How to choose a final-year project

Dr Jim Briggs

This document is updated from time to time. The most recent version can be found on the WWW at URL http://www.pums.cam.port.ac.uk/projects/docs/projchse.htm.

The index to other project documents can be found at http://www.pums.cam.port.ac.uk/projects/index.htm.

This document is relevant to the following project units: PJE30, PJS30.

Separate arrangements apply to students doing other project units..

This version dated 8th March 2010.

Contents

Why is the final-year project important?........................................................................................ 2

What are the timescales for choosing a project?............................................................................ 2

What sort of project must I do?.................................................................................................... 3

Engineering project (PJE30)......................................................................................................... 4

Study project (PJS30)................................................................................................................. 5

General requirements for projects................................................................................................. 5

What will I be doing during my project?........................................................................................ 6

Who can supervise my project?.................................................................................................... 6

How do I choose a project?......................................................................................................... 6

Staff suggestions....................................................................................................................... 6

Student suggestions.................................................................................................................. 7

Administration of project choice: IMPORTANT PLEASE READ................................................. 7

What should I do once I get my project settled?............................................................................ 8

Who should I talk to if I have any problems?................................................................................. 8

Appendix A - Collaborative projects with University of Le Havre.................................................. 9

If you are interested in doing a PJS30 business project, see also the document Business projects for suggestions of possible topics.

If you are interested in doing a PJS30 social sciences project, see also the document Social science projects for suggestions of possible topics.

Why is the final-year project important?

The final-year project is important for a number of reasons:

        it is the largest single piece of work you will do during your degree course;

        it is the part of the curriculum that allows you to specialise in a topic you are good at or enjoy;

        it is the part of your course that prospective employers will most likely ask you about at interview;

        it allows you to show off a wide range of the skills and knowledge learned during your course;

        it encourages integration of material learned in a number of course units;

        it is an essential part of any degree course fully accredited by the British Computer Society (BCS), as most of our degrees are, and is consequently important in achieving professional qualifications like MBCS and CEng.

The project is not just another piece of coursework. It is the part of the course where you show off your individual abilities and specialisms.

To emphasise the importance that the University (as well as external parties like the BCS and our external examiners) places on the project, a number of requirements will be made of you. These are documented in http://www.pums.cam.port.ac.uk/projects/docs/projmile.htm. The first of these is that you register for the project and indicate your preferred choice of supervisor and topic.

What are the timescales for choosing a project?

These timescales apply to the main cohorts starting in Semester 1. All the mechanics of choosing a project take place before the start of your final year (except for students who enter the final-year at short notice). The aim is to have most students' project choice finalised by July of the previous academic year.

There are three steps to the process:

Initial thinking about what you want to do

January-April

 

Refine ideas; consider choices

Remainder of spring

 

Register project choices

by mid June 2010

 

The above timetable applies both to students out on industrial placement and to those second-year students who are continuing on directly into the final year. An abbreviated process applies to students who enter the final-year direct, or who do so at short notice. They must indicate their choice within a very short time of entering the final-year.

What sort of project must I do?

In the undergraduate schemes there are four different project units. Which you take (if at all) depends on the degree course that you are on. The following table lists the units and summarises their key differences:

Unit code

Title

Type of project

Credit points

PJE30

Final-year engineering project

Engineering

30

 

 

 

 

PJS30

Final-year study project

Study

30

The number of credit points associated with a unit dictates the amount of time a student is normally be expected to spend on it. A 30-point unit equals 300 hours of effort. The differences between engineering and study projects are described below.

The following table specifies which project units are or can be taken by different groups of students:

Degree / route

Code

Core or option?

Default choice

Exceptional choice

Computer Science

CS

Core

PJE30

Software Engineering

SE

Core

PJE30

Business Information Systems

BIS

Core

PJE30/PJS30

-

Digital Forensics

DIF

Core

PJE30/PJS30

-

Business Information Technology

BIT

Core

PJS30

PJE30

Computing and Society

CAS

Core

PJS30

PJE30

Computing

CMP

Core

PJE30

-

e-Commerce and Internet Systems

EIS

Core

PJE30/PJS30

-

"Exceptional" means you must obtain the explicit permission of your project supervisor and your degree course leader to select that unit. This permission will only be granted if a convincing case is made by the student. To do so, send an email to your supervisor (if you have one), your course leader and ask them to respond to the Projects Co-ordinator. Computing students must do an Engineering project. EIS students can choose either PJE30 or PJS30 in consultation with their supervisor.

Engineering project (PJE30)

An engineering project is one that involves practical work to solve a problem in the field of information systems. This is a requirement laid down by the British Computer Society, the accrediting body for our courses. See the document British Computer Society requirements for a project for details of how your project must meet the standards for professional accreditation.

