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COMP 523: Software Engineering

Syllabus for COMP 523: Software Engineering Laboratory


Bulletin description

Organization and scheduling of software engineering projects, structured programming, and design. Each team designs, codes, and debugs program components and synthesizes them into a tested, documented program product.

General course info


Instructor: Dr. Jeff Terrell

Teaching Assistant: Vraj Patel

Context and target audience

This course is a bit unusual in the department. Most computer science courses emphasize certain concepts, and some use programming assignments and projects to reinforce and apply the conceptual learning; the focus is the concepts. This course assumes familiarity with a breadth of computer science concepts and emphasizes the application of those concepts. It is primarily about building software that will be used by others. Although there is some conceptual content, most of it is in direct service to the process of building software.

Another unusual aspect of this course is the emphasis on collaboration. Other courses wisely proscribe or limit collaboration because your colleagues cannot learn for you, and the individual learning is essential. COMP 523, on the other hand, requires collaboration. Your project is not an individual but a team effort. Thus, you will learn the difficulty—and hopefully also the joy—of effective collaboration.

Because you will be applying concepts learned across a variety of other computer science courses, this course has many prerequisites and is typically taken by senior (and sometimes junior) computer science majors. Majors intending to pursue a career in research or academia are encouraged to take this course because it’s rare that the career of a CS major will not involve code at some level, and this course provides probably the most thorough exposure to practical software engineering available in the major, apart perhaps from an internship. For the same reason, CS majors intending to pursue a career in software engineering are especially encouraged to take this course.

Course description

The goal of this course is to teach and provide experience building software projects in service to somebody who needs it, as part of a small team. Most of the work you will do in this course is on the project, and the project’s grade is weighted accordingly.

The projects in this course are motivated by the software needs of people outside the classroom. The instructor finds these clients before the semester starts, hears about their needs, and assesses how well each potential project fits with the objectives and constraints of the course, including the size of the project and skills needed by students. Approved clients pitch their projects at the beginning of the semester, and teams (of 3–4 students) indicate their preferences to inform a match-making process. Once project assignments are decided, each team meets with its client to understand the requirements and priorities of the client, which starts the software development process, a process that continues until the end of the semester.

Along the way, teams meet weekly with their assigned mentor, who might be a volunteer from industry, the instructor, or a TA. In these meetings, mentors provide feedback intended to enrich teams and avoid problems and help solve any problems that have surfaced or are anticipated. They also review deliverables and demos and document progress to support the instructor in grading your efforts. This weekly cadence is also important to counter the natural tendency to procrastinate on the project, which is an unrewarding experience for students and clients. Note: if you have problems with your mentor, you should contact me.

This course is a CI (communications intensive) course. The meetings with your client and your mentor involve extensive communication. Also, the ongoing project work involves frequent coordination with your team to assign tasks and communicate questions, issues, and completions. In addition, about 20% of your grade depends on three talks that you deliver to the class as part of your team.

When clients and teams are not presenting, the instructor will lecture. Most lectures are of a more general nature and intended to help teams work on their projects more effectively, such as agile project management. There may also be occasional guest lectures from professionals with relevant experience.

The course also carries an EE (experiential education) designation and is an APPLES service-learning course.

Meetings outside of class

In keeping with the importance on communications and the CI designation, this course involves many meetings. Besides the class meetings, students are expected to:

Scheduling meetings involving so many busy people can be a challenge! To help with this, you have a one time that is already guaranteed to work by virtue of the fact that you’re successfully registered for this course. This class technically meets on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week. Apart from the beginning the semester, there will be no lectures on Friday, so you are guaranteed to have that time available–unless you fill it up with something else, and please, for the sake of your team, don’t do that.

That’s 3 types of meetings and 1 reserved time slot. You should prioritize the team meetings and mentor meetings above the client meetings, because your whole team must be present for those, and because they are more directly relevant to your grade. That said, if your client wants to meet with your team, do your best to find a time that at least one or two team members can meet.

Textbook and resources

There is one required textbook: Debugging: The 9 Indispensable Rules for Finding Even the Most Elusive Software and Hardware Problems by David J. Agans. I expect that its rules will come in handy as you work on your projects. The calendar lists expectations of by when certain chapters should be read. After these dates, you can expect to see the content of those chapters in quizzes.

