Some Thoughts on the Faculty of Computer Science at Politehnica University of Bucharest

My personal view

* the first part of the article reflects my own subjective views and my personal perception over the facts stated

** this article has been written in English so it can also be accessible to students and teachers abroad

I’m in my forth and final year at the Politehnica University of Bucharest (henceforth PUB), majoring in Computer Science.

ACS Logo

I probably should be proud or ecstatic or at least glad that I’m close to accomplishing a goal in my educational career.

But I’m not.

Looking back on the last four years, I can only feel disappointment. And the only pride I have is that it is going to be over soon.

In my first year at the university, I expected things to be interesting, challenging, exciting. I wanted to study computer science since I was 15. I expected all students would be challenge to research, to innovate, to come up with practical solutions to practical problems.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We were leveled. I think that’s the best word. We were encouraged, if not forced to be the same. To attend the same courses, with little or no choice for what students consider most interesting. Don’t make the mistake of confusing “being the same” for “team spirit”. Not by far. We were almost always given individual assignments, with strict policy against working with each other, helping each other on homework projects.

In most cases, all students were given the same assignments, with little or no room for choice, innovation or any kind of personal touch (like choosing a subject for a project).

Let’s get one thing straight: computer science is a vast field. It includes electronics, networking, object oriented programming, service based architecture, distributed and parallel programming, web programming, web design, interface and usability design, mobile devices, numerical methods and so much more. You can’t be good at all of them. And you most definitely can’t be the best in more than say… two fields.

Nevertheless, the curriculum at PUB basically prevents us for choosing what we’re interested in the first three years of study. That’s right. All the hard, serious subject are mandatory. And the only choice one has is between subjects that bear little importance and are treated by students and teaching staff as irrelevant (marketing, the history of religion, economy, cognitive philosophy).

Before entering the second year, I and a friend of mine made an appointment with the faculty dean’s office, to see if he can approve exchanging a particular course (Analogue Electronics) with another course from another faculty (Numerical Methods). We were told that such thing was impossible and that we can’t exchange such an important course as Analogue Electronics for … well … basically anything. I and my friend accepted the facts, even though we had no interest/skill in anything doing with electronics.

I have passed both electronics exams from the first try. To this day, I have no concern about and no knowledge of the inner and outer working of the transistor. And I’d like to keep it that way.

Throughout the first three years I went from excitement to disappointment over and over again, as I still hoped things will get better, more interesting, more practical, more hands-on, more challenging. But they didn’t. Some courses sounded great, but they all were just the same: the same piece of homework for all students (not projects, it was called homework), the same lack of preoccupation for practical problems and the same obsession for theoretical/didactic examples repeated over and over again.

It is said that “Loosing  all hope is freedom”. My recent experience showed that to be true.

For the forth and final year we chose our specialization. There were five:

  • C1 – computing system architecture (networking, distributed and parallel computing, VLSI)
  • C2 – embedded systems (multi-processor architectures; signal processing; fault tolerance;
  • C3 – compilers, operating systems, artificial intelligence
  • C4– artificial intelligence, automated learning, graphic manipulation
  • C5 – information technology: databases, software project management, web programming, e-commerce, integrating information systems

At first glance, C4 sounded most promising to me: I always was fascinated by what artificial intelligence can become and I also did a lot of experimentation with graphical manipulation in high school.

C3 was by far the most popular and the hardest specialization.

But the first three year at PUB taught me that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.

So I chose C5 – not because it was fascinated, but because it sounded practical, hands-on and applicable in the real world for … you know… real problems. And it was the best academic choice ever. (I strongly recommend it).

But why ? Because we were no longer given homework, but projects. We were allowed and encouraged to work in teams. We were given the freedom (yeah, you read that right, freedom, how unexpected) to choose our own project topics for most courses.

The only question on my mind was:

Why couldn’t this have happened from the first year ?

Why did we have to literally waste three of our respective minds’ best year to be force fed information that was to be discarded days after passing the exam?