An engineering project usually consists of the design and implementation of some information systems artefact, such as a piece of software. It does not have to be the construction of a new system from scratch - it could also be to substantially adapt an existing system. The artefact does not have to be a computer program: a design document might be the appropriate output from a design study. A piece of hardware would also be an appropriate artefact.

You can't just build the artefact though; you must be able to reflect on why you built it the way you did. You would therefore review the problem domain and a range of candidate solutions before proceeding with a design, implementation and evaluation. Normally there is an identifiable "customer" for the artefact - someone who could use the product in the course of their business or other activities. At each stage, you would be expected to justify your decisions in the context of the customer's business or other needs.

The three things that external examiners in recent years have most frequently criticised projects for is lack of a proper literature review, failure to adopt an engineering approach and lack of a critical element.

        A proper literature review is necessary for you to show that you can place your work in the wider context of computing and that you have adequately found out about previous work in the field that may guide your project.

        An engineering approach is one where you follow some appropriate process or methodology that leads from requirements to design to implementation and testing. By adopting such a process, it is much less likely that you will fail to take some crucial factor into consideration – an important aspect of professionalism.

        The critical element involves showing what you independently (in your professional judgement) believe to be good and bad about what you've read, what you've been taught, what you've been asked to do, what you've done, what you haven't done and the consequences of those. It does not involve blindly accepting as fact everything that you have been told or seen written down.

Study project (PJS30)

A study project does not normally involve the construction of an artefact, but may include elements of review and analysis and will probably involve significant academic elements that are not "computer science". Those undertaken by CAS students may involve an investigation into some aspects of the relationships between information and communication technologies and society. BIT projects frequently involve an investigation into some business/IT issue or phenomenon.

Social science and business projects also set out to answer questions or solve problems. Usually this starts with a literature survey which finds out what has been researched and written about on the subject so far, and then proceeds with a critique or re-interpretation of the material or perhaps an evaluation of it using a different perspective or theoretical framework. Primary research can also be undertaken and this might involve data collection by survey, interview, observation, etc. and thus add to the knowledge and literature base of a particular subject.

Business projects normally explore the wider business issues surrounding information systems. You will have studied lots of law, accounting, marketing, operations management, etc. and you may want to try to apply IT to these types of areas.

Social science projects normally address the wider sociological issues associated with information technology and its application.

Note that Computing students are not permitted to do study projects unless they can make a good case to do so, to their supervisor, course leader and unit coordinator.

General requirements for projects

Obviously, it is not sufficient just to have a problem to solve or a question to answer to form a project. Some problems are so simple to solve that they wouldn't make an interesting (or academically worthwhile) piece of work. What is required is what is sometimes referred to as a wicked problem – one for which solutions are not well known or obvious. This doesn't necessarily mean that the problem has never been solved before but projects that simply set out to repeat someone else's work are weak unless they incorporate some new aspect or adopt a different approach.

For example, suppose you set out to replicate some of the functionality of a common software package such as Microsoft Word. You would have to select what functionality to incorporate in your system. You would be working under the constraints of time available to you. You would be restricted in the set of development tools available to you. All these would be engineering problems unique to your project that you had to solve. Looking at a project idea from that point of view would make what would appear on the surface to be a well-known problem into quite a challenging one.

A project must be big enough to fill your time (normally 12 hours per week for a 30-point project) for about 6 months (including vacations). On the other hand, it must also be small enough for you to have a reasonable chance of completing it within that timeframe.

Finally, a project is an individual piece of work, though there is no bar on students doing related projects (or separate, identifiable parts of a larger project) as long as each person involved submits an individual final report. For related projects, the "bus test" must hold. If one student was run over by a bus, would the other(s) be able to carry on their project(s) unaffected by that disaster?

What will I be doing during my project?

During the course of a project, you will undoubtedly undertake many different activities. These will include:

        defining the objectives of the project;

        acquiring background information about the problem and its possible solutions;

        establishing the criteria by which your solution(s) to the problem will be judged;

        determining by what process the work will be carried out;

        planning the detailed phases of the project;

        adopting one or more design methodologies;

        analysing requirements;

        using (or constructing) tools;

        construction of one or more artefacts (hardware, software, document);

        evaluating your solution to the problem;

        reporting on your work.

Whatever the nature of the problem you set out to solve, the conclusion of your project should be whether you solved it successfully or not.

Who can supervise my project?

Every student project must have a supervisor. The supervisor’s role is to guide you through the project process and help you if you have problems. The supervisor is not there to do the project for you! The style of supervision varies between faculties, between departments within faculties and between individual members of staff. Some supervisors will insist seeing you each week to discuss the progress of your project, others will see you at slightly less frequent intervals or at your own request.

Your supervisor must come from the staff of the School of Computing (SoC). The only exception to this is that BIT students doing a PJS30 project may choose a supervisor from one of the departments of the Portsmouth Business School (PBS).

Some research staff may also supervise projects, as may some part-time staff.

