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What Is the Difference between Computer Engineering and Computer Science?

By Gabriele Sturmer
Updated May 17, 2024
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Computer engineering and computer science have a lot of overlapping characteristics, but the major difference is found in how the obtained skills are used. While computer engineering focuses more on hardware and electronics, computer science focuses on computer programming and software design. Both areas involve the study of advanced mathematics, physics and programming, but computer engineers are more likely to use those skills to build hardware than to build programs. Computer scientists, therefore, use their knowledge to understand how programs and operating systems work and how to create better software solutions for hardware.

Students in computer engineering and computer science degree programs take several courses that overlap between the programs. Both programs usually require multiple calculus, linear algebra, physics, computer architecture, networking and programming classes. The major difference is that computer science students take many more classes in software design, data algorithms and operating systems than computer engineering students do. Computer engineering students take several courses in electronics, artificial intelligence, digital logic circuits and digital hardware, and they tend to study more physical concepts. Both computer engineering and computer science students usually end their studies by completing a major project that demonstrates their learned skills.

Computer engineering involves a much more physical approach than computer science does. Computer engineers build computer networks, assemble hardware and embed computer systems into many kinds of objects. They might assemble circuit boards or even work in a lab to find a way to make computers more efficient or more portable. Computer engineers might also work with computer scientists when scientists are creating the programs that will be used with the systems computer engineers create. A small difference between the programming used in computer engineering and computer science is that engineers might create the program that makes the system work correctly and let the computer scientists create various programs for the main operating system.

A computer scientist focuses more on the abstract details of software engineering but also has much of the hardware knowledge that computer engineers have. They know how hardware and software work together and know how to design programs that take advantage of the hardware's features. When creating their programs, computer scientists use their knowledge of numerical analysis and algorithms to ensure that a program computes its values correctly. They create software patches, complete programs and even entire operating systems, and usually work on a team within a company that includes software engineers and other computer scientists.

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Discussion Comments
By David09 — On Jun 07, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - Computer engineering is more difficult, yes. I majored in computer science and didn’t take a single physics class. I used Biology to satisfy my science requirement. After that, it was all computer science and plug and play math courses. A computer engineer couldn’t avoid physics so I think that would narrow the list of possible candidates.

However, I also think that marketing plays a role. More computer software jobs are advertised than computer engineering jobs. So while the engineer has more opportunities, as you explain, the job market as a whole may have more opportunities for developers.

Thus the engineer winds up in the developer role eventually, as seems to be the case even with graduates who have Electrical Engineering degrees.

By SkyWhisperer — On Jun 07, 2011

@nony - In my experience I’ve found that most college graduates with I.T. degrees focus more on computer science courses than they do on computer engineering.

Is this because the engineering degree is considered harder or is it lack of interest? I would think that with a degree from a computer engineering school you would have more opportunities upon graduation: you could create components as well as firmware.

You could also still be a programmer and just focus on software development, if that’s what you really wanted to do. Computer science alone would limit you to software development.

By nony — On Jun 05, 2011

So let’s sum up computer science vs computer engineering. In short, if you’re a computer engineer you might find yourself working at Intel or some other company making computer processor chips, or other internal components. You could also work in the robotics industry or even in the television manufacturing industry for that matter.

The fact is that the term “computer” when used to describe hardware has a wider application than it does when used for software applications. Microwave ovens contain miniature computers, as do smart phones and a whole host of other electronics that make use of miniaturized logical circuits.

If you like fiddling with electronics but also like computers, then major in computer engineering. If you just like software, major in computer science. That’s my two cents.

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