Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 12, 2015

Capstone projects as opportunities for real-life applications

The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and the Environmental Studies Program at the Program on the Environment are interdisciplinary programs with capstones experiences that require students to work with active practitioners as they pull knowledge from a wide variety of fields to produce multidimensional research projects. In both undergraduate programs, faculty collaborate with practitioners so that students gain direct insight into the professional world through on- or off-campus experiences. Ultimately, students learn about finding a personally fulfilling career and discussing their skills and real-world experience during interviews and networking.

The Jackson School Task Force Capstone

The Task Force capstone (JSIS 495) in the Jackson School gives students a taste of global affairs work with the guidance of policy professionals as a complement to academic knowledge. Students work in teams, or task forces, of 15 to 17 people to study a global policy question, develop a substantial research brief, and arrive at a set of policy recommendations that would be timely and relevant to a variety of organizations, similar to presidential commissions. Topics have ranged from climate change policies to redressing human rights violations in El Salvador, and more. “When I started directing the Task Force program eight years ago, we noticed that while students were academically prepared, they were missing some methodological skills,” says Professor Sara Curran, chair of International Studies. In response, the program developed a new prerequisite, the Policy Memo Workshop led by Philip Wall, affiliate professor and a retired senior Foreign Service officer, to teach students the skill of condensing 25-page studies into one-page summaries. Because Task Forces operate on a very tight deadline at a different pace than a one-quarter class, Wolfram Latsch, director of the Jackson School Academic Services, developed a student handbook that lays out roles, responsibilities and timelines so that team members understand what is expected and why their work matters. With these explicit tools provided by the School, “We didn’t have any surprises we weren’t prepared for,” observed Jwanah Qudsi, who participated in the 2014 “Drone Wars” Task Force her senior year.

Introducing students to professional expectations for careers in international affairs in two critical ways

  • When students learn directly from practitioners — instructors range from elected officials to retired Foreign Service officers — they experience a new perspective and are often treated more as colleagues working towards a shared goal. “We deeply appreciated getting that insider point-of-view of what it’s really like,” says Qudsi about working directly with her instructor, U.S. Congressman Adam Smith.
  • Students learn to manage both time and people while balancing different roles and deadlines for the group and as individuals. “Students are used to controlling their own space, so they have to adjust to this lack of control,” says Latsch. “It can be disorienting.”

Task Force Evaluation Day is designed to add additional layers of real-life experiences

The culmination of the Task Force experience is an in-person briefing to an external, expert evaluator. “This intense engagement requires professional preparation and quick thinking, as the students combine a polished presentation with on-the-spot answers to critical questions from the expert evaluator,” says Curran. Latsch points out how the evaluation “again mirrors the professional world, as one’s work will often be more visible and persuasive if an articulate argument is matched with evidence.” At the formal closing dinner, evaluators and instructors often continue discussing the reports with Task Force members, exposing students to a new dimension of professional conversation and social networking. “It’s given me an appreciation for how hard it can be to get policy passed,” Qudsi observes. Wall believes the combination of thorough academic preparation with a real-life simulation is essential to preparing students for a wide variety of careers. “I have yet to meet a fellow Foreign Service officer, active or retired, whose response to my description of the Task Force capstone was anything other than ‘I wish I could have taken that course,’” says Wall.

Task Force 2015 students after their presentation on reforming U.S. foreign aid policy. U.S. Congressman Adam Smith (back row, far left), flew to Seattle from Washington, D.C. each week to serve as their instructor, and Rajiv Shah, former USAID Administrator (center), was the final evaluator. Photo courtesy of the Jackson School of International Studies.

Environmental Studies Capstone Experience

Through a three-quarter Capstone Experience course series (ENVIR 490, 491, 492), Environmental Studies students gain valuable hands-on experience, explore meaningful career possibilities and develop professional skills. The Capstone Experience is built around a quarter-long internship in which students produce a research project and a portfolio of professional writings supported by faculty and on-site mentors. Capstone partners range from community-based nonprofits, private sector organizations, state and federal government agencies, and faculty research projects on topics ranging from e-waste to food security to environmental education in the digital age.

The Pre-Capstone Seminar prepares students for the Capstone Experience through targeted academic study and professional development

Because many students have not held internships before, the seminar introduces them to the job search process with sessions on résumés, cover letters and ways to adapt their “pitch” for an informal job fair or formal interview to land their top choice project. “Once they’ve secured that internship, that’s when we think about how that hands-on professional experience is going to relate to their scholarly work, and apply it in an academic setting,” says Capstone Instructor Sean McDonald.

During the Capstone Experience students adjust to two roles — scholars and professionals: As scholars, the students develop insightful research questions based on their hands-on experience and assemble a thorough bibliography under the guidance of a faculty adviser. As professionals, they acquire project management skills and report to their site supervisor with specific project deliverables and deadlines while learning to navigate a professional work environment.
Throughout the internship, site partners and faculty mentors provide support and encouragement to students. “They remind students to communicate regularly about their progress and any challenges, and to not be afraid to ask for help,” says Clare Ryan, director of the Program on the Environment.

Reflection — on the process and the results — is built in to multiple assignments

Students synthesize and reflect on their experience with a variety of writing projects. Assignments include:

  • Writing memos, which pushes students to succinctly summarize their progress and research while honing their professional writing techniques
  • Reporting research findings in an academic analysis paper, akin to a senior thesis
  • Summarizing their experience in public-facing integrative essays
  • Documenting and contemplating the process in personal journals
  • Sharing updates with peers through informal discussion on a Tumblr class blog while strengthening their network of future colleagues

Students learn to communicate to multiple audiences

Students present their research to site partners, potential employers and a general audience at the culminating Capstone Symposium. At this point, students understand how their experience relates to the broader context of their Environmental Studies education and their own future goals, and are able to market their capstone experience for their job search or graduate school applications. “They start to see a connection between what’s going on in the classroom and what’s going on outside of it,” says McDonald.


Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to link academic passion to life and careers.