses; some of our courses are offered in alternating years.

With that basic background, talk to your faculty advisor. He or she will be able to answer questions you may have, and will then help you craft a program that's right for you.

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I want to get a job out of college; what will prepare me best for this?

Get a job while in college, either on your own or through our internship program. Employers tend to look for potential employees who have demonstrated the ability to apply what they've learned in a real setting. Also, get involved in extra-curricular activities, both computational and otherwise.

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I'm thinking about going on graduate school for further study; what are my options, and what should I be doing now to prepare?

Please see our Thinking About Graduate School? page, as it has lots of grad-school related advice. Then talk to your advisor and/or other CS faculty members to get their advice.

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I want to go to graduate school for a Masters; what will prepare me best for this?

Apply. And get involved in a lot of extra curricular activities. Do the same things that an undergraduate planning on a PhD would do.

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I want to go to graduate school for a PhD; what will prepare me best for this?

First you have to really consider why you want a PhD. If your goal is research (academic or industrial) or college teaching, then you'll need a PhD; otherwise, you probably don't need one. Even some industrial research positions will accept just a Masters.

If you decide you really do want a PhD, take the hardest classes in Computer Science and take a hard minor. The BCS is certainly good; if you opt for the BA in CS, you should have a hard minor or a second major. It used to be the case that graduates schools preferred a BA; it indicates a breadth of knowledge and an ability to learn without being spoon-fed the material. While this may still be true in other disciplines and while a BA won't hurt your chances, the BCS is certainly highly regarded.

You need to do well in your classes, especially the upper-level electives. You need a a good score on the GRE, the general exam in particular. Not all graduate programs require a subject test, and generally that's one of the last things that an admissions committee will consider.

Get involved in lots of extra curricular activities.

If at all possible, get involved in some research here at Calvin or elsewhere during the summer; a published paper while an undergraduate opens lots of doors!

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I want to do research in a particular area; what will prepare me best for this?

Generally, the answer is "take more math". Computer graphics requires math; neural networks requires math; compilers requires math. They don't all need the same types of math, so you have to choose those courses somewhat wisely (with the help of your advisor), but math is going to be probably your best bet. If your research is in a particular science (e.g., bioinformatics), then you'll want to take courses in that area.

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I'm going for a BCS. How can I satisfy the science course requirements?

A few things to note:

  • A high school exemption for a core requirement does not count toward a BCS.
  • AP credit does count for the BCS if the corresponding department accepts it as an exemption for the right course. For example, AP Chemistry counts toward a BCS if and only if the Chemistry department exempts you from CHEM 103 or CHEM 104.
  • PHYS 133-135, PHYS 133-235, and CHEM 103-104 count toward the two-course sequence for a BCS and they satisfy both core requirements (physical and living world). This leaves you open to take any approved course from any other department. (In the past, BCS students were effectively required to take BIOL 141 for the BCS and to satisfy core; the new core requirements of 2004 give you more options.)
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I would like to get a Business minor in addition to my Information Systems major.

This is a popular choice since you've already taken many of the courses in the Business minor; however, there is a small problem because of that overlap: you are allowed only a two course overlap between your major and minor. The Business minor and IS major overlap in three courses (BUS 160, BUS 203, and ECON 221). You can easily solve this problem by taking one more BUS or ECON elective which will substitute for one of these three in the major. For example, many students take BUS 204 to satisfy the IS major instead of BUS 203; they take BUS 203 to satisfy the minor. Discuss your options with your advisor.

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Can I install course software on my own computer?

Generally speaking, yes. Most Unix-based software is open source (e.g., Linux, Java, C++, Eclipse) and most Microsoft software can be downloaded through our Microsoft Dreamsoft program.

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