The guide to Computer Engineering I wish I had: Part 1

Last month’s exams bought an end to four years of Computer Engineering (CE) studies at the University of Canterbury (UC). As I moved through the years, it became clear that the prospectus and other glossy brochures provided by the marketing department are rather deceiving. They give the impression that students would be designing robots, computers and biomedical devices on a daily basis. Not true! I’d therefore like to delve more deeply into my journey through the degree with the intention of providing some of the guidance to future students that I would have appreciated.

It should be noted that the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 struck in the first and second years of my studies, and in many ways shaped my university experience.

The Bachelor of Engineering with Honors degree at the UC is split into a number of departments and specialties. All programs are four years of full time study along with a requirement of 50 days each of practical and professional work completed over the summer breaks, a first-aid course and two workshop courses. The first year is known as the ‘intermediate’ year in which students must complete a number of prescribed courses, with some options depending on their desired specialty. If all the intermediate year courses are passed with sufficiently high grades (the actual marks required depend on the popularity and size of each program), students are admitted to the Engineering faculty proper and complete three ‘professional’ years.

My main interest going into university was programming and I would therefore seem better aligned with a Computer Science degree. I ended up choosing CE on the advice of a number of family members, combined with the persevered higher prestige of an Engineering degree. UC has subsequently introduced a Software Engineering program which I would have chosen had it been available at the time.

Below I go into detail about my experience of the various required courses; however if you want the short version, here it is:

Engineering sucks in Intermediate year but gets progressively more enjoyable as you advance.

I shall qualify that statement shortly but it boils down to the fact that in intermediate year you are forced to do a lot of courses that have little to do with your desired specialty . I believe this is especially pronounced for a ‘fringe’ Engineering specialty such as CE. Much of the physics and mathematics taught at this level is far more relevant to Civil and Mechanical students than it is to CE students.

Intermediate Year Courses

Computer Science

Two first year computer science courses are offered. COSC121 is the introductory programming course, using the Python language. COSC122 is a basic algorithms and data structures course. I found both of these courses to be well taught and my most enjoyable courses of the year. COSC121 is interesting because the distribution of marks in the class always produces a ‘double hump’. This is a well documented occurrence in university ‘programming 101’ courses:

 It is as if there are two populations: those who can program, and those who cannot, each with its own independent bell curve.

COSC122 introduces sorting and searching algorithms, and various data structures. It is one, if not the most important course you will take at university as it is the one that will help you get a job! Every technical job interview I’ve had has asked about concepts from this course – with hashing showing up disproportionately often!

Maths

As with computer science, there are two maths papers; one each semester. I would classify both as ‘necessary evils’. They are tough papers with a lot of content being pushed through. It is not uncommon for people to fail the first course, EMTH118, repeat it in second semester and then to take the second paper, EMTH119, in summer school.

The good thing about the maths courses is that they change little from year to year and thus a lot of resources are available and the lecturers are familiar with the material. I found the maths department courses to be the best organized of all of the intermediate year courses. The examinations are also fair and consistent, so good results can be obtained through hard work.

A third required maths course, EMTH171 is taught in second semester. This introduces mathematical modelling using MATLAB. CE oriented students typically excel at this course because they are already familiar with programming. There are a couple of things to be aware of however. Firstly, the course is not offered in summer school, so a failure necessitates a second intermediate year. Secondly, the course contains two major assignments known as ‘case studies’ which are done in pairs. This contributes a significant percentage of the course grade, so it is important you choose a good partner (choosing  good group members is actually a consistent theme to having an enjoyable Engineering degree).

Physics

These are two pretty stock standard courses, PHYS101 and PHYS102. The amount of content does make them fairly tough however. The weekly three hour labs and associated lab reports will be one of the worst parts of your year. Manually calculating uncertainties is one of the most boring things you can be made to do!

Engineering

ENGR101 is a first semester course which is widely regarded as a waste of time. You do learn how to write an engineering report though, which is important. Overall, you can get away with not doing as much work in this one.

In the next post I will talk about the professional years of the degree.