How do I choose a project?

You can choose either a project suggested by a member of staff, or a project of your own. The only condition of the latter, to validate that your idea will make an appropriate project, is that you must find a member of staff willing to approve it.

Staff suggestions

Project suggestions are accessible from here. (This is an index of pages that members of staff have created.) These may be specific ideas for projects, or general areas within which the member of staff is willing to supervise suitable projects. Each project or general area has a label made up of the member of staff's initials and a number (e.g. Jim.Briggs_101). You need to note the label and title of the projects you are interested in.

Student suggestions

You are free to come up with a project suggestion of your own. Many projects each year arise from ideas that fall in to one or more of the following categories:

Sources of problem ideas

        suggested by your industrial placement employer (or another outside organisation with which you are familiar)

        something based on your own interests (e.g. something you have read about)

        a University-based problem (e.g. related to the department's teaching, research or administration)

        a previous project that needs some further work done

Approaches to tackling problems

        tackling a commonly known about problem with a novel solution

        applying a well-known solution to a novel class of problem

        evaluating several possible solutions to find the best one for a particular problem

The extent to which your project has novelty or innovation does not have to be great, but there has to be some for it to have some challenge for you.

Administration of project choice: IMPORTANT PLEASE READ

Students who know they are or may be going in to the final year

1.      By 4th June 2010, you must have registered your project choices. If in doubt as to whether you are entering the final year, register.

2.      Project registration is done online at www.pums.cam.port.ac.uk/projects/cohorts/2010-2011/index.htm. If this poses an unfair burden on you, contact the Project Co-ordinator to make alternative arrangements.

3.      The process is in 3 steps:

a)      registering the fact that you will be doing a project (once you have done this you will receive email notifications about the rest of the process)

b)      getting any "own suggestion" projects you have approved (if you want to pick only member of staff's project ideas, you omit this step) – there will be an intermediate deadline for this posted on the website

c)      making your project choices

4.      You need to choose 3 projects, in order of preference. These may be any combination of staff or own suggestions, but a member of staff must approve your own suggestions. "Own suggestion" projects must be approved prior to making your choice. You need to know the label and title of each of your preferences before registering. You also need to indicate the members of staff you prefer as your supervisor. This is not necessarily the member of staff who suggested the project or who approved your "own suggestion".

5.      After the deadline, students will be allocated to projects taking into account their preferences. You will be notified by email when this has been done. Where members of staff or project ideas are over-subscribed, staff preferences and "first come, first served" will be taken into account in that order. Due to this, the supervisor of a project is not necessarily the member of staff who suggested it or who approved your suggestion.

6.      Please don't leave this all to the last minute. Write the key dates in your diary now!

If you haven't registered by the deadline in June I may assign you a project.

Note:

1.      Each year some project supervisors prove to be very popular and get grossly over-subscribed. We will endeavour to keep you informed on the website about who is popular this year. Don't choose all popular staff for your supervisor – you are likely to be disappointed.

2.      In the past, the algorithm most over-subscribed supervisors have used to decide which students they want to supervise is "first come, first served", so it is very much in your interests to register your choices early.

Students entering the final-year directly or at short notice

You must register as above as soon as possible. A supervisor and project will then be allocated to you from among the members of staff with spare supervision load. Penalties will be applied if you don't register within a reasonable time. This will normally be within the first week of term.

What should I do once I get my project settled?

Once you have been allocated a supervisor and project, you can start doing some of the preliminary work for the project. The summer is a good time to do your background reading and to plan your work for the coming term. Supervisors will normally be willing to communicate with you by email during this period, though remember that marking takes precedence during the exam periods and their holidays will probably take precedence during the vacation!

Who should I talk to if I have any problems?

I (Penny Hart) am the final-year project co-ordinator. You can reach me by email (camprojects@port.ac.uk) or telephone (023 9284 6665). You can also get advice from your personal tutor, industrial placement visitor or degree stream leader as appropriate.

Appendix A - Collaborative projects with University of Le Havre

You can add value to your project by giving it an international dimension. The University of Le Havre (just across the water) has a new degree in Computer Science that started in September 1996. New schemes now exist in Europe to allow contacts between students, and they are thinking of collaboration between students (French and British) over common projects using new means of communication. The general idea is that you will be able to form a link with students in Le Havre working on a project in a similar area to your project. The added value element to your project could come from your project being tested by an independent team abroad, by your doing a presentation abroad, or by a comparative study of the performance of your project compared with a similar one by a French student. More ambitiously, joint projects are possible, however these would need careful planning; a project involving the development of Computer Supported Co-operative Work (CSCW) software, or a video conferencing project might be good candidates for joint development.

There may be a possibility of some EC money to support these developments. If you are interested in discussing the possibilities further, and perhaps seeking a project partner in France, please see John Rosbottom (email John.Rosbottom@port.ac.uk).