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Thoughts for CS Majors on Studying Abroad

I am moderating a discussion of study abroad programs at tomorrow’s CS Extra. These notes are intended to help me prepare for that session. I expect that they can also serve some utility for students who are unable to make that session and are considering studying abroad

The Grinnell Computer Science Department encourages each of its majors to consider studying abroad for a semester or a year. We expect that our students will find many benefits in studying abroad, in terms of both their liberal arts education and their computer science education. Here are a few.

Study abroad helps you better understand another culture. Understanding the other is a core aspect of a strong liberal arts education. It is also important for computer scientists to understand multiple cultures, since the software they develop should accommodate multiple cultures.

Study abroad exposes you to different courses and to different styles of teaching. Most study abroad programs include courses that you would not otherwise find at Grinnell, courses which allow you to broaden your education. For CS students who study at programs that include computer science, there is usually an opportunity to take a variety of courses that we don’t regularly offer here, such as computer graphics. But even if you don’t study CS, you are likely to find a wide array of courses that will broaden your horizons.

Study abroad opens a wide range of opportunities beyond just courses. Most students who study abroad report significant benefits from being able to travel in other countries and visit museums, cultural attractions, and more.

Study abroad allows you to escape from Iowa. I love fields of soybeans and corn as much as the next person. But I also know that it can be hard for students to be in the Grinnell bubble. A semester away can be very helpful. And, in general, it makes you love Grinnell even more when you return.

There are certainly many other benefits, but those four are the ones that I consider most key.

Suppose I’ve convinced you to study abroad. What options to you have? One thing to consider is whether you want a study abroad program that includes some computer science options, or whether you’d rather explore other issues. Both should work. I’m pretty sure that we’ve even designed our curriculum so that you can start CS in your third semester, take a semester abroad in your 3rd year with no CS, and still complete the major. (See the end of these notes for some examples.)

Let’s take a look at some particular study-abroad programs that students have taken.

By far the most popular study-abroad program for our CS majors is Aquincum Institute of Technology in Budapest, We usually send a few students each semester. Why? A number of reasons. First, because it’s designed for CS students, it offers a cool range of CS electives (I particularly recommend combinatorial optimization for mathematically competent majors) as well as relevant courses in innovation and entrepreneurship. Second, it also offers a few courses that we count toward the CS major (we do limit how many of those you can take). Third, Budapest is an awesome city. Fourth, it’s easy to travel from Budapest to most of the rest of Europe. I think every Grinnell student who I know who has gone to Budapest has told me that they loved the experience. The one challenge is that Grinnell expects you to take Hungarian while you are there and, well, Hungarian is a very different language.

There are also a variety of other institutions at which you can study CS. DIS Copenhagen,, has recently developed a game-design curriculum that students have mostly reported positive things about. University College London has a CS track that I think some students have used. Students have studies CS in Australia and New Zealand (although not simultaneously). And, if we look far enough backwards, at least one study has studied CS at the University of Edinburgh.

But there’s no reason that you should feel that you have to study CS while you are abroad. It’s easy to plan a CS major that includes one semester without CS. We’ve had students who started the major late, studied abroad, and have two majors. If you want to identify one of these programs, I’d suggest that you talk to our off-campus study office (OCS, which does not stand for Outstanding Computer Science).

If you do plan to study CS abroad and want it to count toward a CS major, you should consult with faculty members in the department about the courses. In general, the department will accept almost any reasonable course as meeting the elective requirement (oxymoron). We tend to limit students to one course abroad that is used to meet the upper-level requirements (CSC 211 or 213, CSC 301, CSC 321/22, CSC 341) because it’s difficult to consider it a Grinnell CS degree if half of your upper-level courses are taken elsewhere. But if you want a course to meet one of those requirements, you must confirm the acceptability of the course with the department beforehand.

There are, of course, some challenges to studying abroad. The most obvious is finances. If the study-abroad program costs less than a semester at Grinnell, Grinnell expects you to still contribute the same amount that you would if you were at Grinnell. (That’s not so bad.) If, however, the study-abroad program costs more than a semester at Grinnell, then you have to make up the difference. And that’s hard for a lot of students and their families.

Health issues may prevent some students from studying abroad.

Study abroad can also make scheduling of some courses more difficult. Not everyone wants to try to double-up on CS courses, or miss courses that are only offered once while they are at Grinnell, or ….

Again, if you can overcome these obstacles, we would strongly encourage you to consider a semester abroad (or away).

Some questions from Sam for the student panel:

  • Why did you choose to study abroad?
  • Where did you choose to study abroad? Why?
  • What are some highlights of your experience?
  • What are some cautions that you would give to fellow students?

Appendix: Three-year plans (CSC151 in 3rd semester) with study abroad that does not involve CS

Abroad 3rd-year fall.

2nd year, Fall: CSC 151, MAT 131
2nd year, Spring: CSC 161, MAT 208
3rd year, Fall: Abroad
3rd year, Spring: CSC 207, CSC 213
4th year, Fall: CSC 301, CSC 321/22
4th year, Spring: CSC 341, CSC Elective

Abroad 3rd-year spring.

2nd year, Fall: CSC 151, MAT 131
2nd year, Spring: CSC 161, MAT 208
3rd year, Fall: CSC 207, CSC 211
3rd year, Spring: Abroad
4th year, Fall: CSC 301, CSC 321/22
4th year, Spring: CSC 341, CSC Elective

Abroad 4th-year Fall.

2nd year, Fall: CSC 151, MAT 131
2nd year, Spring: CSC 161, MAT 208
3rd year, Fall: CSC 207, CSC 211
3rd year, Spring: CSC 301, CSC 321/22
4th year, Fall: Abroad
4th year, Spring: CSC 341, CSC Elective

For students who start the CS major late, and do not want to study CS while abroad, I would recommend the study abroad in your 4th-year fall option, mostly because that option best prepares you for an internship between our 3rd and 4th years.