HONR 300 / CMSC 491: Computation, Complexity, and Emergence
Last revised 1/13/16
Dr. Marie desJardins
Office hours: Tuesdays 10-11am (library lobby cafe), Thursdays 4-5pm (ITE 217A).
The course meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30-9:45 a.m.
in the Honors Seminar Room.
The course schedule is subject
This course will explore the nature and effects of complexity in
natural and artificial systems. Complexity arises in these systems
from many sources, including self-similarity, parallelism, recursion,
and adaptation. Through these mechanisms, simple local behaviors and
patterns can produce complex, intricate, and often fascinating
emergent global behaviors. These phenomena arise in diverse areas,
from biology (ant colonies, fish schools) to economics (stock market
bubbles, opinion formation) to physics (galactic clusters, weather
patterns). We will use Gary Flake's text, The Computational Beauty
of Nature, and Melanie Mitchell's Complexity: A Guided Tour as starting points to investigate the sources and
dynamic properties of complex systems.
By the end of the seminar, students should:
- Understand the ways in which simple individual behaviors
and decisions can lead to complex and meaningful global
- Be able to identify and analyze the sources and effects
of complexity in natural and artificial systems.
- Have gained experience with the dynamics of complexity
by designing, modifying, and experimenting with
artificial complex systems.
- Understand, and be able to identify and design, examples
of iterative, recursive, parallel, and adaptive patterns
in complex systems.
Additional Course Information
- MATH 150 (precalculus) and
permission of the Honors College or the course instructor.
Additional prerequisite for CMSC 491: CMSC 341.
CMSC 491 has limited capacity. Priority will be given to
students enrolled in the Honors College and/or the
CMSC Departmental Honors Program.
Gary Flake, The Computational
Beauty of Nature:
Computer Explorations of Fractals, Chaos, Complex Systems,
and Adaptation, MIT Press, 1998. ISBN: 978-0262561273.
Melanie Mitchell, Complexity:
A Guided Tour, Oxford University Press, 2009.
We will be using
the NetLogo public
domain (free) software system.
This software should already be installed on the OIT lab machines, and
available for download onto student computers (Mac, PC, or Linux
platforms). Students are expected to have a laptop available, with
NetLogo installed (we will do this at the first lab session), that
they will bring to class on designated in-class NetLogo lab session
As you will learn, I am a strong believer in two-way communication. I
expect all students to participate in classroom discussions, both by asking
questions and by expressing opinions. In return, I will make myself available
to answer questions, listen to concerns, and talk to any student about topics
related to the class (or not). I welcome your feedback throughout the semester
about how the course is going.
In addition to regular office hours, I am happy to schedule additional
meeting times with students as needed, with advance notice (or on short
notice, as my schedule permits0. My other responsibilities as Associate
Dean preclude me making myself available for dorp-in meetings without notice.
However, I am very responsive to email, and will make a
concerted effort to answer
e-mail promptly. If you haven't heard back from me within 24 hours (or on Monday for email sent over the weekend), please feel free to ping me again in
case the email was misplaced or spam-filtered.
I will work diligently to learn everyone's names, but I am not especially
good at facial recognition, so please don't be offended if I ask you several
times to re-introduce yourself!
Coursework and Grading
There will be assigned reading for most class sessions from the course
textbooks, as well as additional articles and excerpts.
Students will be expected to contribute to an online class reading journal
in which students reflect on (and discuss) the assigned reading, class
discussions, and course topics.
Class participation in discussions and lectures is expected
and will be a significant part of the grade. Your grade in
this area will be based on attendance, attentiveness, preparedness, and
contributions to the in-class discussions.
There will be several computer-based and written exercises,
some of which will use the NetLogo
system. Students will also write a term paper (8-10 pages, 2000-2500
words) on complex systems in natural or artificial systems, in an
area of their choice (e.g., fractal systems, environmental science,
economics, sociology, neurology...) Students will be required
to give two short in-class presentations: one on a NetLogo
project and one on their term paper. In addition, students
must complete a peer review of two other students' term
papers. There will also be a midterm
examination, covering the basic mathematical and conceptual principles
The weighting of course grades has been determined based on a class
discussion in the first class session and subsequent vote:
|Online reading journal
|NetLogo project (individual or group)
|Other computer-based and written exercises
|Term paper and peer reviews
Students in CMSC 491 will be assigned additional exercises in
the problem sets, will
take a somewhat different (more mathematically challenging)
midterm, and will have different (higher) project requirements.
In conjunction with the term paper, CMSC 491 students will
also be expected to implement and experiment with a NetLogo model of
their chosen system.
In general, for computer-based assignments, the approximate
distribution of how your grade will be allocated is:
A similar grade breakdown applies for written assignments;
- 80% for the correctness of the solution (i.e., does the
implementation behave the way it is supposed to?)
- 10% for the readability of the solution (comments
and formatting as applicable).
- 10% for the elegance of the design (simplicity,
efficiency, and understandability).