Why were we prevented from choosing important courses in the first three years?

Why were we discouraged to work in teams ? Does anyone really think that real world tasks and projects are so often related to individual assignments nowadays?

….

To end this personal part of the article, I would like to make something really clear: I don’t think that the Computer Science Faculty at PUB is all bad. What is disappointing however is that it refuses to be so much better and that it wastes a great part of the potential that it has.

I would like to point out the few courses I attended which left a strongly positive impression on me:

  • USO (Use of Operating Systems) lead by Conf. dr. ing. Razvan Rughinis, first year
  • M3 (Applied Mathematics) lead by Professor Octavian Stanasila, first year
  • RL (Local Networks) lead by Professor Nicolae Tapus, third year
  • ISI (Integration of Information Systems) lead by Professor Dr. Ing. Mariana Mocanu, forth year
  • IOC (Human-Computer Interfaces) lead by Professor Stefan Trausan-Matu, fourth year

A more objective view

Here are some bullet-pointed facts:

  • During the four years it takes to graduated with a BS in Computer Science, students are allowed to exchange up to three courses with courses from other faculties.
  • There is no official protocol for requesting, approving or rejecting a course exchange. All such requests from students are frowned upon by most faculty members, especially by two who have the decision power to accept/reject such requests.
  • Fact: several students were denied course exchange requests without any explanation. The aforementioned students wanted to take the only mobile computing course, that is taught at another faculty (FILS), also within PUB. Still no explanation was granted.
  • The C3 specialization (which includes operating systems and compilers) is without doubt the hardest from the five. Nevertheless, the faculty decided to also make artificial intelligence as a mandatory subject in this specialization. If any of you can see any link between compilers&operating systems (low level programming) and artificial intelligence (high level algorithms), please leave a comment below with a brief explanation.

I have yet to find any plausible/objective explanation for these decisions that are literally forced upon students.

Moreover, most prestigious universities from Western Europe and the United States pride themselves on giving students the opportunity to choose courses, often from a wide variety. I strongly believe is that if the Politehnica University of Bucharest (particularly the Computer Science and Automated Systems) wants to reach towards the high standards set by universities abroad, it needs to enforce the same policy on freedom of choice and enabling creativity.

My aim is to start an open dialogues on this page regarding such policies enforced by the faculty, which undermine students’ creativity, innovation potential and freedom of choice.

I have nothing to gain from such an open dialog (and hopefully I’ll have nothing to lose). I have only one semester left and I do not expect any changes deriving from this dialog to take place in the next six months.

However, I would be proud to know that future generation can benefit from choices I was denied.

Call to action

Please leave comments below with your opinion on the limited choice over courses to attend students at PUB are given.

I would be most grateful if faculty members chose to participate in this open dialog.

Moreover, I urge you to repeatedly ask your teachers and any competent faculty members about:

  • The possibility to exchange mandatory courses with courses from other faculties.
  • The official protocol for accepting or rejecting such a request.
  • What are the objective reasons for which the faculty has chosen to make certain courses mandatories for specializations for which they are not relevant (for instance, artificial intelligence being mandatory for those studying compilers and operating systems)?

I would appreciate if comments were written in English, so we also encourage students abroad to participate in this dialog.

Last, but not least, share this article with your friends: students from PUB and other universities, high school students.

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21 Comments

  1. Dr Optix
    February 7, 2011

    NOTE: here I write my personal opinion about faculty (you may agree or not) and because I have written in english… there can be some mistakes.

    I'm a student, 1st year, at Transilvania University in Brasov and from what I can see here is the same situation you describe at PUB. For example I don't see Math Analysis as a “must study” course. It would be nice to study “User Interface Design” (or another creative thing). But hehe… people still think that if you don't know math you are not good. As you say IT is a vast domain and personally I'm interested to study/work in the creative part of business like web design, game design. For example at ProcProg course i asked why we don't do at least one project with production in mind and not didactic and boring stuff. The teacher said “well we don't do that because your classmates don't know C too well”. Instead of saying that she could say “Try and write a program that takes an image and change pixels of color X in pixels of color Y” but nope.

