HONR 300 / CMSC 491: Computation, Complexity, and Emergence
Spring 2016

Last revised 1/13/16

Course Staff


Dr. Marie desJardins
ITE 337
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 to change.

Course Description

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.

Learning Objectives

By the end of the seminar, students should:
  1. Understand the ways in which simple individual behaviors and decisions can lead to complex and meaningful global behaviors.
  2. Be able to identify and analyze the sources and effects of complexity in natural and artificial systems.
  3. Have gained experience with the dynamics of complexity by designing, modifying, and experimenting with artificial complex systems.
  4. Understand, and be able to identify and design, examples of iterative, recursive, parallel, and adaptive patterns in complex systems.

Additional Course Information


  1. MATH 150 (precalculus) and permission of the Honors College or the course instructor.
  2. 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.

Required Textbooks

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. ISBN: 987-0199798100.


We will be using the NetLogo public domain (free) software system. This software should already be installed on the OIT lab machines, and is 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 dates.


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 of complexity.

The weighting of course grades has been determined based on a class discussion in the first class session and subsequent vote:

Class participation 16.75%
Online reading journal 14.50%
Midterm exam 12.50%
NetLogo project (individual or group) 19.25%
Other computer-based and written exercises 14.50%
In-class presentations 6.50%
Term paper and peer reviews 16.00%

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.

Grading Policy

In general, for computer-based assignments, the approximate distribution of how your grade will be allocated is:
  1. 80% for the correctness of the solution (i.e., does the implementation behave the way it is supposed to?)
  2. 10% for the readability of the solution (comments and formatting as applicable).
  3. 10% for the elegance of the design (simplicity, efficiency, and understandability).
A similar grade breakdown applies for written assignments; approximately:
  1. 80% for content (well thought out and well reasoned answers; answers that are "correct" to the extent that there is a correct answer).
  2. 10% for readability: correct grammar and spelling, readable formatting or handwriting.
  3. 10% for elegance: well expressed thoughts in a well structured essay.
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.

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 particular student.

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 circumstances---such as an extended illness or death in the family (these cases must be documented in writing and cleared with the instructor).

Academic Honesty

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 submission. Reasonable 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.