There may occasionally be recommended readings or other resources; if so, they will be available for free online and linked from the class webpage. Such content will not be on quizzes unless otherwise noted.

After gaining experience with software engineering from this course, you may enjoy reading The Mythical Man Month by department founder Dr. Fred Brooks. It’s a classic for a reason.


The most useful courses to have taken before this one are COMP 421 and COMP 426. These concepts are typically needed in almost every project.

Learning objectives

At the end of the course, each student will have experienced all aspects of a software development project, including:

The course also conveys several Gen-Ed flags (see a later section for justifications):

Creative Expression, Practice, and Production

  1. Compose, design, build, present, or perform a work that is the result of immersion in a creative process using appropriate media, tools, and techniques.
  2. Explain the roles and influences of creativity, technologies, materials, and design processes in the creation of knowledge, expression, and effective solutions.
  3. Evaluate their own and others’ creative work to demonstrate how critique creates value in creative domains.

High Impact Experience

  1. Explain the connections between academic studies and outside-the-classroom experiences and observations.
  2. Apply knowledge in complex or ambiguous situations.
  3. Develop questions from experiences and observations to deepen and extend academic inquiry

Communication Beyond Carolina

  1. Ascertain the expectations, opportunities, and barriers to oral communication in distinct situations.
  2. Tailor communications to different kinds of settings, including individual, small group, and public communication.
  3. Tailor communications to different levels of expertise (inexpert, informed, expert), and to varying levels of alignment (resistant, ambivalent, supportive) and distinct contexts.
  4. Make informed situation- and audience-sensitive strategic choices in content and delivery.
  5. Improve ability to move audiences, as measure by best practices, audience feedback, and instructor feedback.

Research and Discovery

  1. Frame a topic, develop an original research question or creative goal, and establish a point of view, creative approach, or hypothesis.
  2. Obtain a procedural understanding of how conclusions can be reached in a field and gather appropriate evidence.
  3. Evaluate the quality of the arguments and/or evidence in support of the emerging product.
  4. Communicate findings in a clear and compelling ways.
  5. Critique and identify the limits of the conclusions of the project and generate ideas for future work.


In the course of developing a project, your team will deliver:

Also, your team will present three talks to the class. See the next section for details.

Finally, you will personally deliver a report on the project from your perspective, including an assessment of how each of your teammates performed.

More information is available on the assignments page of the web site.


Your team will deliver three talks to the class.

  1. A brief (~5 minute) midterm presentation describing your project and the progress to date, including UI designs, the platform selection, and a walking skeleton demo, which will be given about halfway through the semester.
  2. A longer (~20 minute) tech talk teaching some tool or technology to the class. This is a great way to present and learn about new technologies. This talk will be given towards the end of the semester.
  3. A final presentation (of about 9 minutes) including the project status and a retrospective about lessons learned, which will be given during the final exam period for this course.

More details about the talks will be available on the project website.

Grading criteria

Overall grade

Attendance and participation

During class, I will occasionally have participatory polls and exercises, typically via PollEverywhere. I will collect responses, and your response (whether it is correct or not) serves to demonstrate your attendance and participation in class. Each class period will be have an equal weight in the final grade. Note that some polls will be at the beginning or end of class, so if you arrive late or leave early you may miss them.

Mentors will report to me who was present and on-time for mentor meetings. If you are late but present, you will get half credit for the meeting.


To encourage your attention during lectures, even when the material isn’t immediately relevant, I will give a series of quizzes for lecture content. My intention is not to require your extensive study, since the other course requirements are substantial. However, a complete lack of accountability for lecture content has, in my opinion, been a disservice to my students in a previous iteration of the course. Even content that isn’t useful to a presently felt need often finds utility in the future.

My current plan is to have a 10-minute quiz with about 10 multiple choice questions on it at the end of class about every other week, as indicated on the calendar. (I may adjust this plan as the situation and student feedback warrant, but students will be given notice about any changes.) My aim is that those (and only those) who attended to lectures will be able to get good scores without studying.

Project grade

There are two components to the project grade, each worth half: the assignment grade and the app grade.

Assignment grade

Each assignment is graded on a 2 point scale. Points are awarded based on what proportion of the requirements were met on time; for example, an assignment meeting all requirements will earn 2 points, and an assignment missing about half of the requirements will earn 1 points. Only whole numbers will be used for grading, to avoid needlessly fine distinctions. In the event that the assignment is of exceptional quality, a third point may be awarded. I expect that this will be uncommon; after all, not many things can be exceptional.

