Research, put simply, is the discovery of new knowledge about the world, how it works, and what we can create. Every topic you’ve learned in school is or was at some point an active area of research; most research is done collectively, in communities, usually spanning scholars across the world at academic, industry, and other institutions. Computing research is one topic of research. It tends to focus on the invention of new algorithms, data structures, systems, and as well as on the study of how these ideas shape and are shaped by the world. Like any research, what makes it challenging, but also rewarding, is that no one knows the answers to the questions we pursue. That means that every project can pose new surprises, demand new skills, and take you to unexpected areas of knowledge and discovery.
It’s also important to note what isn’t research: it generally isn’t research to study something that people already know. The boundaries can be fuzzy: industry research and development, for example, might be building upon well understood concepts from research, but still be making smaller but crucial discoveries about how to make them work in practice. So there isn’t a clear boundary between research and practice, but rather a constant exchange between both.
For more insight into different kinds of computing research, consider Kelly Shaw’s How do I get started?, the CRA-E Highlight Series, which showcases outstanding research done by undergraduate students, the Theory Matters site, which describes open research challenges, and the National Research Council’s report on Continuing Innovation in Information Technology, which highlights the impact of computing research on society.