Computer Science is an emerging major at Hampton U.

By Chaunte’l Powell

If you talk to Briana Johnson, a Hampton University computer science major, one of the first things she will tell you is “We’re not the Geek Squad.”

While that is a job some computer science majors may hold during the school year, it is not a career that most majors plan on pursuing after obtaining their degrees.

According to computingcareers.acm.org, computer science focuses on three things: First, designing and building software, second, developing effective ways to solve problems in computing such as storing information in databases, and the third and final focus of the major is devising new and better ways of using computers.

The major is broken into two categories at HU, computer science and computer information systems.

CS: It’s not what you think

They difference in the two computer science categories lies in the relationship to business elements in a company. Computer information systems acts as a liaison between the business and technology, whereas computer science is mainly the programming of and working with computers.

Johnson, a junior, has chosen the more business-oriented route of the two. The Charlotte native is focusing on software programming at the moment, but hopes to one day be the chief information officer of a company and assist in figuring out where to store its information.

Johnson says HU courses can be quite rigorous and is not for the faint of heart.

“My freshman year we had close to 30 people in the department,” she said. “Now we have somewhere between three to five people in a class. People couldn’t tough it out.”

In addition to the rigorous computer science classes, students must take several required math classes as well as courses for their minor.

Who’s who in computer science?

Johnson didn’t come to HU to major in computer science. It took the convincing of her very charismatic professor, Jean Muhammad, Ph.D. Muhammad is a in her fifth year as chair of the computer science department. Before being appointed as head of the department, she served stints at both Florida State University and Florida A&M University.

Her desire to teach at another HBCU is what drew her to Hampton. During her tenure Muhammad says she seen the program grow in many different ways. From the strength of the curriculum, to the upgraded labs, she says the program has grown and is heading in a positive direction.

Another element she believes is important to the success of the students within that major is the alumni returning to HU to mentor.

Muhammad tries to instill in all her students a strong work ethic. “This isn’t high school. You have to study. If you need help, come and get it because it’s available,” she said referring to the tutors and math labs students have access to within the department.

Competitions

Each year the department enters several computer science competitions that test its knowledge in a variety of categories. The ARTSI competition allows students to show off their engineering skills in addition to their programming knowledge. Teams are able to build robots and program them to perform various tasks.

Last March, teams were told to create a robot that could navigate its way through a maze as well as identify objects throughout the maze and report its findings. This is one of the more intense competitions and students take an entire semester to prepare for it.

Other competitions, such as the Olympiad, are more about what students already know. Spelman College often hosts this contest and students are given problems to solve within a given time limit. Students usually spend a few days doing logic puzzles to prepare for this competition.

In 2009, the Hampton University MMXI team took first place in two of the three competitions and second in the last.

Computer Science alumni

Computer Science is a relatively new major at Hampton University. Lee David Harris was the first individual to receive a degree in Computer Science from then Hampton Institute in 1984.  He recalled 15 to 20 people started the journey and only two completed it.

“Because Harris comes before Sanders,” he joked, “I was the first to get a computer science degree from Hampton.”

Harris’ initially intended to major in music. He slowly realized he wouldn’t be able to make a career out of music and began the search for a new major. Harris switched majors three or four times before a friend of his convinced him to try the new computer science major. He agreed and knew right away that was the field for him.

“I fell in love with it,” said Harris. “I knew a degree in computer science would allow me to have a career.”

Getting that degree required overcoming challenges that came with the new major. One of them was the brand new curriculum. He said the teachers did their best putting together the curriculum and teaching the information for the first time. Despite these obstacles, Harris graduated with no worries about his future.

Harris believes his success is in large part due to the training he received at HU. When reminiscing on all lessons learned he said “I was fully prepared. When I left Hampton I knew I would be able to contribute to any company I interviewed with and any job I received.”

His Hampton training has in fact paid off. He began his career at TRW, a space and defense group in McLean, Va. and has since held various positions at different companies. Today Harris is the senior director of Global Operations for the Managed Hosting group at Blackboard Inc., a company whose clients include Hampton University.

Beyond the Campus

Harris stressed the importance of internships. He stresses that degrees are good to have, but the experience gained from an internship can open numerous doors. He advises current students not only to seek internships, but “get the grades” as well.

Briana Johnson has done both. A dean’s list student, she’s been allotted the opportunity to intern at Goldman Sachs for two consecutive years. Much like Harris, Johnson believes Hampton adequately prepared her for the position and plans on applying to intern at Google.

While it may be the baby in the family of majors at HU, the computer science department has helped many graduates get into many different fields and continues to provide a solid foundation for its current students.

The writer is a junior at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications

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