Winter 2021

Instructor: Anya E. Vostinar

Course materials: All materials, including readings, will be linked through Moodle.

Drop in hours:

M: 3:45-4:45pm

W: 11:45-12:45pm

Th: 3-4pm

All drop in hours will be in my Zoom ‘Office’

Make sure you are signed in to your Carleton Zoom otherwise you won’t be able to get in!

Remember that you are always welcome to schedule an appointment with me outside of these times. To schedule an appointment, please see my calendar, find a time that isn’t marked ‘Busy’ within 9-5 M-F and either send an invite to an event or email me.

Overview and Learning Goals

Welcome to Evolutionary Computing and Artificial Life! In this course you’ll learn that evolution is simply an algorithm and arguably one of the most powerful algorithms of all time. It has proven exceedingly useful in solving problems that have been difficult for humans both in engineering and of course in biological systems. All that is necessary for evolution to occur is variation, inheritance, and competition. With those three things and time, it is logically impossible for evolution not to occur.

This term you will:

  • Create your own artificial life simulation to answer a question about evolution
  • Learn about a range of interesting biological systems
  • Learn how to program in C++
  • Use a powerful open source library
  • Write a scientific paper

Prerequisites: CS201 (Data Structures)

Course expectations

Because we’re online this term, our interactions will be a little different from how they would have been at Carleton. In these unprecedented times, we will need to exhibit flexibility and patience with each other throughout the term. I have done my best to design the course so that everyone can be successful, regardless of personal circumstances. Communication will be key; please keep me updated about your situation in addition to reaching out to the other relevant offices on campus. If you experience significant technological problems that limit your ability to participate, please contact the ITS Helpdesk at 507-222-5999 or For announcements of known technical issues, visit the Helpdesk portal. If your personal situation (due to COVID-19 illness or other circumstances) begins to impact your ability to engage with the course, please contact the Dean of Students Office and also let me know.

I expect you to attend every class session and log in to Moodle every day for updates on activities and assignments. When engaging with course activities online, use your Carleton Gmail/Google account; do not use other personal email accounts. I will show you civility and respect and expect you will do the same to me and each other in both asynchronous and synchronous discussions, at the whole class level, and when in small groups. Whole class synchronous activities will only be scheduled during designated class meeting times, but opportunities for small group or one-on-one synchronous engagement may be scheduled flexibly at other times. I look forward to working with you to find ways for you to effectively engage with the course given your circumstances.

I have a separate page with specific expectations I have for you and the expectations that you can have for me; please make sure that you have read it. All out of class written communication will happen via the Moodle announcement forum. Please make sure you are reading your emails regularly. Each class day will have activities for you to complete and a section on Moodle to guide you through what you should do. All materials will be released at least 48 hours before they are due.

Types of Engagement and Collaboration Policies

We’ll have lots of different ways of engaging with the course material:

  • Readings, which will introduce ideas and provide more details than the videos. Readings sometimes include embedded activities to help you check your understanding.
  • Labs for writing somewhat longer code with significant guidance from the instructions in order to make ideas from class more concrete.
  • Term-long Project that you will complete pieces of for specific dates where you can apply what you’ve learned and pursue a question of interest to you.

I believe each of these types of activities will give you a different lens on the core class ideas and help you to deeply learn and understand the material. In many of these activities you’ll have the option to work collaboratively.

Evaluation and Grading

I want you to know that I recognize that the global pandemic is likely to affect your ability to focus and work on this class. Because this class is an elective, future classes won’t depend on it. However, I hope that if you are in this class, it’s because the topic is of interest to you and each component is structured to improve your understanding of the topic overall.

For this class, I will be grading as follows: At the end of the term, I addup your numerical scores for each component, multiply them by the weight for that component, and add up all components. I’ll then check what your percentage is compared to this breakdown:

Percentage Letter Grade Meaning
93-100% A Demonstrated mastery of all course concepts
90-93% A- Demonstrated near mastery of all course concepts
87-90% B+ Demonstrated near mastery of all required concepts and most additional
83-87% B Demonstrated strong competence in all required concepts and some additional
80-83% B- Demonstrated competence in all required concepts and some additional
77-80% C+ Demonstrated adequate understanding of required concepts and some additional
70-77% C Demonstrated adequate understanding of required concepts
60-70% D Not yet completely able to demonstrate understanding of required
0-60% F Not yet able to demonstrate understanding of required concepts

Note that there is overlap; I will always go with the higher letter grade in the extraordinary circumstance that someone is at exactly 93%. If someone is really really close to a cutoff, I’ll bump them up, so don’t worry about being at 89.99% and getting a B+ instead of an A-.