    Also I don't understand why at the end of a semester there is nothing like the Open contest at InfoEducatie where you can use stuff from angebra, proc prog, algorithms etc to create a software or at least an idea for a future project. Instead you are forced to learn a lot of useless/boring stuff just to pass the exam. Message to teachers: In real world we are using documentations, we are not walking encyclopedias

  2. February 7, 2011

    I do believe that some courses (such as math, analysis and design of algorithms) are essential and mandatory for someone with a bachelor in computer science.
    However, a balance must be kept between what is mandatory and what is chosen. Unfortunately, this balance is broken and the curriculum has very few degrees of freedom.

  3. Dr Optix
    February 7, 2011

    As a matter of fact I really enjoyed design of algorithms and algebra in computer science (coding theory was the part I enjoyed the most). About analysis well maybe if I apply it in a real world scenario I would change my position about the subject but until then analysis, for me, will be something that must be learned just to pass an exam.

    I forgot to say: I really enjoyed your post! And I hope other people will join the duscussion

  4. February 7, 2011

    It is indeed sad when students find passing an exam and getting a good grade as their only incentive in learning or building something.
    And this happens more often than not.
    Thank you for your comments, Dr. Optix.

  5. February 8, 2011

    As far as i know 2 of the subjects you said you appreciated had team projects. In none of them you actually worked in a team. You had such a team project in the second year (algorithms) and with the same results.
    I talked to a student who went to France for the third year of studies and asked her about how studies are organized there. She said that there are team projects but that the difference from our school is that on those projects everybody works in the team. Here there are a lot of projects where one person works and the others don't care what's going on.

    Regarding the courses that can be changed i think we have the following problem. There are a lot of people who choose very easy courses just to get a diploma (see how many choose the C2/C5 directions). The same approach would be used also if you'd let students skip all the difficult courses in the first years.

    Still the comparison to MIT. A BIG difference between us and them is that people pay all their lives to study there while here the cost of the faculty is very low. Therefore if you paid so much money you are interested to get the best education and even if you can choose lame courses you do that on your money.

    You are right with some of the things that you say. Team work would be good to have (but even you didn't make it work this while in faculty), allow students to change courses if they prove interest for the alternative course and not just to skip difficult parts. I could go on but have to go to work:(

  6. February 8, 2011

    Thank you for taking the time to write down your thoughts.
    I agree with you, Vlad. Team projects at our university didn't have expected results, on average. I think this should be an incentive for the faculty members to push harder for team work, literally make it easier and more interesting to work together then to leave all the work to one or two people.

    However, in my opinion, harder isn't necessarily better. And I'm confident that exchanging a maximum of three courses in all the four years (as allowed by Faculty Regulations), won't negatively impact the overall quality of knowledge acquired, even if students were to exchange the three hardest courses for the three easiest courses.

    We have this desire to push harder for more information, more skills, more knowledge. And all the while we lose our motivation, our people skills and the ability to enjoy what we're doing.

    I don't think PUB students can benefit from being forced to take certain courses or combination of courses (especially in their senior year).

    I strongly believe that what students at our faculty need is a boost in enthusiasm, in passion and in motivation. And that cannot be accomplished by enforcing arbitrary rules (like “what's harder is better”) or by restricting choice.

  7. February 8, 2011

    And one more thing: before I became a Computer Science student, I loved programming, I experienced with graphical manipulation, numerical methods, even some AI, even since high school.

    College took away part of my passion, my enthusiasm for the building stuff and for experimenting with what fascinated me. All this so it can force feed me “what I needed to learn” and to make me learn by heart what is available on Wikipedia.

    After four depressing years of Computer Science, I'm looking forward to my Master's Degree in Marketing – at any other university.

