Computer Science at Warwick: A Thrilling-ish, Dizzying-ish Review – OurWarwick
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Computer Science at Warwick: A Thrilling-ish, Dizzying-ish Review

Having graduated after three years of Computer Science at Warwick, I thought I might leave a review.

It’s been a wild ride, with ups and downs and loop-de-loops and the occasional cold, violent splash of water to the face. Sounds like an amusement park, no?

Yes, I have just equated studying Computer Science to going to an amusement park, and the concept is equally thrilling as it is horrifying. I feel like I’ve done something terribly wrong, but I have already started writing this train wreck of a post. After this, I will dye my hair, run away to Argentina and work in a fisher market. I will make it a smart market, because what’s the point of studying CS otherwise?

Year 1

[Optional modules chosen: Computer Security, Visualisation]

Do you remember the first time you went to an amusement/theme park? From an adult’s perspective, the kiddie rides aren’t the most thrilling, but in the wide eyes of a child? They were absolutely the definition of a good time. I thought carousels were wild.

Looking back at first year, I’m reminded of simpler, easier times. Overall, I don’t think the modules themselves were particularly difficult – except the maths, but we’ll come back to that later. Rather, I think the main point of first year was to learn to study independently (it’s very different to school) and to get everybody up to speed on the pre-requisite knowledge needed to study CS. It’s like getting onto a mini train on elevated tracks in order to introduce us to the concept of roller coasters.

While modules are inevitably added and updated over the years to keep up with the times, there is perhaps one initiation experience that generations (okay, maybe not generations) of Warwick CS students have had to partake in.

(Though knowing my luck, it might change after I write this.)

It is The Maze.

To be less dramatic about it, we write programs in Java to solve mazes, which I found quite fun.

I think that mazes themselves aren’t inherently terror-inducing. Warwick’s Labyrinth is literally the opposite of terrifying. But if we throw in some towering hedges, fog and an assortment of dangerous creatures – and a portkey disguised as a trophy while we’re at it – mazes can become quite scary.

I’m using this as a metaphor to describe people’s experiences of first year (and perhaps even second year); even though we all navigate the same compulsory modules, some people breeze through them, while others may find them more challenging. I mention this because it was at times intimidating to be surrounded by people who seemed to just get it. While I had done some programming in school, I didn’t do Computing A level and so I was a bit behind on theory. But that’s ok, because

  1. It turns out that people are very good at looking like they know what they’re doing… without actually knowing what they’re doing
  2. I managed to catch up and graduate. You can do it too.

Want to make life easier in first year? Here are some things I would recommend that you do to prepare for it.

When I wrote the above – that some people seem to just get things – I was thinking about maths. While some of it was familiar, having covered it at A level, discrete maths was mostly new to me, and it took some time to get my head around it. It was like a house of mirrors and illusions – experience confusion and disorientation at your peril. I made it out, and I am stronger for it. To this day, I still find myself contemplating whether pigs do indeed fly (seriously though, that’s in the worksheets!).

Year 2

[Optional modules chosen: Cyber Security, Artificial Intelligence, plus one from a different department]

Year 2 felt like graduating from the kiddie rides. For me, the autumn term of that year was difficult, and it was probably my lowest point during the degree. I think a lot of it was to do with the fact that I was ‘overcatting’ (doing more modules than necessary) and had too much on my plate at the time. It induces mental nausea, like nausea from going on too many rollercoasters. I learned my lesson, and by third year my strategy was to overcat in the first 2-3 weeks to try out several modules and then drop the extras.

Perhaps the most memorable part of that year was doing Software Engineering. Doing the coursework was a bit like doing an escape room: get dumped into a room with 5-6 people (randomly, in this case), learn to work with them and be given a couple of clues to find a way out. It’s the sort of experience that’s great to mention in interviews; I simultaneously had to learn how to do web development, work with a team and manage a software engineering project at the same time. It was stressful, but it felt like a great accomplishment – and I got to bond with my teammates over snacks and programming.

I would say that second year modules were a bit of a mixed bag in terms of difficulty. It was hard to predict which modules I was going to really enjoy, and the real surprise for second year was Formal Languages – in fact, that module was a good lesson in how persistence and really putting the extra effort into a challenging module made it enjoyable. I also did an unusual optional module on design thinking offered by IATL, which was such an awesome module that I wrote an entire blog post about it.

This was the year that an obnoxious virus decided to wreak havoc in all our lives and the year ended on a very odd note with lockdowns and online exams.

Year 3

[Optional modules chosen: Social Informatics, Computer Graphics, Compiler Design, Mobile Robotics, Project Management, Neural Computing]

To be honest, it was the third-year modules that really sold me on studying at Warwick, so I had high hopes for this year – and even though most of it was online, I’ve really enjoyed it. While the previous years had several compulsory modules, we got to choose most of our modules and really explore the things we were interested in. It’s like finally getting the permission to explore the fun parts of the park without parental supervision!

When I went to Disneyland when I was younger, I remember enjoying the Teacups ride, which essentially involved spinning around in teacups. I think doing Computer Graphics gave me a similar sense of joy (colours! Textures! Lighting!) and dizziness (wrapping my head around the maths and physics). Or maybe it’s because there’s an industry-wide obsession with teapots.

The third-year project was like that big-kids-only roller coaster, which induces a sense of terror and excitement in those who gaze upon it. I wrote more about it elsewhere, but I should tell you that the ride started with a rather slow uphill incline and that all the insane stuff came towards the end. In fact, it feels apt to describe the entire degree in a similar way, and that all in all I came away from the experience feeling like I had accomplished something (not dying, a bit out of breath, ready to take on the world etc.).

All in all? It was a great experience, and I would recommend it. Was it like going to an amusement park? Maybe that’s a bit much, but I’m not the biggest fan of death-defying experiences anyway. Just do CS instead.

Outtake

This is my penultimate post, and so I am writing without reservation. I could not bear to delete the next paragraph even though it’s punny and awful, so bon appétit:

An experience that’s burned into my memory is my first proper expedition into the wild wilderness that is data structures in first year. It was characterised by an obsession with Trees, which, unlike natural trees, need human intervention to be balanced. If there was a part of an amusement park themed around data structures, there would be a vast Array of things to do. It’s inevitable that you’ll have to join Queues to get onto any rides, unfortunately. Legend has it that there are Priority queues, but it is yet unknown how to get into these – perhaps your name needs to be on a Skip List.

(Puns very much intended. Very sorry, but not sorry enough to delete this. Eh, I’m running away to Argentina anyway.)

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