Computer Science and Computing-Related Fields: What are They and What’s the Difference?

There is a lot of confusion in the general public about what computer science (sometimes referred to as simply “computing”) is and how it is different from allied computing-related fields, such as information systems and computer engineering. These are different fields, with different areas of study and different careers and career prospects. It is important that a student contemplating going into one of these fields know the differences so that he or she can find the field that best suits his or her aptitude, interests, and career goals.

This page addresses the question, “What is Computer Science?”, and discusses its place in the collection of computer science-related fields usually referred to as “computing.”

The Short Answer

The Long Answer


The Short Answer

The following short definitions are based on those used by the professional societies of the respective fields. A longer discussion is provided in the next section.

Computer Science

Computer science is the study of the theory, design, implementation, and performance of computer software and computer systems, including the study of computability and computation itself.

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Computer Engineering

Computer engineering is concerned with the design of computer hardware and of computer-based devices. To the extent CE involves software, it is software interacting tightly with hardware for embedded systems and computer-based devices.

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Information Systems

Information systems as a field has to do with applying today’s information technology to solve today’s problems, typically in the area of businesses and other enterprises

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The Long Answer

The rest of this page will give a more complete description of the three areas of computing represented on UMaine’s campus. Of these three, computer science (CS) is the oldest and broadest. Indeed, information systems (IS) can be seen as having been derived from CS, and computer engineering (CE) was formed at the intersection of CS and electrical engineering.

The fact that there are really three distinct fields, each with its own area of study, is confirmed by at least three things. First, the three fields are routinely treated separately at universities across the country, being generally embodied in different departments. Second, they have distinct professional societies. The primary professional society for computer science is the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). For computer engineering, the primary professional society is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). For information systems, the primary societies are the Association for Information Systems (AIS) and the Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP). Third, the three fields have to meet different accreditation criteria.

The best place to look for definitions of the fields is in information provided by the professional societies themselves. This is most concisely provided in the various documents created as part of the societies’ joint Computing Curricula 2001 (CC2001) project (a joint project of the IEEE and the ACM, with participation by other professional societies). Our definitions below draw on the overview document for this project: Computing Curricula 2005: The Overview Report (produced by the Joint Task Force on Computing Curricula 2005, a joint project of the Association for Computing Machinery, the Association for Information Systems, and the Computer Society of the IEEE, September, 2005). This is referred to as CC2005. Other documents in this series also exist and are useful for understanding the differences between the fields:

CS2001: Computing Curricula 2001: Computer Science, The Joint Task Force on Computing Curricula, IEEE Computer Society and the Association for Computing Machinery, December, 2001.
CE2004: Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Computer Engineering: A Report in the Computing Curricula Series, Joint Task Force on Computer Engineering Curricula, IEEE Computer Society and Association for Computing Machinery, December, 2004.
IS2002: IS 2002: Model Curriculum and Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Systems, Association for Computing Machinery, Association for Information Systems, and Association of Information Technology Professionals, 2002; part of the Computing Curricula 2001 Project.

Another document, SE2004, also exists for software engineering, but we take a standard view that software engineering can be considered part of computer science; this is certainly the case on this campus, as it is at major software engineering schools.

Computer Science

Computer science has within its purview the study of the theory, design, implementation, and performance of computers and computer software, including the study of computability and of computation itself. In CC2005, the ACM and IEEE say:

Computer science spans a wide range, from its theoretical and algorithmic foundations to cutting-edge developments in robotics, computer vision, intelligent systems, bioinformatics, and other exciting areas. We can think of the work of computer scientists as falling into three categories.

They design and implement software. Computer scientists take on challenging programming jobs. They also supervise other programmers, keeping them aware of new approaches.
They devise new ways to use computers. Progress in the CS areas of networking, database, and human-computer-interface enabled the development of the World Wide Web. Now CS researchers are working with scientists from other fields to make robots become practical and intelligent aides, to use databases to create new knowledge, and to use computers to help decipher the secrets of our DNA.

They develop effective ways to solve computing problems. For example, computer scientists develop the best possible ways to store information in databases, send data over networks, and display complex images. Their theoretical background allows them to determine the best performance possible, and their study of algorithms helps them to develop new approaches that provide better performance.

Computer science spans the range from theory through programming. Curricula that reflect this breadth are sometimes criticized for failing to prepare graduates for specific jobs. While other disciplines may produce graduates with more immediately relevant job-related skills, computer science offers a comprehensive foundation that permits graduates to adapt to new technologies and new ideas. [CC2005, p. 13]

A recommended Computer Science Curricula published as Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Computer Science prepared by The Joint Task Force on Computing Curricula Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and IEEE Computer Society was published in 2013.

