Capping off college with senior projects


Samuel Starr rode in circles to graduate from Pomona College. One thousand, six hundred circles.

To fulfill a college requirement that all seniors complete a research thesis or creative project, the art major and bicycling enthusiast built his own wooden velodrome and then rode its slanted track for up to two hours in public performances. Whipping around the 132-foot circumference in less than five seconds a lap, he clocked about 1,600 circles, or 40 miles, one recent morning and, apart from a sore neck, seemed hardly the worse for wear.

But “Circulus 2010,” which he constructed in an empty library lobby on the Claremont campus, did test his talents in computer design, carpentry and conceptual art, Starr said.

“This is by far the most ambitious, difficult thing I’ve undertaken here, but it’s also brought together all these skill sets I’ve been developing for so long,” said the 25-year-old from Minneapolis who is considering a career in architecture or design.

Starr’s unorthodox academic project fulfilled a mandate facing seniors at a growing number of colleges across the country. By requiring what is often called a capstone project or senior thesis, the schools want undergraduates to pull together four years of learning and apply that to a research project or creative challenge.

So at schools like Pomona, biology students are presenting studies about migratory bird populations, history majors are researching medieval crusaders, and psychology students are running tests about peer pressure and alcohol consumption. Such work can add anxiety and, some complain, an unnecessary hurdle on the path to graduation this time of year. Yet despite the occasional flop, many students and faculty say the projects are worthwhile.

“Increasingly, people want to know what students can do with their learning and how they can apply that learning across all the courses in their college,” said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Assn. of American Colleges and Universities, a group devoted to the improvement of undergraduate education.

In addition, she said, colleges want to do a better job of preparing graduating seniors for the demands of the job market and graduate schools. The capstones, she said, help students “become people who can problem-solve and produce something of high quality.”

The National Survey of Student Engagement, which examines college students’ activities annually, shows a steady increase in those completing capstones or senior theses. In 2009, 64% of students reported doing such a project, up 55% from 2000 when the survey began.

Campuswide requirements for the projects are most common at small liberal arts colleges such as Occidental in Eagle Rock; Reed in Portland, Ore.; Hampshire in Amherst, Mass.; and Carleton in Northfield, Minn. But many individual departments at big public universities, including UCLA, also require or offer them. About a third of undergraduate majors at UCLA include the projects, officials estimate.

For many years, Pomona College has required various types of capstones, with close faculty supervision. Students working on the projects are expected both to synthesize different courses and “to drill down into a particular field or subject,” said Cecilia Conrad, Pomona’s dean and vice president for academic affairs.

The outcome can be unpredictable, with some top students putting in minimal effort and some previously mediocre students catching fire and doing outstanding projects, Conrad said. Very rarely do students fail to finish in time and then have to skip graduation and complete the work over the summer. Some students frozen with anxiety need “to understand that perfection is not the goal,” she said.

In what felt at times like an intellectual bazaar, students recently presented their projects across Pomona’s campus.

At the biology department, Charlotte Chang explained to classmates and professors how she had compared Canadian and U.S. land use patterns over 40 years with population counts of a small songbird, the Sprague’s pipit. She found a link between higher populations of the bird and more farmland set aside for nature preserves. Chang estimated that she spent about five hours a week on the project through the year.

“It’s a lot of work and feels like a big burden to shoulder on top of your regular course work,” said Chang, 21, of Santa Barbara, who will soon start a zoology master’s program at Cambridge University. Yet she praised the project requirement for teaching students that “you have the capacity to do something you didn’t know you could do before.”

For his capstone, history major Fowler Brown wrote a 116-page paper about Reynald of Chatillon, a 12th century crusader considered a martyr by some and a mass murderer by others. Brown, who speaks Latin, translated rare documents for the project and said he spent 10 to 15 hours a week on it since the fall.

Such papers, he said, are “a chance to do something creative, which is not always the case in other classes.” It also looks good on resumes, said Brown, 21, of Phoenix, who will attend law school at the University of Chicago in the fall.

Catherine Berheide, a Skidmore College sociology professor who has studied senior projects nationwide, said their increased adoption reflects, among other things, more focus on preparing graduates for what’s ahead. “The capstone is a transitional experience,” she said. “If we want to turn them out into the world or into graduate school, we want to know they are ready to take that next step.”

Starr, however, said he thinks of the projects in a different way. Resting after two hours of circling his plywood track, the young cyclist and artist said capstones can be a final taste of collegiate liberty.

“Projects like this are a great opportunity to be your own boss and have the support to do it before you have to start working for someone else,” he said.