  8. Laura Dragoi
    February 8, 2011

    You are definitely not the only one being frustrated because of having to learn stuff like the internals of the oscilloscope and all the different MOS, CMOS transistors and many other things I don't remember. I think we should remember those subjects as an endurance test and move on. It's not what they teach us that is important, it's important for us to discover what we like and… study on our own.
    Sure, I think the basic computer science knowledge should be better emphasized in the curriculum at PUB. It's already better now for the ones graduating on the Bologna system then it was for the ones that graduated after five years, but there is room for improvement.

    It's funny you say C3 is the most popular, it was the least chosen one as far as I remember. (2009) I'm happy I went for it because although I'll probably not be building compilers and kernel drivers for a living it's nice to remember that 'hey, I did that once' and to have insight on how these things work.

    I'm graduating from the Internet Systems Engineering master now and I have come to think that pursuing a master is a good thing to do, it opened up some interesting perspectives to some fields I wouldn't have probably become acquainted with otherwise.

    The bottom line is that the students should stop coming with high expectations to PUB and instead realize the big part they play in shaping their education. Don't just wait for an approval to exchange your courses, go ahead and start learning what you would like to. Everyone passes electronics and systems theory eventually 🙂

  9. DCM
    February 8, 2011

    While I agree with much of your post, there are however two very important things that need to be said:

    1. UPB/ACS does not actually consider itself a pure “Computer Science” faculty. Look closely here: http://www.eecs.mit.edu/ug/pri… and you might get a hint as to where UPB/ACS draws inspiration from when shaping its mission. The main idea here is that you're expected to be an engineer “ready for anything” as opposed to a software engineer. To be honest, I agree with that idea in principle, except that a) it should be better advertised – many people, myself included, came here with a completely wrong image of what's expected of them – and b) while the principle is sound, the execution is still pretty poor and still much needs to be done regarding course balance and interaction.

    2. C3 is not at all about “low-level programming”, it's about systems programming and as such, you have to work on ALL levels, from the lowest ASM/protocol nitty-gritty to the highest driving philosophy and algorithms. As for AI and compilers, you might want to have a look at this: http://www.infoworld.com/d/dev… (nevermind that our Compilers course itself mentions AI in its introductory slides!). AI actually has growing bidirectional interactions with many other fields we're studying, in particular databases (think of what the query optimizer could do if it understood more about what the data means and what you're trying to do with it) and distributed systems/programs (think distributed intelligence, of which our very own brain is the most powerful form we know). Seriously, just Google it.

  10. February 8, 2011

    Thank you for sharing, Laura.

    Unfortunately, I'm not the kind of person who does something without having reasonably high expectations. If passing courses (I wanted nothing to do with in the first place) is the main goal, I should have definitely chosen something else, something at random.

    And if at this faculty the ultimate goal is to survive, I think it's time for me to admit I have made a mistake and move on far far away – like you have.

    My frustration stems from that I expected to have the faculty to encourage, to push and to challenge me and my colleagues to build interesting, challenging stuff. Four years later, what do I have to show for it ? A bunch of crappy homework no one else will ever care about.

    Laura, I understand that for you college at PUB was an “endurance test”. Funny, I thought it was suppose to be an institution of higher education, not bootcamp 😛

    And yes, finally I think you made your best point here:
    “Don't just wait for an approval to exchange your courses, go ahead and start learning what you would like to.”
    I completely agree. If it wouldn't have been for the projects _outside_ the faculty (like TimeOP), I probably would have lost it.

    So before the faculty changes its policy over its “endurance tests” (it may take a long time), my advice is to go out, start a project that you like, start building something with your friends or colleagues – cause in the real world – no one asked me what grades I got.

  11. February 8, 2011

    Thanks for the references, DCM. I much appreciate them.

    1. If I would have been told that up to 50% is “electrical engineering” I and probably many others would have reconsidered our choices.
    And I don't know about you, but I personally don't want to be ready for anything. I just want to be really good at some particular things. And trust me, all the things I didn't care about faded from my mind like white noise.
    How many of you (the students) came here to study _computer science_ and how many came to study “electrical engineering” ?

