It’s a bittersweet time of the year, when we mark and say goodbye to undergraduate students’ projects developed over the year and at the same time welcome new students who are starting their individual or group projects.
In some institutions I believe students are given a fixed list of projects to choose from, and very often they need to bid for their chosen titles and competing bids are resolved either by order of previous overall performance or by more subjective means such as through interviews. Here at DCS, though, we allow and in fact encourage students to design their own projects, and invite students to talk to several academics, whether for general advice or to ask for supervision. While we do publish a list of ideas, I must say I much prefer projects that arise from the interests and imagination of students themselves.
However, several students who I’ve been chatting to seem to have no idea of the kind of project to propose. My advice usually is: find something you are passionate about, in computing or outside (such as a hobby) and think how it could be enhanced. This suggestion has often given rise to many excellent projects: whether it is a subject that they came across in studies and couldn’t pursue before (such as nuclear reactions, or process algebras, or astronomy), or whether some practical aspect that some family member or friend struggles with (such as disabilities) or even sports and games and teaching material that could enhance their own life, there is always some scenario that one could say – if only I had time to improve this. Well, here is time to dedicate to such projects, and get good marks towards studies too in the process.
As I finish marking the projects which have just been completed, I see how well this works: there is fantastic work which is done, and I feel quite proud to have given some encouragement and support for students to develop their confidence in independent work.
But this marking process also makes me aware of all the advice that I give during the year and which students don’t always follow, until they day they need to submit their reports and say: Ah, if only I had done as you suggested… So what is it that I suggest students keep in mind?
Keep track of your ideas and decisions. At the end of the year you may not remember all the reasons for your decisions – and yet these decisions are a crucial aspect of what you need to explain in your report.
Get your communication tools sorted. I recommend having a public-facing blog to allow your supervisor and other interested parties know what is going on, so that they can provide suggestions, encouragement, and offer to test your program. Start early on with a blog or twitter feed and that will keep the level of interest high – and give you practice in writing.
Maintain a bibliography. While doing your initial research, you will come across websites and articles that will only enhance your report. Why redo all the work in 9 months time? Even better, write down a short summary of why each item in the reference list is interesting, and you’ve made a good start on the final report. There are many social tools (such as citeulike) which you can use, or you could go for the good old bibtex. Talking of which…
Consider learning and using LaTeX. Your project report may well be the longest and most complex document you will have written. LaTeX is great for such documents: it gives you a good way to structure your document and yet move pieces around, it allows for a professional way to include references to other parts of the document, and a professional way to include figures, mathematics, citations… the possibilities are endless. Time spent learning LaTeX early on, and starting to create a barebones skeleton and including bits and pieces early on, will make the process of creating the final report much more efficient and less stressful.
Create and maintain a plan of work. This can be in the form of a Gantt chart, or a more informal online calendar. Having all this information written out from the start will make it easier for you to convince your examiners that you are able to manage your progress professionally. It may seem like overkill at this stage, especially if this is an individual project, but trust me, this can significantly improve your report.
I seem to have only touched the surface and haven’t even started addressing the issue of software developing. Part 2 will come later. Meanwhile, do any readers have any more advice they would like to give? Commenting is free and comments are welcome.