Teaching reflections #7: Helping students choose engaging projects

A capstone project should be balanced like the quintessential American meal: meaty main course, starchy side dish, vegetable side dish, and dessert.

A good capstone project is constructed in a similar way. Let’s take the case of a website as a capstone project:

  • Meaty main course: The main focus of the capstone. It’s the website, the vehicle where all of the component parts are assembled. Usually students are focused on website coding and construction in this phase. In the case of a website, there’s many areas of focus here. Students may be working with a CMS plus custom theming, coding and integrating a CMS plugin, creating a single page web application, or building a browser extension.

  • Starchy side dish: This is where the student might have a complimentary secondary interest. In the case of a website, this might be a user experience (UX) focus; website planning, card sorts, flow charts, wireframing, and user testing are some of my favorites to discuss with students. If the student has a programming focus, this might include website performance improvements, server configuration issues, database design, and so forth.

  • Vegetable side dish: This is the deliverable area that feels like real work to the student, but it’s an area where they should grow. For programmers, it might be graphic or interface design. For graphic designers, it might be light programming. Writing quality content and storytelling is always a good addition for any type of web design student. Some of these deliverables may feel like a bit of a stretch to the student. A little stretch means growth. (Too much stretch leads to breakage, though, so watch for this as well.)

  • Dessert: There should always be a fun component to capstone, to keep students engaged, interested, and enjoying the process. These deliverables may be weighted minimally. They may also be outside of the main focus of the capstone. In the web design project, this might be some photography for the site, a social media promotion plan, or a short (1 minute) video clip or animation. Programmers sometimes want to try a new library or framework that they’ve wanted to explore but have never had the time.

Combined with students choosing a good project , this balance of deliverables should keep students engaged through the term.

Jen Kramer @jen4web