Teaching reflections #5: Identifying projects in capstone

Master’s degree programs generally have one of two endings. Either students write a thesis, or they complete a capstone project. Where students want to further job prospects in technology, rather than an academic or research-based career, a capstone is a much better choice. Students get to complete a large, meaty project that brings together many aspects of the degree program.

Capstone is also a good time to teach how to choose a great project.

The timeline for capstone is usually 7-9 months and is generally completed in three phases.

  • In Phase 1, students are asked to identify a project they’d like to work on. This is typically an informal exploration, plus discussions with capstone instructors and advisors.

  • In Phase 2, they write a capstone proposal. This is often a semester-long process, and it may be combined with Phase 1.

  • In Phase 3, they implement their capstone proposal, usually over a semester.

Each of these should be a post, so here I’ll start with Phase 1, identifying a project.

When I did my own capstone project in grad school, I already had a vision of what I wanted to accomplish. I was in grad school to train to become a web designer. (It was 2000. Different times.) I wanted a project that paid me to do the work. I wanted a well-known name brand to work with, ideally, rather than a small local business. I wanted to build the website from nothing – I wanted the experience of gathering requirements and goals, creating site maps from a card sort, doing the graphic design, and coding the whole thing inside of Dreamweaver (as one did in those days). I wound up doing a website for Massachusetts 4-H, which was housed at UMass Extension. This project lead to many others through UMass over the years.

Naturally, I thought other students would have the same experience. Not true!

I found that students were unable to think about the capstone project beyond “what can I do to get an A, graduate, and move on.” I started asking the students these following questions to help structure their thinking.

  • Why did you go to grad school in the first place?

  • What kind of job do you want when you graduate?

  • What is missing between that job you want and what you’ve learned here? What did you want to learn more about? What skills do you want to demonstrate?

  • Is there life for this project beyond capstone? It’s a lot of work, so if we can use capstone to launch a business, get a job, or some other way launch your future life, this is worth exploring.

  • What would hold your interest for 7-9 months of intense work?

Through the years, I’ve realized this type of structured thinking is missing in many aspects of student work. It’s lead me to incorporate more structure in assignments to better guide students to what I’m looking for in projects. Thus my famous “turn-in sheet” was born. And that is another topic for another post.

Jen Kramer @jen4web