Junior/Senior Capstone Projects
Strategy • Background • Next Steps • Available Resources
The Bonner Program provides a pathway to prepare students for capacity-building or social action capstone projects that culminates their Bonner experience in a meaningful and integrated way.
The Foundation and Network's aspiration is to integrate community-engaged capstone projects or "Signature Work" for all Bonners. Even more, we have set a goal for campuses in our network to mobilize 20 to 25% of all graduating students to take on and complete such work.
Signature Work is defined as a culminating educational activity (such as a capstone) in which students integrate and apply their learning to a significant project with meaning to the student and to society (AACU, 2015). For the Bonner Network, Community Engaged Signature Work translates to capstones with a real-world partner and significance or to social action projects.
These projects are done in conjunction with external community constituents and partners, responding to the context and issues at hand. Such projects can engage Bonners and other students in applying their learning across their college experience and building the capacity of communities to address social, economic, and environmental challenges in the areas of education, poverty, health, to name a few.
By working individually or in teams, these capstone projects are a way for students to be able to work on addressing an issue that is important to society and to their own personal interest. In this way, students hone in their problem-solving and social innovation skills.
Connection TO COMMUNITY IMPACT
The deep and developmental experience of the Bonner Program equips students in it to have a meaningful capstone, one that builds on their years of engagement in local, national, and global contexts. For many Bonners, such projects might involve sticking with one site or one issue and carving out a project in which they can make a real contribution. Campuses like Siena College and Stetson University, which have already forged programmatic linkages, do this by engaging their students as early as sophomore year in discussing project possibilities with their partners, faculty, and staff advisors. With staff linking these conversations to their overarching communication and management of partnerships, Bonner students are able to find a "sweet spot" that combines their own career and future interests (as well as identities), academic learning, community impact.
Through these projects, students can work individually or as part of teams (involving peers, faculty, partners, and other community members).
The work that they produce takes many forms – from science oriented research projects (like water quality surveys) to traditional research projects (answering a question that the partner also wants). They can produce needs assessments, evaluations, or business plans for agencies and schools. They can do elaborate projects in theater, the arts and visual sciences that give voice to community perspectives or build communities. They can listen, interview, and write oral histories that amplify the stories of the elderly or marginalized populations. They can work for local government on policy research or formulation.
The possibilities, with a little creativity and the involvement of faculty and partners, are endless.
Connection TO CAMPUS IMPACT
Building the capacity for community-engaged Signature Work into the Bonner Program and across the institution means an opportunity for real campus change. To be capable and ready to take on such projects, students need prior experiences working closely with community members and partners. This will build the students’ skills and competencies in listening, learning, sharing, and negotiating relationships and projects in real-world contexts. Students will also need prior coursework that prepares them to research ethically, write well, understand issues of diversity and inclusion, and manage projects. Creating these integrative pathways, both within and across departments, is at the core of this work.
Connection TO HIGHER EDUCATION IMPACT
In 2014, a large-scale study by Gallup Inc. and Purdue University involving more than 30,000 college graduates in the United States pointed to a mismatch between the most influential college experiences for post-graduate success in the workplace and at home and what is happening in college. The study found just six factors–three support and three experiential–are most strongly tied to post graduate well-being and workplace engagement. These factors included: (1) having at least one professor who cared about them and (2) made them excited about learning, (3) having a mentor, (4) working on a project that took a semester or more to complete, (5) having an internship or job that allowed them to apply learning, and (6) being extremely active in extracurricular activities. (Gallup, Inc., 2014). Astoundingly, only three percent of more than 30,000 college graduates surveyed reported that they had all six experiences.
Building integrative pathways in higher education can ensure that many students experience these six factors during college. In fact, Bonner Scholars and Leaders already experience five of them, and the only one that is not certain is whether they can identify a faculty member who cared about them. Building Community Engaged Signature Work will require reaching out more intentionally to faculty as advisors and for credit connections.
If and when the institutions in our network are able to achieve these goals, we will be fairly certain that they will involve students (including diverse low-income and first generation Bonners) in proven practices that are linked with high-impact learning and post-graduate success. In this way, this work has transformative potential for higher education.
Building the model for the Bonner Program involved creating a significant, intense, and developmental four-year scaffolding. While the core of off-campus community engagement is often seen by others as "co-curricular," the heart of the model has always been integrative learning.