After Assignment 8: Walking Skeleton, demo videos will be due each week at the usual weekly deadline. These are short videos demonstrating a feature that has been developed and is now ready for client review. These videos will be graded on the same 2 point scale. A video earning 2 points clearly demonstrates the feature in a way that the client can reproduce.

Each week will have equal weight in determining the assignment grade. So when two assignments are due in one week, or when an assignment and a demo video are due, the individual scores are averaged to compute the assignment grade for the week. The total assignment grade is the average of all the weeks.

Assignments 0 (project preferences) and 15 (personal report) are not graded and do not contribute to the assignment grade. Assignment 10 (tech talk) is graded separately and does not contribute to the assignment grade.

I do not expect teams to get assignments and demo videos perfect the first time, with no revisions needed. I do expect completion by the due date, which will earn full credit. Meeting all assignment requirements on time is the easiest way to improve your grade in this course.

If your assignment or your demo video earns less than 2 points, you will have a list of things to add or change. If you accomplish everything on the list by the grading period for the next week, you will get half of the lost points back.

App grade

The app grade is assessed after the final presentation. Because the apps are all different, there is no standard grading rubric, and grading is inherently subjective. However, the following qualitative criteria should help clarify my expectations and provide some consistency.

An app getting a grade of A:

An app getting a grade of B might miss 2 of these criteria, or else do a mediocre job at many of them.

An app getting a grade of C has significant problems.

Individual grade

Once projects are assigned grades, your personal contributions are weighed (based on your mentor’s observations as well as the personal report turned in by your teammates), and I multiply the project grade by a individual effort factor that is typically between 0.7 and 1.1, although could be as low as 0.5 in extreme cases. It will rarely be above 1; if you are contributing significantly more than the other members of your team, that is often more indicative of team dysfunction than individual heroism. In order to get a 1, you must:

Grading scale


Attendance is required, and in-class participation accounts for 5% of your overall grade.

However, per the UNC community guidelines, you should not attend class in person if you have any symptoms of COVID-19. So there will also be a virtual option on Zoom. If you attend virtually, you must still participate to receive credit for attending.

If I develop symptoms of COVID-19, I will either hold class remotely via Zoom or else record a lecture. In either case, I will email everybody as plans develop.

If an illness, family emergency, or other university-recognized reason for missing lecture occurs, you can provide an official letter from the Office of the Dean of Students recognizing the excuse, in which case you will not be penalized for the absence.

Lecture topics

In approximate order:

Deadlines and key dates

See the course website for details about each of the assignments, including due dates. Other important dates are:

Zoom policies

I will attempt to keep an eye on the participants list and chat window of Zoom while lecturing. If you have a question, raise your virtual hand or ask your question in the chat window, and I’ll get to it soon. Please refrain from general chatting in the Zoom chat window, the same way you would (hopefully) refrain from chatting in a physical classroom during lecture. However, please feel free to chat before and after lecture.

Honor code

Collaboration is an essential part of almost every graded activity in this course. However, for in-class quizzes, collaboration will be considered cheating. Also, reports on members of your team at the end of the semester should of course be individual efforts.

Mask use

This semester, while we are in the midst of a global pandemic, all enrolled students are required to wear a mask covering your mouth and nose at all times in our classroom. This requirement is to protect our educational community—your classmates and me—as we learn together. If you choose not to wear a mask, or wear it improperly, I will ask you to leave immediately, and I will submit a report to the Office of Student Conduct. At that point you will be disenrolled from this course for the protection of our educational community. Students who have an authorized accommodation from Accessibility Resources and Service have an exception. For additional information, see Carolina Together.

Accessibility Resources and Services (ARS)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill facilitates the implementation of reasonable accommodations, including resources and services, for students with disabilities, chronic medical conditions, a temporary disability or pregnancy complications resulting in barriers to fully accessing University courses, programs and activities.

Accommodations are determined through the Office of Accessibility Resources and Service (ARS) for individuals with documented qualifying disabilities in accordance with applicable state and federal laws. See the ARS website for contact information or email

Dealing with stress (CAPS)

Please be aware that this course can be stressful. One of the key stressors stems from collaboration: the choices and contributions of your teammates are out of your control, yet they affect you. Furthermore, you may experience more interpersonal conflict in this course than in any other course you’ve taken at Carolina. Lastly, you may feel a heavier weight of responsibility in this class than others, because if you fail, you are disappointing not only yourself but also your teammates and your client.

