Friday, March 20, 2009

Class Projects

For some reason, class projects are all the rage in graduate classes here at the U. These are typically used in lieu of a final, and generally involve (for most classes) some kind of software artifact. Students seem to prefer projects to exams in fact.

When I started designing my graduate classes, I had mixed feelings about class projects, but allowed students (especially in my comp. geometry class) to propose various ideas. Two years in, I still have mixed feelings about class projects.
  • It seems to me that for theory classes, a "pure theory" class project is difficult to execute. Most students here don't have a 'general theory' background, and so it would be well-nigh impossible for them to execute a class project of the form 'here's an open problem: go attack it'.
  • A cop-out option is a survey paper on an area. Now in principle survey papers can be an excellent way of distilling the knowledge in an area, organizing it, and then presenting it. But in practice, a survey ends up looking like a sequence of paper summaries, with little to no higher-level organizing
  • For some classes (geometry, specifically) a software artifact can make sense. In that regard, having CGAL around is handy because a lot of low-level grunt coding gets taken care of. But invariably the software artifact degenerates into a horse-race for a bunch of techniques, or "let me implement my research project that I'm working on somewhere else, and slap some O() notation on it to make it look like a CG project".
The problem a class project (ideally) is trying to solve is providing an avenue to synthesize and apply the concepts being learned in class in some kind of holistic way. But I'm unconvinced that the class projects people are actually doing are effective in that regard. Incidentally, since some of my complaining has to do with topic choice, I should add that I've often given out topics for people to look at: no one likes my topics though :).

I teach the grad intro algorithms class in the fall, and am tempted to do a class project where I require students to do some actual algorithmic modelling drawn from their home area (most students taking this class are not algorithms folk): which is to say, take a "real problem", and analyze it as an algorithms person would if given the problem by an applied researcher - formalize, prove hardness, come up with algorithms, repeat, ....

If it weren't such a pain to design finals that aren't solvable via Google, I'd probably never use projects at all.
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