Editorial Notebook

Data Structures is just the beginning

It’s no surprise that one of the most talked-about courses on campus is Data Structures. This mostly freshman course provides an excellent, in-depth accumulation of information—ranging from the basics of C++ to memory management within various customizable data structures. I really enjoyed the course and learned a lot about the internal workings of the many data structures I take for granted while coding. To be honest, I think everyone should take Data Structures or at least Computer Science 1 during his or her time at Rensselaer. You go to a STEM-focused school; you might as well learn to code.

With that said, I am tired of hearing that Data Structures is one of the hardest—or even the hardest—computer science course we have. Other students have been expressing this to me throughout all of my years here. I have seen the terror in freshmen’s eyes as they ask me about whether Data Structures is actually that hard. Every time, it pains me to think that all of these newcomers go into the course believing they are either going to fail or struggle through it.

Don’t get me wrong at all—Data Structures is a course that requires a great deal of time and effort on your part. And, while I completely agree that time management helped me do well in Data Structures, the idea that this is a course so brutal that you can only “survive” is inaccurate. It is definitely possible to learn the material and finish the semester with a well-deserved, good grade.

What about every other course in the CS curriculum? Many of them build on Data Structures. Are the difficulty levels of those courses undermined because Data Structures is simply too hard?

I remember attending my first Foundations of Computer Science lecture the semester after I took Data Structures. I sat in class, thinking to myself that the hard part was over—surely, this was going to be much less intense than Data Structures was. With each passing lecture, I found myself asking: I had made it through Data Structures, so why am I struggling now?

Looking back at each difficult assignment that followed Data Structures, I realize that I was misled to believe that everything was going to be smooth sailing after freshman year. There is so much to learn in CS that of course higher-level courses become more challenging.

In the last three years, I have taken a variety of classes in the CS department. Each one has taught me new concepts about programming as well as technical design and analysis. With every new course, I would say the expectations of prerequisite knowledge heightens, ultimately making higher-level courses more demanding. I definitely spent more time reviewing the material in FOCS and in Programming Languages than I ever did in Data Structures. Similarly, the plethora of algorithmic knowledge taught in Introduction to Algorithms had me doing a double-take every time I solved a theoretical problem.

Again, I want to clarify that Data Structures is not a walk in the park. If anything, it’s a pretty treacherous hike up a mountain—you might fall down a few times, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep going. I strongly believe that everyone can do well with the right guidance and time management.

All I ask is that we keep in mind the wide variety of knowledge that falls under the greater umbrella of computer science before we start labeling which classes are hard and which aren’t. Every course brings its own challenges, so trust me when I say that the journey is far from over after Data Structures.