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Comps: Put Theory Into Practice

Senior year is an exciting time at Carleton. You’ve worked hard. You’ve studied a lot. You’ve taken exams, written papers, and contributed to lively class discussions. You’re ready for comps!

Each Carleton senior completes a capstone project in their major. This project should surpass their previous coursework in scope and complexity. Every student is given the chance to work closely with a faculty adviser and marshal the skills acquired and refined over the past three years.

Officially, this project is called an “integrative exercise,” but colloquially, it’s known as comps. Why comps? The nickname harkens back to a bygone era when the senior capstone experience was a comprehensive exam.

What Will You Do?

Each year, Carleton students tackle a wide variety of comps projects. Some students conduct sophisticated research projects and write a corresponding paper. Others deliver lectures or present posters. And still others create something entirely new — like a painting, musical composition, or computer program.

Most students work alone on their comps project, but some will combine their skills and interests to collaborate on a single project.

Comps projects are designed to be challenging, even by Carleton standards. In fact, the experience is so intense, it’s even inspired a verb: compsing.

But working on your comps project can also be fun. Students have a chance to express their individual interests and perspectives within their majors, and more freedom over the process than they would have for a typical class project. Plus, students who plan to attend grad school get a chance to experience the process of writing a thesis or dissertation. And seniors who are heading into the workforce will have successfully completed a challenging project — something worth pointing out to prospective employers. It’s a quintessentially Carleton way to end a rich college experience.

Student Teachers

Here are a six quick lessons we learned from recent comps projects:

  1. Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere and oceans could make marine predators less effective hunters and marine prey less successful survivors. Biology major Marina Watowich studied the behavior of fish living in water with increased CO2 vs. a control group.
  2. Social investment from mothers positively affects student achievement in India. Joining school groups like the PTA is especially impactful. Economics major Caitlin Throne analyzed data on educational success and parent participation in India.
  3. Composer Joseph Haydn ended his Farewell Symphony in an unusual way. The musicians left the stage one by one to encourage patron Prince Esterhazy to end an overlong visit to his summer castle. Music major Mikyla Carpenter examined how musical works have used humor (accessible to anyone) and wit (defying convention to delight experts).
  4. Higher resolution (more data points) makes a more accurate 2-D scan. But downsampling (eliminating some data points) can be helpful in 3-D scanning. Computer science majors Alex Calamaro, Yawen Chen, Karen Halls, Jonathan Liou, and Sam Watson developed ways to use cheap equipment to make high quality 3D scans.
  5. Beta-blocker drugs may alter a person’s emotional response to memories without altering the memories’ content. Philosophy major Austin Yeager reviewed neurological research into memory reconsolidation. She proceeded to analyze its philosophical implications and how it could be ethically used to treat conditions like PTSD.
  6. “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air advocated for a strong and diverse black community that is inclusive of all black people in America.” American Studies major Jeffrey Bissoy examined the lessons in blackness from this 1990’s sitcom. Read his full comps paper here