Putting the magic in the machine since 1980.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Capstone Projects

A blog post by Joel Spolsky on Capstone projects complains about how many of the top CS departments do not teach their students how to write large programs or how to work in large teams. Perhaps.

Here at the University of South Carolina, I created our CSCE 492 back in 2000 to address these problems. 492 is our capstone software project whose main goals, as I see them, are to:

  1. Give the students the experience of working in a large (100 pages of code or more) software project.
  2. Give them the experience of working in a group.
Our 492 projects are definitely not the type of project that can be finished in one or two days. They are much more significant than that. Still, on my first few years teaching it I learned that students do tend to postpone work until the last month. Thus, I have established certain guidelines.

Each group has a weekly meeting with me. In these meetings they give me their progress report and I keep track of of how much has and has not been achieved. We also set priorities for the next few weeks. Lack of progress is duly reprimanded, as any manager would do.

At the midterm there is an integration demo. Modern programs include several number of third-party libraries, from web frameworks to 3D engines, depending on the type of program being built. Students tend to underestimate how long it will take to install apache, mysql, mod_perl, library-X, put it all into svn, and get all that mess of code to say "Hello world" reliably. The integration demo is a proof-of-concept milestone which assures all of us that yes, this can work. After the demo all that is left to do is add all the features.

Finally, there is the shared code repository (I use code.google.com). Not only is this a tool that all professionals use, but it also helps me keep track of what is really going on, or not going on, in the project. Of course, it also helps the group coordinate their activities, as it was designed to.

So, yes, capstone projects should be an integral part of every Computer department's required curriculum, if the department is interested in creating graduates who can write software.

Still, I have to admit, it takes a lot of time to manage, advise, and code review 3 to 5 different projects at the same time. That might be the reason other universities either don't do this or leave their students on their own.