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What Is Computer Science?

Computer science is difficult to define. This is probably due to the unfortunate use of the word “computer” in the name. As you are perhaps aware, computer science is not simply the study of computers.

Although computers play an important supporting role as a tool in the discipline, they are just that–tools.

Computer science is the study of problems, problem-solving, and the solutions that come out of the problem-solving process.

Given a problem, a computer scientist’s goal is to develop an algorithm, a step-by-step list of instructions for solving any instance of the problem that might arise. Algorithms are finite processes that if followed will solve the problem. Algorithms are solutions.

In other Words

Certain logical instructions must be given for the programming of a computer. Sets of logical instructions will only be created for a computer if the programmer assumes that the instructions are interpreted by a computer.

Computational thought is a process of thinking that is engaged in the formulation and solution of a problem in a way that computers can achieve effectively.


Step 1: Obtain a description of the problem.

This step is much more difficult than it appears.

In the following discussion, the word client refers to someone who wants to find a solution to a problem, and the word developer refers to someone who finds a way to solve the problem. The developer must create an algorithm that will solve the client’s problem.

The client is responsible for creating a description of the problem, but this is often the weakest part of the process. It’s quite common for a problem description to suffer from one or more of the following types of defects:

(1) the description relies on unstated assumptions,

(2) the description is ambiguous

(3) the description is incomplete

(4) the description has internal contradictions.

These defects are seldom due to carelessness by the client. Instead, they are because natural languages (English, French, Korean, etc.) are rather imprecise.

Part of the developer’s responsibility is to identify defects in the description of a problem and to work with the client to remedy those defects.

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Step 2: Analyze the problem.

The purpose of this step is to determine both the starting and ending points for solving the problem. This process is analogous to a mathematician determining what is given and what must be proven.

A good problem description makes it easier to perform this step.

When determining the starting point, we should start by seeking answers to the following questions:

  • What data are available?
  • Where is that data?
  • What formulas pertain to the problem?
  • What rules exist for working with the data?
  • What relationships exist among the data values?

When determining the ending point, we need to describe the characteristics of a solution. In other words, how will we know when we’re done? Asking the following questions often helps to determine the ending point.

  • What new facts will we have?
  • What items will have changed?
  • What changes will have been made to those items?
  • What things will no longer exist?

Step 3: Develop a high-level algorithm.

An algorithm is a plan for solving a problem but plans come in several levels of detail. It’s usually better to start with a high-level algorithm that includes the major part of a solution but leaves the details until later.

We can use an everyday example to demonstrate a high-level algorithm.

Problem: I need a send a birthday card to my brother, Mark.

Analysis: I don’t have a card. I prefer to buy a card rather than make one myself.

High-level algorithm:

Go to a store that sells greeting cards
Select a card
Purchase a card
Mail the card

This algorithm is satisfactory for daily use, but it lacks details that would have to be added were a computer to carry out the solution. These details include answers to questions such as the following.

  • “Which store will I visit?”
  • “How will I get there: walk, drive, ride my bicycle, take the bus?”
  • “What kind of card does Mark like humorous, sentimental, risqué?”

These kinds of details are considered in the next step of our process.


Step 4: Refine the algorithm by adding more detail.

A high-level algorithm shows the major steps that need to be followed to solve a problem.

Now we need to add details to these steps, but how much detail should we add? Unfortunately, the answer to this question depends on the situation.

We have to consider who (or what) is going to implement the algorithm and how much that person (or thing) already knows how to do.

If someone is going to purchase Mark’s birthday card on my behalf, my instructions have to be adapted to whether or not that person is familiar with the stores in the community and how well the purchaser knew my brother’s taste in greeting cards.

When our goal is to develop algorithms that will lead to computer programs, we need to consider the capabilities of the computer and provide enough detail so that someone else could use our algorithm to write a computer program that follows the steps in our algorithm.

As with the birthday card problem, we need to adjust the level of detail to match the ability of the programmer. When in doubt, or when you are learning, it is better to have too much detail than to have too little.

Most of our examples will move from a high-level to a detailed algorithm in a single step, but this is not always reasonable. For larger, more complex problems, it is common to go through this process several times, developing intermediate-level algorithms as we go.

Each time, we add more detail to the previous algorithm, stopping when we see no benefit to further refinement. This technique of gradually working from a high-level to a detailed algorithm is often called stepwise refinement.

Stepwise refinement is a process for developing a detailed algorithm by gradually adding detail to a high-level algorithm.


Step 5: Review the algorithm.

The final step is to review the algorithm. What are we looking for? First, we need to work through the algorithm step by step to determine whether or not it will solve the original problem.

Once we are satisfied that the algorithm does provide a solution to the problem, we start to look for other things.

The following questions are typical of ones that should be asked whenever we review an algorithm. Asking these questions and seeking their answers is a good way to develop skills that can be applied to the next problem.

{Does this algorithm solve a very specific problem or does it solve a more general problem? If it solves a very specific problem, should it be generalized?}

For example, an algorithm that computes the area of a circle having a radius of 5.2 meters (formula π*5.22) solves a very specific problem, but an algorithm that computes the area of any circle (formula π*R2) solves a more general problem.

Can this algorithm be simplified?

One formula for computing the perimeter of a rectangle is:

length + width + length + width

A simpler formula would be:

2.0 * (length + width)

Is this solution similar to the solution to another problem? How are they alike? How are they different?

For example, consider the following two formulae:

Rectangle area = length * width
Triangle area = 0.5 * base * height

Similarities: Each computes an area. Each multiplies two measurements.

Differences: Different measurements are used. The triangle formula contains 0.5.

Hypothesis: Perhaps every area formula involves multiplying two measurements.


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