The Foundation has cultivated connections with faculty and curriculum in a number of ways, supported by a series of Learn & Serve grants starting in 1997 that provided seed money to campuses to flesh out the curriculum and model, to catalyzing a network of community-based research scholars and projects, to building the architecture for minors and certificates that could run parallel to the four year model.
The Bonner Foundation also worked with schools in our network to infuse Minors, Certificates, and Concentrations tied to civic engagement across institutions.
Beginning in 2010, the Foundation renewed this attention to curriculum change through its Bonner High-Impact Initiative, which sought to foster connections between high-impact practices – like first year experience programs, internships, service-learning coursework, undergraduate research projects, and capstones – and community engagement. In practice, much of the work focused on scaffolding coursework and experience, creating integrative pathways.
When the Association of American Colleges and Universities announced its newest Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) challenge in 2015, calling for colleges and universities to integrate “Signature Work” into the experiences of all undergraduate students, we were ready to take this on.
Currently, 16 campuses in the network have been part of a cohort learning community that convenes at annual meetings, during webinars, and via conference calls to discuss and support their advancements on Community-Engaged Signature Work. Within just about 18 months, about half of those campuses were able to integrate the capstone into the experience of Bonner juniors and/or seniors, and the other half have that in the works. Through interviews and dialogue with the staff and faculty who are the change leaders, we have identified several prominent approaches or models for related institutional change:
1) Co-Curricular and Faculty Advising Connection
Some institutions are building a capstone component or project into the Bonner Junior and/or Senior Year by strengthening the guidelines for the Senior Presentation of Learning to support a more integrative project. This also can pave the way for a faculty connection and the integration of a reflective assignment and e-portfolio (possibly tied to learning outcomes and assessment). This provides some time for Bonner administrators to gauge and plan for a variety of curriculum connections, both with majors and by creating associated minors.
2) Developing an Integrative Requirement
Some institutions are building a structured experience, senior seminar, and/or course into the Bonner Program so that students are guided through the creation and implementation of a significant capstone project. In these cases, students are often guided through a seminar structure (which may or may not have credit) through the process of their capstone component. Some seminars, like the one at Siena College which is led by Ruth Kassel in the Office of Academic Community Engagement, guide students in the research process, such as identifying the right questions, writing, doing a literature review, and so on. Students are guided to identify a faculty mentor in their major and link it to credit there as well.
3) Coupling with Existing Requirements
Some institutions are building linkages between the Bonner Program and existing campus-wide academic structures that require or engage students in a capstone project, like General Education Senior Theses/Comps or Honors projects. For instance, Allegheny College added a civic learning graduation requirement and already had a comp. Through advising, students are invited to explore how to connect these projects and requirements, which will then involve faculty across many disciplines.
4) Hybrid Model
Some institutions are bridging the capstone work of Bonners with a menu or individualized or particular available structures such as Minors, Concentrations, Interdisciplinary Pathways, undergraduate research fellowships or courses, etc.). For instance, this might include a Minor in Poverty Studies or a Certificate in Leadership, both available on a given campus. This model works well when the campus is working on a number of academic or integrative pathways.
Regardless, the integration process is tackling components like:
- Involving students as colleagues
- Engaging partners in identifying research and project requests
- Engaging faculty as mentors and advisors
- Developing models for team projects
- Bridging the work of staff and faculty (Student and Academic Affairs) on campuses
For the Bonner Network, our integration of comprehensive tracking of students' work across their four years (using Bonner Web-based Reporting) and routine written evaluations and conversations with community partners means that we can also quantify this work, on a campus and national level, producing reports about the types of projects completed and the qualitative impact of such projects.
As the Bonner Foundation and network moves forward with these efforts, we hope to share best practices and lessons learned within the network and with the field.
We have found innovators across higher education, in our network and beyond, that let us know what is possible. Campuses like Worcester Polytechnic Institute are engaging students in real-world projects with a focus on engineering but often with a civic bent. Within our network, Earlham's EPIC pathways, Emory & Henry's Project Ampersand, and Guilford's aspirations to integrate civically focused problem-based learning inspire our commitment to move in this direction.
On the Bonner Network Wiki, you can find resources on Community-Engaged Capstones, including:
- A more comprehensive list of types of projects
- Campus Examples:
- A suggested structure for a faculty learning circle or reading group to build campus literacy and investment in the concept, as well as promote the change process
- Recommended articles and scholarship for the learning circle or campus education
- The Fall 2016 Issue of AAC&U's Diversity & Democracy publication, which the Bonner Foundation did in partnership with AAC&U to promote the initiative
- Other presentations and handouts from workshops at Bonner meetings