The MSCS Department encourages juniors interested in undertaking a large project related to the major to consult with faculty members about applying for the senior Honors program. To earn Honors in Mathematics, Statistics, Data Science, or Computer Science, a student must complete a substantial independent research project. The topic should be chosen to demonstrate a broad and deep understanding of the chosen subject area.

Compared to a Capstone Project, an Honors Project has significantly elevated standards and expectations. In particular, an Honors Project:

  • Requires permission to undertake. The department and honors advisor will assess the student’s preparedness to complete an honors project before approving the student. This ensures that the student is prepared for the project.
  • Requires more depth. Honors projects typically exceed the scope of any single MSCS course project, and require a written research paper/thesis.
  • Must demonstrate a broader understanding of the field.
  • Must show significant originality, which may include original synthesis, integration, or understanding beyond the scope of simple revision or comprehension of existing knowledge.

Timeline and Institutional Procedures

The suggested and institutional deadlines below are intended to facilitate progress toward a successful Honors paper. The official college honors program guidelines and deadlines are found here: Macalester College Honors Program. In all cases, college deadlines supersede the ones below, and are firm. December graduates must arrange suitable deadlines one semester earlier on an individual basis.

  1. Application to Department: last day of April (Junior year)
    This is a hard deadline because the department approves all project proposals at the May department meeting (first Tuesday in May).

    • Provisional Application to Department: This deadline applies only to (a) students studying away in spring of the junior year, or (b) for sanctioned resubmissions of proposals in the previous spring: end of 2nd week of fall term (Senior year)
  2. Presentation of progress on project in Department Seminar: Late November/early December
    The department will reserve a ~1.5 hour time slot in late November/early December for all honors students to present a 5-minute talk on their progress so far. Presenting is a mandatory part of progressing with the honors project.
  3. Evaluation of student progress by the department: Late January (see official college deadline)
    As part of ongoing regular meetings between honors students and their faculty advisors, faculty advisors and students will decide together if the project is at a satisfactory stage for continuation. Faculty advisors will communicate with the department chair to notify if projects will continue moving forward.
  4. Selection of honors committee: Mid-January (suggested deadline)
    In the fall semester, discuss with your faculty advisor the potential composition of your honors committee. (See section below “Selection of Honors Committee” for details on committee composition.) If you and your advisor have a clear vision for committee members, it may make sense to reach out to those faculty members early–especially if you expect to be getting project advice from these committee members. Otherwise, it is suggested that you identify and reach out to committee members by mid-January so that these faculty members can plan for reading your honors paper and attending your honors defense appropriately.
  5. Final abstract due: Early April (see official college deadline)
  6. Send (almost) final paper to honors committee: At least 2 weeks before your oral examination (defense)
    In order to give your committee enough time to read your paper and prepare for your defense, it is highly recommended that you send your (nearly) final paper to committee members at least 2 weeks before your defense. (This likely won’t be your final paper because there may be some suggestions on improving the paper at your defense.)
  7. Final oral examination (defense): Mid-April (see official college deadline)
    Start thinking about scheduling your defense in early March. Talk with your advisor and reach out to committee members to coordinate scheduling.
  8. Library (PDF) copy of paper due: Late April (see official college deadline)

Students frequently earn credits for independent work in the department in pursuit of the research for the Honors Project. Students should discuss with their honors advisor about expectations for independent work credits. 

Application to Department

Entry standards: To be accepted into the Honors Program in the Mathematics major, Statistics major, Data Science major, or Computer Science major, a student must have demonstrated the discipline, skills, and the depth of understanding necessary for successful completion of an Honors project, and must have the support of a faculty member willing to serve as the Honors advisor. Evidence of preparedness might include, but is not limited to:

  • GPA or success in courses for the major
  • Successful course projects, research or internship experience
  • Demonstrated growth throughout the major

Timing:  All juniors, including those who are studying away in the spring term, must indicate their interest in pursuing a senior Honors project by filing a project proposal with the proposed faculty advisor by the last Friday in April. We highly recommend that students studying away during spring of the junior year draft their proposal in consultation with their proposed Honors advisor before leaving campus.

Finding a faculty advisor: Students should discuss possible project topics with MSCS faculty members who they would like to work with; students must gain the approval and agreement of the faculty advisor before submitting a proposal. Faculty can decline to advise an Honors project for any reason.