Here is how activities this term will be factored into your grade:

Component Method of evaluation Contribution to overall grade
Labs and activities Evaluated only on effort. You must turn them in and make an effort to complete all parts, including seeking out assistance if you’re struggling on a particular part. 10%
Project proposal Evaluated based on quality, including answering the prompt thoroughly and evidence of careful consideration of the topic. There will be several opportunities for feedback and improvement. 10%
Peer review participation Evaluated based on effort. There will be several times you are expected to give your peers feedback to help them improve their own projects. 10%
Progress reports Evaluated based on clear progress and effort. To ensure you are working steadily on your final project during the second half of the term. 10%
Term project software Evaluated based on correctness, including exhibiting correct behavior and good style and design choices. 25%
Paper Explaining your science is equally as important as doing science, so you will need to explain your science through a scientific paper 25%
Presentation You will also need to present your final project to the class and actively participate in your classmates’ presentations. 10%

How to Succeed in this Class

  • Keep trying and ask for help: Learning a new topic can be challenging, and one of my hopes for this class is that you’ll struggle at times and learn more because you had to really work to understand something. That means you’re expected to be willing to try again when things don’t work the first time, and to seek out help when you’re truly stuck. (See below for more on seeking help!)
  • Work consistently: For all learning, but especially learning online, engaging with the material in shorter, more frequent sessions is likely to be helpful. Set aside time each day to work on the course, and make sure that you’re keeping up with the daily activities. Try to find a space that you can just use for studying, and if that’s not possible, have a way to physically cue to yourself that this is studying time, such as by getting out a specific notebook for this course.
  • Minimize distractions: There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and it can be tough to ignore that. However, you’ll learn more and likely be happier if you can minimize those distractions during the time you’re working on the course. When you’re working on 361, put your phone away unless that’s what you’re using to access materials, and close your email and any browser windows that aren’t being used for this course. Set a time limit for how long you’ll work, and don’t check those things until the time limit is up. People tend to believe they’re good at multitasking, but in actuality, multitasking hurts productivity and learning.
  • Monitor your own learning: After each activity or work session, write down (on paper) a few things about what you learned and any questions that you have. Look back at those questions as you work through more activities, and if you aren’t able to resolve the questions on your own, ask about them on the forum.
  • Take notes: Research has shown that writing things down in your own words helps you to remember and understand it better. Take handwritten notes when watching videos and reading. Research has also shown that handwritten instead of typed notes help you retain the information better.
  • Pay attention to longer-term assignments and start early: I deliberately have pieces of the final project due throughout the term so that you are steadily working on it. By starting early, you have more opportunities to work through problems that come up and time to ask for help! Even if you can’t immediately start on the assignment, read over the prompt so that your brain can start thinking about it in the background; it really does help!
  • Ask questions and reach out for help: Even though we aren’t face to face this term, there are still lots of ways to get help. If you have a question about something, chances are other people do too. By asking questions during our synchronous Q&A time, on the forum, and in office hours, you’ll keep up with the course and gain a deeper understanding of the concepts.

Late Policies

Because I know that personal or tech difficulties may arise at times during the term, all assignments have a 48-hour, no questions asked extensions policy. If you have a tech issue, a health issue, or some other issue that impedes making the deadline, use this policy. You just need to notify me that you’re using the policy before the deadline. If you are unable to notify me, please just still let me know when you are able and I’ll work with you. Extensions beyond the 48-hour policy will only be considered in extenuating circumstances.

Activities and labs do not have a built in extensions policy. If something is interfering with your ability to do your work, please reach out. Generally, late work outside of the 48 hour homework extension will not be accepted unless we have had a conversation and I agree that an extension makes sense. If at all possible, this conversation should occur prior to the late work (you might have this conversation in writing via email), and if that is not possible, you should reach out to me as soon as possible after you realize that extenuating circumstances will lead the work to be late. Depending on the nature of the circumstances, I may also ask you to chat with someone in the Dean of Students office, as they can assist you in managing circumstances that may require accommodations in multiple classes.

