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Computer Science Definition



Computer science (CS) is the study of computers and algorithmic processes, including their principles, their hardware and software designs, their applications, and their impact on society.
(Tucker et al., 2003.)

Definition - Iowa Style

Computer Science is understanding how and why technologies work, exploring whether and how technology could solve real-life problems, investigating procedures, creating solutions, and learning about computing systems, programming, data, networks, and the effects on society and the individual. Learning computer science means learning how to create new technologies, rather than simply using them. 

Understanding the Definition

In order to grasp the distinct meaning of “computer science,” it’s first necessary to understand two foundational concepts upon which “computer science” rests: computer literacy and digital citizenship.

  • Computer literacy “refers to the general use of computers and programs” (K-12 Computer Science Framework, p. 13). That is, computer literacy involves merely how to use technology, including:
    • common hardware, such as computers, tablets, and smartphones; and
    • consumer software, such as word processors, spreadsheets, and presentations.
  • Digital citizenship builds upon computer literacy. Whereas computer literacy refers to merely how to use technology, digital citizenship refers to the ability to use technology appropriately and responsibly (K-12 Computer Science Framework, p. 14). Examples of digital citizenship include:
    • how to secure hardware and information with passwords; and
    • how to avoid common copyright and trademark issues when sharing information.

In sum, both computer literacy and digital citizenship focus on the “how” aspect of technology: not only how to use technology, but also how to use technology appropriately and responsibly.

Computer science extends beyond computer literacy and digital citizenship in two significant ways:

  • First, computer science refers to genuinely understanding not only how, but also why, technology works the way it does.
  • Second, computer science refers to the ability to not just use technology, but to actually create technology-based solutions.
Computer Literacy/Digital Citizenship Computer Science
Operate a computer. Explain how a computer works, and troubleshoot common computer issues.
Connect a device to a network. Discuss how a network operates, and resolve basic connectivity issues.
Retrieve data. Analyze data, and distinguish reliable data from unreliable data.
Install a software plugin Create an algorithm to solve a real-world problem.
Use social media. Describe unintended consequences of social media.

Indeed, computer science, being significantly more robust than computer literacy and digital citizenship, can be categorized into five concepts:

  • computing systems;
  • networks and the Internet;
  • data and analysis;
  • algorithms and programming; and
  • impacts of computing.

Iowa has already shown itself to be a leader in preparing students for the future by including 21st Century Technology Literacy as part of the Iowa Core. While these skills are essential and important for students to learn, many of the standards would fall under the category of computer literacy and not computer science. For example, the 4th grade standard 21.3-5.TL.3 says to “utilize digital tools and resources to investigate real-world issues, answer questions, or solve problems.” and the 9th grade standard 21.9-12.TL.3 says students will “apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.” Both of these standards have students use technology and so therefore they are more grounded in computer literacy.

The following table distinguishes computer literacy/21st Century Technology Literacy/digital citizenship from computer science.

21st Century Technology Literacy Standards Computer Science Standards
Use technological resources to investigate given questions or problems. (21.K-2.TL.4) Decompose (break down) the steps needed to solve a problem into a precise sequence of instructions. (1A-AP-11)
Use interactive technologies in a collaborative group to produce digital presentations or products in a curricular area. (21.3-5.TL.2) Organize and present collected data visually to highlight relationships and support a claim. (1B-DA-06, 3-5)
Understand the underlying structure and application of technology systems. (21.6-8.TL.6) Recommend improvements to the design of computing devices, based on an analysis of how users interact with the devices. (2-CS-01)
Understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior. (21.9-12.TL.5) Explain tradeoffs when selecting and implementing cybersecurity recommendations. (3A-NI-08)