Student research proposals: Students must prepare a proposal that includes:

  1. A project description and title
  2. The name of a faculty sponsor in the department
  3. A timeline describing when and how the research and writing will take place
  4. A personal statement that explains why the student feels well-prepared to undertake an Honors project

Faculty endorsement: Each student proposal must be accompanied by an endorsement from a faculty member describing:

  1. The qualifications of the student and evidence of student preparedness for undertaking an Honors project. Evidence might include, but is not limited to, GPA or success in courses, successful course projects, research or internship experience, demonstrated growth throughout the major.
  2. The feasibility of the project, and the likelihood of successful completion
  3. Whether the student has adequate course work for the proposed project
  4. The sponsor’s willingness to supervise the project

Evaluation of proposals: The Department will evaluate proposals based on: (1) the intellectual clarity and promise of the project; (2) the amount of prior preparation for the project; and (3) an assessment of the student’s capacity to successfully carry out the project.

The Department will determine one of the following.

  • A proposal may be approved.
  • A proposal may be rejected as unsuitable.
  • A proposal may be provisionally approved and require revision and resubmission in the fall. In this case, a proposal adhering to the above guidelines must be submitted to the department by the end of the second week of classes in the fall. The department will accept or reject any such proposals on or before the last Friday in September.

Project Presentation in Department Seminar (December progress update)

Honors students will give a short (5 minute) overview of their project and their progress thus far during a Department Seminar in late November or early December. This presentation will be aimed at both faculty and students. Although students may not have research results at this time, they are expected to 1) describe the research problem they are addressing, 2) describe why the research problem is important, and 3) outline their next steps in the research process.

Selection of Honors Committee

Successful completion of the Honors project requires the approval of the student’s Honors Committee. The Honors Committee consists of the faculty advisor, a second faculty member from the same discipline, and a third faculty reviewer. The third committee member may be (1) a non-MSCS person with expertise in the topic of the project, or (2) another MSCS faculty member. In the second case, it is preferred, though not required, that the MSCS faculty member be from a different discipline from the other committee members. All committee members must sign the Project Completion Form for the project to be approved.

January Evaluation

Evaluation: During January, the faculty advisor will update the MSCS department about the student’s progress. The department will then determine whether the project should be continued as an Honors project.

Honors projects that do not continue: Projects that the department determines should not continue as Honors projects may continue as Capstone projects.

Final Evaluation

An Honors project culminates in the following artifacts:

  1. An Honors paper and abstract. These are due to the Honors Committee on the Monday following spring break. Recall that an honors project will:
    1. exceed the scope of any single MSCS course project, and
    2. demonstrate significant originality, which may include original synthesis, integration, or understanding beyond the scope of simple revision or comprehension of existing knowledge.
  2. An oral presentation and examination on the substance of the honors project. The oral examination will take place prior to the college deadline, usually around mid-April. More details on this are detailed in the section below.

The student’s Honors Committee will reach consensus on one of the following evaluations of the project:

  1. To accept the project, although some changes may be required. The committee will specify one of three options for this revision. The committee may
    1. delegate final approval to the advisor
    2. require final committee approval
  2. To recommend that the project be rejected as unacceptable.

Oral Presentation and Examination

In mid to late March, after the honors student and advisor have confirmed the composition of the Honors Committee (see section above for details on committee composition), the honors student will schedule a 1-1.5 hour time block where the whole committee is available. (Usually a 1 hour time block is ideal.) The structure of this time is as follows:

  • Public presentation: The honors student will give a 25-30 minute presentation on their project. The Honors Committee will be in attendance, and anyone else is invited to intend (including Macalester community members, family members, friends). Note that the MSCS department will advertise honors talks to the department and many MSCS students often attend. The talk should balance being accessible to a general audience but also convey technical detail that is more at the level of your Honors Committee. Generally, you should aim for the context and motivation for your work to be accessible to a general audience. Details of methodology and results may only be fully accessible to your Honors Committee.
  • Public Q&A: The honors advisor and/or student will facilitate about 10 minutes of Q&A with questions from the general audience.
  • Private Q&A: The honors advisor will dismiss everyone but the Honors Committee so that the Honors Committee members can ask more questions.
  • Wrap-up: The honors student will leave the room briefly so that the Committee can discuss the student’s work. The student will be invited back again to discuss results.