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About CS

What is computer science?

We like to say that CS teaches you how to think more methodically and how to solve problems more effectively. As such, its lessons are applicable well beyond the boundaries of CS itself.

But CS is also, more generally, the study of information. How do you represent it? With what methods (aka algorithms) can you process it?

Perhaps the most liberal answer, though, is that CS “has no exclusive domain of its own, and that its importance comes from the problems to which it is applied.” And therein lies the excitement. CS empowers you with tools and ideas that can be applied to practically any domain of interest to you, both in college and beyond.

What is CS… Not?

Contrary to popular belief, CS is not really about programming, even though you do learn how to program. Programming languages are tools that Computer Scientists use or create in order to solve problems of interest to them.

What will I learn in Computer Science?

The Computer Science concentration has the following learning outcomes for our graduates:

  • students will design and code correct solutions to problems;
  • design and reason about algorithms;
  • and develop and analyze the ways computation interacts with other systems.

Academic computer science extends far beyond programming (though it does include programming). It provides students with a foundational understanding of the strengths and limitations of information and computation. This perspective is practically important—it helps students quickly adapt to new computational systems and approaches. It has also been increasingly revealed as a beautiful way to understand the world.

Why study CS at Harvard?

“Think of your freedom of choice - of what courses to take, of how to spend your Sunday afternoons, whatever - as a commodity that is precious in and of itself. It’s your life, even at Harvard: enjoy it”

  • Harry Lewis, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science

At Harvard, computer science is part of a dynamic hub that links to fields such as electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology, and to professions such as medicine and business.

You could see the field as the “planning and building” that fosters the sciences and engineering throughout the campus and informs our digital society. The computer industry - in fact, every part of our society and every type of business - needs a generation of skilled individuals who possess a new way of thinking, a new way of approaching research, and a new way of doing business.

 That means …

  • deploying digital sensors to monitor everything from earthquakes to heartbeats
  • modeling the way the brain works or how global weather patterns develop
  • mining the data from the Human Genome Project to tackle disease 
  • translating radio signals to understand the nature of distant planets and galaxies
  • creating algorithms that automate e-commerce and make buying and selling online a breeze
  • applying technology to solve public issues ranging from e-voting to privacy and security to cyber law.

What’s different about pursuing CS in a liberal arts setting?

What our computer science faculty do, you can do. We emphasize a hands-on, immersive approach.

  • Being at Harvard provides unmatched opportunities to use the latest tools and technologies, such as grid computing; learn about cutting-edge research, from cryptography to sensor motes; and meet world-class thinkers and leaders.
  • Entrepreneurship goes beyond theory - Harvard students have created world-class companies such as Microsoft, and most recently, undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg made facebooking part of the nation’s vocabulary.
  • Computer science is part of a dynamic hub that links to fields such as electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology, and to professions such as medicine and business.
  • If you would like a preview of some of Harvard’s offerings in computer science watch the CS 50 videos.

What are some good courses for those who are considering concentrating?

Computer Science 50: Introduction to Computer Science provides an excellent starting point. Many non-concentrators take CS 50 as a way to learn to think logically and use computers effectively. If you have completed CS 50 or a similar course prior to arriving at Harvard, CS 61: Systems Programming and Machine Organization is a good choice for the fall. If you have a strong background in both math and computer science, you may also start with CS 121: Introduction to Theoretical Computer Science.

In the Spring, CS51: Abstraction and Design in Computation and CS20: Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science are both excellent courses for students interested in CS.

See the FAQ and concentration plans of studies for more information.