Computer Engineering

Computer engineering, on the other hand, is concerned with computer hardware design and the design of computer-based devices, but not with software-only systems, general computing, or general computing systems. The ACM and IEEE, in CC2005, say:

Computer engineering is concerned with the design and construction of computers and computer-based systems. It involves the study of hardware, software, communications, and the interaction among them. Its curriculum focuses on the theories, principles, and practices of traditional electrical engineering and mathematics and applies them to the problems of designing computers and computer-based devices. Computer engineering students study the design of digital hardware systems including communications systems, computers, and devices that contain computers. They study software development, focusing on software for digital devices and their interfaces with users and other devices. CE study may emphasize hardware more than software or there may be a balanced emphasis. CE has a strong engineering flavor. Currently, a dominant area within computing engineering is embedded systems, the development of devices that have software and hardware embedded in them. For example, devices such as cell phones, digital audio players, digital video recorders, alarm systems, x-ray machines, and laser surgical tools all require integration of hardware and embedded software and all are the result of computer engineering. [CC2005, p. 13]

As UMaine’s ECE Department states on their Web site:

Computer Engineering graduates are equipped for careers as engineers, electrical designers, electrical engineers, design and applications engineers, test engineers, power systems engineers, and product engineers. [; accessed 10/6/2006]

There is often legitimate overlap between CS and CE. For example, it is quite common for computer architecture to be taught and studied by both CE and CS, as it is at UMaine. It is also common for neural networks, computer vision, and low-level robotics, involving as they do primarily hardware or hardware-software solutions, to be in the CE department, as is also the case at UMaine. VLSI design, on the other hand, would not be reasonable to find in the computer science department, and one would not expect to find basic computer science disciplines in CE or IS, such as AI, graphics and visualization, high-performance computing (apart from hardware considerations), computer networks, database systems (apart from applications), software engineering, and so forth.

Information Systems

 The ACM and IEEE, in CC2005, say:

Information systems specialists focus on integrating information technology solutions and business processes to meet the information needs of businesses and other enterprises, enabling them to achieve their objectives in an effective, efficient way. This discipline’s perspective on information technology emphasizes information, and views technology as an instrument for generating, processing, and distributing information. Professionals in the discipline are primarily concerned with the information that computer systems can provide to aid an enterprise in defining and achieving its goals, and the processes that an enterprise can implement or improve using information technology. […] A majority of Information Systems (IS) programs are located in business schools. All IS degrees combine business and computing coursework. A variety of IS programs exist under various labels which often reflect the nature of the program. For example, programs in Computer Information Systems usually have the strongest technology focus, while programs in Management Information Systems emphasize the organizational and behavioral aspects of IS. Degree program names are not always consistent. [CC2005, p.14]

Other Related Areas

New Media

A fourth area on campus, New Media, is not a computing discipline at all, but rather overlaps with computing as a user of computer technology:

The New Media Program at the University of Maine offers an interdisciplinary course of study in the systems, technologies, history, design, and theory of information. The curriculum enables students to investigate the creative and applied processes essential to this area of study. It prepares students to be technologically capable, articulate thinkers, and creative media professionals. [UMaine New Media]

Information Technology (IT)

There is some confusion about another, highly-applied area of computing, information technology. (Note that “information technology” (IT) here differs in meaning from the term as it is used in UMaine’s Strategic Plan, where the authors essentially mean “computing.”)

The ACM and IEEE, in CC2005, differentiate IS from IT as follows. Whereas the perspective of IS  emphasizes information, technology is viewed as an instrument for generating, processing, and distributing information:

Information Technology emphasize the technology itself more than on the information it conveys. IT is a new and rapidly growing field that started as a grassroots response to the practical, everyday needs of business and other organizations. Today, organizations of every kind are dependent on information technology. They need to have appropriate systems in place. These systems must work properly, be secure, and upgraded, maintained, and replaced as appropriate. Employees throughout an organization require support from IT staff who understand computer systems and their software and are committed to solving whatever computer-related problems they might have. Graduates of information technology programs address these needs. Degree programs in information technology arose because degree programs in the other computing disciplines were not producing an adequate supply of graduates capable of handling these very real needs. IT programs exist to produce graduates who possess the right combination of knowledge and practical, hands-on expertise to take care of both an organization’s information technology infrastructure and the people who use it. IT specialists assume responsibility for selecting hardware and software products appropriate for an organization, integrating those products with organizational needs and infrastructure, and installing, customizing, and maintaining those applications for the organization’s computer users. Examples of these responsibilities include the installation of networks; network administration and security; the design of web pages; the development of multimedia resources; the installation of communication components; the oversight of email systems; and the planning and management of the technology lifecycle by which an organization’s technology is maintained, upgraded, and replaced. [CC2005, p.14]

Information technology is not represented on UMaine’s campus. There is, in fact, some question as to the suitability of such a major on a university (as opposed to a technical college) campus.

Information Science

There is additional confusion about the term “information science.” This in its original sense refers to a specific field that studies the properties of information per se, for example, Shannon’s work on information theory. The term, while sometimes used synonymously with “computing” has come to mean the academic study of information representation, storage and use, as opposed or in addition to the computational manipulation of that information.

The School of Computing and Information Science is the home to information science at UMaine. In addition to computer science, the School has a strong emphasis on information science research and graduate education, in particular in the area of geographical information science.