Many undergraduate careers conclude with a capstone, an exhaustive research project designed to introduce students to the rigors of academia.
In fact, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) estimates that as many as two-thirds of bachelor students complete them, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. At the University of Massachusetts, students can enroll in a capstone either through the Commonwealth Honors College or independently.
With so many students doing capstones, the AACU recently decided to review the value of a capstone to a student, according to the Chronicle.
They found that capstones have “significant educational benefits,” according to the Chronicle, although they “do not always lead students to synthesize materials across discipline.”
Despite this shortcoming, associate professor Annaliese Bischoff of the Landscape Architecture & Regional Plan believes capstones are worthwhile.
They allow for a “depth and rigor with which a student can engage a topic of his or her own interest,” said Bischoff, who works as an adviser for the Honors College.
She explained that it differs from standard courses because it “prepares students to continue with confidence, enthusiasm, and excitement, and a strength and ability to handle new tasks in innovative ways.”
The Honors College offers two methods of completing a capstone. The first method is to pursue a research path of their choice working with a faculty adviser. The second option is to enroll in a faculty-initiated seminar which follows a traditional classroom structure. Both options are meant to occur during a student’s final two undergraduate semesters.
While it is primarily honors students who complete capstones, it is possible for other UMass undergraduate students to participate. Students may now join as partial curriculum students choosing from Departmental Honors Only, Multidisciplinary Honors Only or General Studies Honors Only, rather than becoming full curriculum participants in the Honors College.
One such participant is Andrew Maurer, a mathematics and computer science major, who chose to enroll in the Departmental Honors Only program. Maurer saw the capstone project as an opportunity to test out his future plans as a pure mathematician. He said that he “wanted to get a taste of what professional and advanced level research in the mathematics field would be like.”
Maurer’s project will not require him to do any multidisciplinary research.
But he said that “if a student’s future plans involve synthesizing material across different fields, they should practice that.”
“I … want the opportunity to focus my efforts towards my future goals, and working to incorporate other fields would not be useful in my future plans,” Maurer said.
Another student, Megan Valcour, a senior English major, viewed her capstone process quite differently. Unlike Maurer, Valcour is enrolled in a capstone course in which students are encouraged to take advantage of online resources like YouTube and social media websites in their research. All of the students in her class have unique pursuits, and their success depends on their individual approach.
The capstone lets you “accomplish something really awesome, if it has personal meaning for you,” Valcour said.
“It can’t hurt you to do a long term research project for experience, but if you’re not going to belong to academia later, [a capstone] could prevent you from pursuing classes you really want to take instead,” she added.
The AACU study – which analyzed two years of data from four private colleges – showed that capstones can be exhausting. The average senior spent 14 hours a week on their capstone alone, three hours more than a senior without a capstone spends studying for all of their classes, according to the Chronicle. The study also found that 84 percent of students working on a capstone project were significantly more stressed.
Even with the additional stress levels, completing a capstone can be rewarding and practical.
“My capstone let me develop my business skills and research skills at the Lego company. It was real life experience,” said senior Isenberg student Lauren Fisher. “I learned the basics in class, but this put me in the team atmosphere and helped me develop more skills like time management.”
The study showed that a capstones had an “unusually powerful” impact on critical thinking, oral presentation and writing skills.
“It can be a great experience, or difficult and frustrating, but that’s a part of the process … I think it would be beneficial for everybody to do, but logistically that would be difficult,” Fisher said.