    2. Working on all levels usually means being average on all of them. And sure, of course, there are some exotic niches like machine learning compilers and distributed intelligent systems, which are at a cross-roads between compilers, operating systems and AI. However, I seriously doubt these cases are studied at C3 or that these niches are the hidden reason for forcing together operating systems with artificial intelligence in the same curriculum.

    What do you think ?

  12. Laura Dragoi
    February 8, 2011

    Well, I wasn't saying college was just an endurance test, the C3 and the master were actually pretty good and I recommend them.
    I think you might also be underestimating the value of your homeworks. Some of our 2nd year PC homeworks are considered to be great diploma projects at other universities 🙂

  13. February 8, 2011

    It's Calculus ( as in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C… ) .
    I doubt you can do much in the field without basic Calculus knowledge. (It reaches a lot of random CS areas).

    I know I have a lot of regrets of not treating it seriously , in my day-to-day engineering/programming activities 🙂

  14. February 8, 2011

    I never doubted the ability of the students at PUB and the quality of the information passed on to them.
    What I doubt is their enthusiasm, their morale, their initiative and their opportunity to focus on what important to them (by choice, rather than by policy).

    For instance, you and I obviously have different thing we consider interesting/relevant (C3 vs C5). Nevertheless, we spent three years doing exactly the same thing in college (give or take random noise)

  15. Silvia S
    February 9, 2011

    Hi, there!

    While I do agree with most of the things in your article (yes, teamwork and creative projects are not really encouraged), I must underline that what is true for an individual might not be true for an other, hence there is no need to generalize.

    I know of people who have succeeded in changing the electronics courses. Also, I am among the ones who were refused the exchange of MP/BM with the Android course from FILS (PDM). The Dean explained to us that there were too many of us that wanted to make the exchange – when 4 people asked to change the course, they were granted the permission to do so; when 40 people wanted to do the same thing the next day… Well, it was a bit too much for them to handle. Even if I admit it wasn't fair (as you have underlined, we are entitled to exchange up to 3 courses.. Or at least we should be), they let us choose the course as an optional – which I did. It wasn't the solution I had hoped for, but it was as close as I could get to it.

    Now back to the electronics courses (EEA and ED, maybe PM too). Even if you consider those courses more or less obsolete (which I do not contest…. At least Cupcea should seriously consider updating the contents of the courses), I for one found them quite useful. The first three years should be seen as a guide in this faculty – you learn what you like and what you don't like. I, personally, have chosen C3, but I also took a course from C2 – Embedded Systems. There I could see the “missing [practical] link” (if I could call it that way) between electronics, microcontroller programing and – believe it or not – even system theory. Now, let's say that I wouldn't have gone through EEA, ED, PM and TS – this course would have been really confusing. Just goes to show that you never know when knowledge in such a field could become useful.

    Maybe a solution would be a method to take courses “by inheritance” – setting prerequisites to certain courses and letting the student chose his own curriculum. I know that such a thing is possible in Universities abroad – yet our own Politehnica is far from this. But then again… How can you tell if you like something if you have not experienced it?

  16. Alias123
    February 12, 2011

    Aş vrea să clarific 3 lucruri:

    A) Universităţile americane au într-adevăr un renume de a permite studenţilor să-şi aleagă cursurile. Dar dacă intri şi te documentezi în detaliu, vei vedea că sînt foarte multe restricţii în acest sens:

    1) în anii mici majoritatea te obligă să alegi un număr de cursuri de mate, fizică, chiar chimie, etc (de ex, la MIT: 2 mate, 2 fizici, 1 chimie şi 1 biologie, that's right, ai citit corect, biologie indiferent că vrei să faci computer science sau arhitectură; s.n. General Institute Requirements sau GIRs). “Alegerea” constă în faptul că poţi alege cele 2 matematici dintr-o listă de vreo 10 disponibile, dar în esenţă e aceeaşi materie cu unele variaţii de genul mai spre teorie, mai spre probleme, mai intensiv, mai lung, etc etc.