How to Get Help

I want to see all of you succeed in this class, and I believe you can succeed if you engage with the class material and activities consistently and reach out for help when you’re confused. To learn computer science, you’ll need to be willing to try new things and experiment with different solutions. Cultivating persistence to keep trying will be helpful not only in this course, but in any other problem solving activities. Sometimes, you may need assistance - here’s how you get it:

  • Take a break: Often, taking a break from homework will help you to regroup and you’ll be able to succeed when you come back to it. Leave yourself enough time to be able to take breaks!
  • Moodle Forum: You’re welcome to post questions about videos, readings, and activities on the forum, as well as about your project. Since each of your projects is unique, your classmates may not be able to help as much with a project question, but you are still encouraged to post them on the forum since they might! You are all thinking about the same general things after all and I will answer forum questions as well.
  • Talk to me: I have both drop in office hours and office hours that are by appointment (for one on one conversations). See links at the top of this document for more details. Talking to students is literally my favorite part of this job, please talk to me!
  • Other Carleton resources: There are lots of resources to help you at Carleton, and these resources have persisted in virtual form. The Academic Skills center is a wonderful resource for helping you develop study skills, improve your ability to plan large projects, or manage procrastination. Oscar Alarez is an academic skills coach in the office with whom you can make individual video conferencing appointments.

Inclusivity and Universal Learning

I strive to create an inclusive and respectful classroom that values diversity. Our individual differences enrich and enhance our understanding of one another and of the world around us. This class welcomes the perspectives of all ethnicities, genders, religions, ages, sexual orientations, disabilities, socioeconomic backgrounds, regions, and nationalities.

My goal is that everyone should be able to learn from this class and feel comfortable asking questions and participating. In class, on the forums, and when working with one another, be respectful and inclusive. If something makes you uncomfortable or you’re concerned about an interaction, please come talk to me!

Carleton College is committed to providing equitable access to learning opportunities for all students. The Disability Services office (Henry House, 107 Union Street) is the campus office that collaborates with students who have disabilities to provide and/or arrange reasonable accommodations. If you have, or think you may have, a disability (e.g., mental health, attentional, learning, autism spectrum disorders, chronic health, traumatic brain injury and concussions, vision, hearing, mobility, or speech impairments), please contact or call Sam Thayer (’10), Accessibility Specialist (x4464) or Chris Dallager, Director of Disability Services (x5250) to arrange a confidential discussion regarding equitable access and reasonable accommodations. If you’ve already arranged accommodations, please let me know if there’s anything you want me to know beyond what’s in the accommodations letter or if there are particular challenges that online learning poses for your specific circumstances. If you do not have official accomodations, I am still happy to discuss with you ways in which I can help you succeed in this class.

The Assistive Technologies program brings together academic and technological resources to complement student classroom and computing needs, particularly in support of students with physical or learning disabilities. Accessibility features include text-to-speech (Kurzweil), speech-to-text (Dragon) software, and audio recording Smartpens. If you would like to know more, contact or visit

Carleton College urges you to make yourself –- your own health and well-being –- your priority throughout this ​term and your career here. It is important to recognize stressors you may be facing, which can be personal, emotional, physical, financial, mental, or academic. Sleep, exercise, and connecting with others can be strategies to help you flourish at Carleton. If you are having difficulties maintaining your well-being, please contact me and/or pursue other resources, such as Student Health and Counseling or resources on the Office of Health Promotion website. Student Health and Counseling is currently offering telehealth services.

Carleton is committed to fostering an environment free of sexual misconduct. Please be aware all Carleton faculty and staff members, with the exception of Chaplains and SHAC staff, are “responsible employees.” Responsible employees are required to share any information they have regarding incidents of sexual misconduct with the Title IX Coordinator. Carleton’s goal is to ensure campus community members are aware of all the options available and have access to the resources they need. If you have questions, please contact Laura Riehle-Merrill, Carleton’s Title IX Coordinator, or visit the Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response website:

Academic Honesty and Collaboration Policy

As noted in Carleton’s policy on academic integrity, violations of academic honesty are dealt with at the college level. If I suspect academic dishonesty, I will refer the case for appropriate action to the Academic Standing Committee (ASC) via the Associate Dean of Students or the Associate Dean of the College. Please familiarize yourself with Carleton’s academic integrity policies and make sure that you have read the collaboration and academic honesty policies for this course. A possible penalty for academic dishonesty in a course is an F in the course. It’s not worth it – please seek help using the resources above instead.