University News

Capstone requirement unrealized

Contributing Writer
Sunday, October 23, 2011

The 2008 recommendation from the Task Force on Undergraduate Education that senior capstone projects be made mandatory for all students generated campus-wide discussion about the nature of the projects and their role in the senior experience.

The Office of the Dean of the College has yet to institute any requirements, which could take the form of senior theses, research projects, internships, art installations, performances or significant involvement in a student group or activity. Capstone projects are primarily the jurisdiction of individual departments.

 Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said many departments have independently decided to add more options for seniors. The economics department, for example, debuted new advanced seminars for seniors earlier this year, and the art history department is considering requiring a final reflective essay for concentrators.

Besenia Rodriguez ’00, associate dean of the College for research and upperclass studies, said senior participation in capstones has increased since the recommendation. Though the Office of the Dean of the College does not keep exact statistics, Rodriguez estimated approximately 60 percent of students complete some sort of capstone based on the information given to her office by departments.

Bergeron said ongoing discussion about capstones has led to bigger issues, including making sure concentrations “articulate something.”

Capstone projects give students the opportunity to “integrate many aspects of the Brown education,” Bergeron said. “The really critical notion is that you’re putting something together for yourself before you leave this campus,” she said.

Christina Skonberg ’12, who is currently writing a research paper examining the relationship between cattle ranching in Brazil and deforestation in the Amazon for her independent concentration in agricultural sciences and food policy, said capstones are a “great way to develop student and faculty relationships.”

Dore Levy, professor of comparative literature, said she thinks capstones can be important, but it would be impractical to require all seniors to complete a project. Since faculty advising students on capstones still have to teach their normal course loads and get no additional funding, the projects can create a strain on professors, she said.

In her experience, Levy said she noticed capstones tend to fall disproportionately on the professors in more popular departments or those with more popular classes.

But Jan Tullis, professor of geological sciences, said she believes that even though sponsoring senior projects is not a formal part of the teaching load, it is still a responsibility of professors and one that she thinks is an important part of teaching.

Tullis said she thinks capstones can be a “transformative experience” because they can help students make the leap from simply learning to actually “doing.” They can help students figure out how to integrate what they’ve learned in their four years, she said.

“You get to go out and practice interpreting the real world,” Tullis said. “Often textbooks present an idealized, clean version of the world, but it’s actually quite messy.”

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