All written assignments must be typed or very legibly handwritten, and
must be proofread with reasonable attention to spelling, clarity, and
grammar. It is disrespectful to the instructor to submit an
illegible or poorly prepared assignment. Illegible assignments and
assignments with large numbers of typographical and grammatical errors
will be returned without a grade; to receive a grade, the assignment
must be resubmitted in legible form by the next class period. Only one
such resubmission will be permitted per student per semester.
- 80% for content (well thought out and well reasoned
answers; answers that are "correct" to the extent that there
is a correct answer).
- 10% for readability: correct grammar and spelling,
readable formatting or handwriting.
- 10% for elegance: well expressed thoughts in a
well structured essay.
Although this is not a writing class, success in any
discipline requires the ability to effectively communicate one's
thoughts. If you have difficulty writing, whether because English
is not your first language, or because you haven't taken many writing
classes in your undergraduate program, I highly suggest that you
take advantage of UMBC's writing center, in the main library. (Phone:
410-455-3126. URL: http://www.umbc.edu/lrc/writing center.htm. Hours:
Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.;
Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) This is a free tutoring service that will
help you prepare essays and papers for any course.
Homework Submission and Late Policy
Work is expected to be turned in on time. In general,
assignments are due at the beginning of class
on the due date. If you miss class, you must arrange
for your homework to be turned in during or before class.
Late work will be assessed a penalty as follows:
Most assignments must be submitted in hardcopy. Please staple
multi-page assignments together before coming to class.
(I reserve the right to deduct points for unstapled or "folded-at-the-corner" assignments!) Late work is
considered submitted when I receive
it, which means that if you cannot hand it to me
personally, you should email me the assignment as a placeholder,
and then give me a hardcopy at the next opportunity. Please
try to print your assignments early, since students sometimes
have trouble with the library printers, and "The printer wasn't
working" is not an acceptable excuse. At a minimum, for
such an assignment to receive full credit, you must email it to
me before the deadline and then provide a hardcopy as soon as
possible. I reserve the right to assign a late penalty in these
cases, particularly if this issue comes up repeatedly for a
- 0-24 hours late: 25% penalty
- 24-48 hours late: 50% penalty
- 48-72 hours late: 75% penalty
- More than 72 hours late: No credit
In an effort to encourage good time management, I will generally
grant one one-week extension per student, over the course of the
semester, if requested in advance and with a clear explanation
(other projects due, work-related travel, outside commitments).
Last-minute requests for extensions will generally be denied,
since the purpose of the extensions is to plan ahead for "crunch
times." Extensions will not be granted for work that is
to be peer-reviewed.
Other than the case of an approved extension,
the late penalty will apply unless there are extraordinary
an extended illness or death in the family (these cases must
be documented in writing and cleared with the instructor).
This course adheres to the Provost's statement on academic integrity:
"By enrolling in
this course, each student assumes the responsibilities of an active
participant in UMBC's scholarly community in which everyone's academic
work and behavior are held to the highest standards of honesty.
Cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and helping others to commit
these acts are all forms of academic dishonesty, and they are
wrong. Academic misconduct could result in disciplinary action
that may include, but is not limited to, suspension or dismissal.
To read the full Student Academic Conduct Policy, consult the
UMBC Student Handbook, the Faculty Handbook, or the UMBC Policies
section of the UMBC Directory."
Cheating in any form will not be tolerated. In particular, all
submitted work must be your own work.
You may discuss the projects and readings with anyone.
In particular, students are encouraged to work in small groups
(up to 4 students working together) to discuss the assignments.
However, the work you submit must be completed by yourself,
independently of the other students in the group. That is, when
you write the actual answers, you should be writing in your own words,
not just copying down a group answer word for word.
Furthermore, any help you receive must be documented. At the beginning
of your assignment or program, you must explicitly indicate the sources
you used while working on it (excluding course staff and text), and the type
of help you received from them. If you work in a study group, you
must indicate this on your submission.
If you do not include such a statement, I
will assume you worked entirely independently. Any indication
of collaboration with other students in this case will be considered a
violation of the academic honesty policy.
The implementation of the computer-based assignments must be your own work.
If you are stumped on a particular error, you may consult with someone else;
however, if you consult with someone other than the instructor, you
must explicitly indicate the nature of this assistance in your
help will not affect your grade; failure to cite your sources is academically
dishonest, and will be dealt with accordingly.
Written answers, including your contributions to the
online reading journal, your research paper
and all drafts, all written assignments, and the midterm exam, must be your
own work, written in your own words (not borrowed or "mashed up"
from other sources). If you wish to quote a source (including the course
textbooks or other assigned readings), you must do so explicitly at the
point of the quotation, with proper citation. Plagiarism of any source,
including another student's work, is not acceptable.
Providing another student with answers, or helping them to cheat,
is an equally serious violation of the principles of academic
honesty. A student who commits such an offense is subject to the
same penalties as the student who cheated.
Any violation of the academic honesty policy will result in a minimum
penalty of a zero grade for that assignment. In addition, in
order to pass the course, the student will be required to recomplete
the assignment honestly. Consequences for more serious infractions
of this policy, or for second offenses, may include, but are not
limited to, receiving a failing grade in the course or being
suspended or expelled from the university.