Some people are better equipped to tolerate and navigate such stresses than others. If your stress or anxiety are interfering with your sleep or your life in an unusual way, please consider getting help. There’s no shame in that. Indeed, I have been the grateful recipient of such help in the past.

CAPS is strongly committed to addressing the mental health needs of a diverse student body through timely access to consultation and connection to clinically appropriate services, whether for short or long-term needs. Go to the CAPS website or visit their facilities on the third floor of the Campus Health Services building for a walk-in evaluation to learn more.

Title IX Resources

Any student who is impacted by discrimination, harassment, interpersonal (relationship) violence, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, or stalking is encouraged to seek resources on campus or in the community. Please contact the Director of Title IX Compliance (Adrienne Allison –, Report and Response Coordinators in the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office (, Counseling and Psychological Services (confidential), or the Gender Violence Services Coordinators (; confidential) to discuss your specific needs. Additional resources are available at


The professor reserves the right to make changes to this syllabus, including assignment and project due dates, as well as percentages for assignments and exams towards final course grade. These changes will be announced as early as possible and will be reflected on the course website. If there are discrepancies between this syllabus and the website, the website is considered the authoritative resource.

Gen-Ed flags

This course carries a number of gen-ed flags at UNC. A justification for each follows. These flags also imply certain learning objectives, which are included above.

Creative Expression, Practice, and Production

Catalog description

Students engage in individual and collaborative creative expression, exploration, or production, such as in performance, visual art, composition, design, or technology. They engage with tools, techniques, methods, design processes, technologies, and materials for creating works that express, innovate, or create solutions to problems.

Questions for students (from the catalog)
  1. What processes and practices can I use to produce meaningful expression or effective solutions with lasting impact?
  2. How does collaboration and teamwork change or enhance the creative process?
  3. How does a design strategy affect or enhance the creation and evaluation of a work of value?

The major output of this course is a created software product. Students learn and use tools, techniques, methods, design processes, technologies, and materials (e.g. software libraries) to create it. They are solving a problem brought to them by a client outside the class.

High Impact Experience

Catalog Description

Students enrich and expand their academic study by engaging in compelling applied experiences that transform their learning.

Questions for students
  1. How do things I’ve learned in the classroom apply to outside settings?
  2. How can experiences and observation raise or answer questions in academic settings?
  3. How can I meaningfully reflect to help navigate complexities and ambiguities I encounter?

This course applies many concepts taught in other courses to computer science majors. Much of the learning that occurs in this course happens in the context of the project, not the lectures.

Communication Beyond Carolina

Catalog Description

Students build capacities for producing and listening to oral communication across a range of contexts. With multiple audiences, they learn to listen to and persuasively convey knowledge, ideas, and information.

Questions for students
  1. How can I engage with audiences through oral communication?
  2. How do I best convey knowledge, ideas, and information effectively to different audiences in situations?
  3. How can I best understand the views and ideas of others, both individually and collectively?
  4. What are the best ways of strategizing and delivering oral communication for achieving my intended outcomes?
  5. How can media or digital compositions extend my ability to communicate?

In this course, students regularly discuss their project with:

Also, student teams present to the class, and each team member must participate in the presentation. There are three presentations:

  1. a mid-term progress report
  2. a longer technical talk
  3. a final presentation

Furthermore, each team must add various reports to a project web site that they create.

Thus, oral communication is a pronounced theme.

Research and Discovery

Catalog Description

Student immerse themselves in a research project and experience the reflection and revision involved in producing and disseminating original scholarship or creative works.

Questions for students
  1. How do I establish my point of view, take intellectual risks, and begin producing original scholarship or creative works?
  2. How do I narrow my topic, critique current scholarship, and gather evidence in systematic and responsible ways?
  3. How do I evaluate my findings and communicate my conclusions?

The major output of the course is a creative product. Although the idea is brought to the course from a client external to the course, the students must decide how to approach the problem, which tools to use, how to collaborate effectively, etc. Students must reflect on their progress and methods in many of the weekly assignments, and such reflection and refinement is a significant part of the mentoring meetings that happen weekly.