    2) odată ales major-ul, există în cadrul acestuia cursuri obligatorii, oarecum echivalente cu electronica analogică şi celelalte de la UPB. Deci nici aici nu poţi alege chiar orice – ai mult mai multă libertate ca la UPB, dar să nu-ţi închipui că poţi face numai materii despre AI sau compilatoare să zicem, trebuie să acoperi tot spectrul de EE&CS.

    B) Şi acum o chestie mai de principiu: facultatea nu are rolul să te facă specialist în ceva; tu spui “I personally don't want to be ready for anything. I just want to be really good at some particular things”, e normal să doreşti să fii foarte bun în ceva, dar asta vei ajunge să fii în mare parte pe baza experienţei individuale pe care o capeţi cînd ajungi să lucrezi un număr de ani în domeniul respectiv. Realitatea e că facultatea îşi propune să-ţi ofere un spectru cît mai larg de cunoştinţe, iar aşa-numita “specializare” este de fapt o “direcţie de specializare” care îngustează într-o mică măsură spectrul respectiv.

    Şi asta nu e numai la UPB. Dacă vei consulta în detaliu planurile de învăţămînt vei constata că MIT te specializează chiar mai puţin decît UPB; şi totuşi, absolvenţii MIT au garanţia că îşi vor găsi locuri foarte bune de muncă, deşi angajatorul ştie foarte clar că proaspeţii absolvenţi nu sînt nici pe departe specialişti, dar pe de altă parte absolvirea MIT garantează pt. potenţialul lor, abilităţile de problem-solving etc.

    C) despre munca în echipă: UPB nu descurajează propriu-zis munca în echipă; ceea ce descurajează este copierea. Evident nu este acelaşi lucru. Tu probabil eşti un student bun şi interesat dar nu poţi să nu ştii că peste 50% din studenţi ar copia o temă/un proiect fără nici un fel de remuşcare şi fără a considera că fac ceva rău. Cum ar fi să se dea numai teme pe echipe de 3-4 studenţi la toate materiile (inclusiv matematici etc) şi întotdeauna să fie făcute de 1 autor şi 2-3 copiangii ?

  17. February 13, 2011

    Well, I was too one of the many who wanted to exchange MP/BM with Android.

    What I did, after hearing that everybody was denied the transfer (only the choice of additional being offered), I went and got signatures from both teachers (the one I was leaving from and the one I was coming to) and from the dean of the faculty I was coming to (FILS).

    Then, I went to our dean. He told me the same story: “What if everybody transfered? This course would not have students anymore! I can't transfer you!” Then I thought who was next in the chain of power. Tapus was no option, neither was Cristea. I went to Ecaterina Andronescu herself, the rector.

    I went and registered my request, so that they would be forced to give me a written response in case I get denied on the transfer.

    I sat down with Ms. Andronescu and explained to her what was happening. She asked me why I was moving, why was this course so interesting or what was I running from? I told her I didn't know how MP was, but I knew Android was something that I wanted and needed. She then asked how come our own faculty doesn't have this course. I shrugged.

    Then she picked up the phone, and called the dean. I was still there. She asked him why was my request denied. He explained to her the same thing I heard.

    Then she was very polite and told him that if everybody wanted to move they shouldn't be forced to stay. That this should raise questions about the quality of the teacher we were all leaving from and why this was happening. After that she told him that he was forced to approve my application because I met all the demands.

    So I went back to the dean. And talked with him. His attitude was like we were some kids and I went and told his mother what bad things he was doing… telling me that “you shouldn't have done that” and stuff like this.

    Then he said that the board of teachers would discuss my request and decide togheter, tomorrow.

    So I left.

    I came back the next day, and it was approved…

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