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Capstone Projects and Their Potential Contributions to Professional Research

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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"Introducing [undergraduate] students to content that could make a contribution to their field has potential benefits to the students, faculty, institution, and discipline. From the student perspective, completing a research project with even the potential for publication provides a competitive advantage in gaining admission to graduate school or demonstrating discipline-related skills for the job market."


The posting below looks at some of the criteria for successful undergraduate research projects. It is from Chapter 5 - Research Project Impediments and Possibilities, in the book, Designing and Teaching Undergraduate Capstone Courses, by Robert C. Hauhart and Jon E. Grahe. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. One Montgomery Street. Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. [] Copyright © 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Entrepreneurial Success Factors


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Capstone Projects and Their Potential Contributions to Professional Research

The Center for Open Science emerged from psychology, but the founders are interested in activating changes across all scientific disciplines.  Similar open science initiatives are emerging in other disciplines, and capstone research projects can benefit from these changes. When thoughtfully designed, capstone projects arising from a sustained undergraduate research program are conducted within established professional protocols.  Success depends, however, on the introduction of authentic research experiences in core courses and capstone projects generally.  The nexus between the emerging drive to share more data publicly and encouraging undergraduate research is a fragile one that has not been completely worked out.  Yet advances in research must be shared to enrich any discipline and students must be introduced to the importance of sharing their research.  The capstone course is clearly one place to do this.

Introducing students to content that could make a contribution to their field has potential benefits to the students, faculty, institution, and discipline.  From the student perspective, completing a research project with even the potential for publication provides a competitive advantage in gaining admission to graduate school or demonstrating discipline-related skills for the job market.  In addition, projects that are real to students help address the major student impediment we have noted: motivation.  This is one of the premises of problem-based learning and internships and practicums as well.  When students believe in the importance and legitimacy of the task, their psychic investment is higher and their motivation improves.  If faculty members can benefit because their hard work in guiding research projects is documented for promotion and tenure applications and institutions can benefit from research published by their affiliated faculty and students, undergraduate research can prove its worth to all concerned.  Finally, a discipline can benefit by accumulating greater knowledge through student participation.  Auchincloss et al. (2014) described these offerings as course-based undergraduate research experiences and identified five dimensions that distinguish them from typical classes or more independent forms such as summer programs or independent studies: use of scientific practices, discovery, broadly relevant or important work, collaboration, and iteration.  We focus here on examples of these types of courses and associated projects so that others may adopt or modify them.

Research support for collaborative student engagement in professional-quality work abounds.  Trosset, Lopatto, and Elgin (2008) discussed the value of classroom-embedded research experiences in the core curriculum.  They found that integrating meaningful science activities into advanced laboratory courses led to similar benefits as summer research experiences.  They presented possible research-related undergraduate activities across a spectrum, ranging from "learning about research" to "doing research" (p. 35).  Activities focused on "learning about research" included a lecture course, directed lab, and a literature and seminar course, whereas collaborative research courses and individual research were termed "doing research." They described activities in three advanced laboratory courses (two biology courses and a chemistry course) that were employed not only for learning but also to develop the potential for publishable findings.  They found that "items on which these courses received a higher mean than summer research included understanding how knowledge is constructed, the ability to analyze data, understanding that assertions require supporting evidence, and skill in scientific writing" (p. 41).  They suggest that gains in scientific understanding and research skills could be made through student reports and faculty assessment of performance.

In another natural science class, Rowland, Lawrie, Behrendorff, and Gillam (2012) similarly discussed a system that bridged the typical independent URO  (underegraduate research opportunity) and canned classroom lab demonstrations.  They offered students a choice to learn about science through either more canned activities or engaging in a URO-type laboratory activity where the findings contributed to scientific knowledge.  This approach was specifically developed to bring more authentic research to students at a large institution where hundreds of students pass through the basic research courses.  Though only a small percentage  of students experienced the URO, one benefit provided by the experience was that highly motivated students could get research experience as they progressed through the major where this had not otherwise been available.

Authentic research activities are not limited to natural sciences.  Corley (2013) describes three models for getting history students involved in archival work: faculty-driven partnership, faculty collaboration, and student-driven collaboration.  These range in the degree to which the faculty or students identify the question and guide the direction of the project.  For these undergraduate research efforts to be successful, he suggests learning to create opportunities based on four principal propositions: (1) design studies with undergraduates in mind, (2) find motivated students by matching interests during other courses, (3) reevaluate projects to determine how they might be segmented, and (4) look for collaborations that are likely to occur beyond a one-semester course.  He compares these lab-oriented undergraduate research opportunities in the core curriculum to capstone courses and suggests that they should be coordinated to work in harmony.  Corley acknowledges that good faculty-student collaboration can happen in the capstone course, but suggests that undergraduate research should be recognized as more than a simple prelude to the capstone experience.  Undergraduate research, in this view, should be conceived more broadly.


Auchincloss, L., Laursen, S., Branchaw, J., Eagan, K., Graham, M., Hanauer, D., ...  Dolan, E. (2014). Assessment of course-based undergraduate research experiences: A meeting report. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(1), 29-30. doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-01-0004

Corley, C.R. (2013). From mentoring to collaborating: Fostering undergraduate research in history.History Teacher, 46(3), 397-414.

Rowland, S.L., Lawrie, G.A., Behrendorff, J.B.Y.H., & Gillam, E.M.J. (2012). Is the undergraduate research experience (URE) always best? The power of choice in a bifurcated practical stream for a large introductory biochemistry class. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 40(1), 46-62.

Trosset, C., Lopatto, D., & Elgin, S. (2008).  Implementation and assessment of course-embedded undergraduate research experiences: Some explorations. In R. Taraban & R.L. Blanton (Eds.),Creating effective undergraduate research programs in science: The transformation from student to scientist (pp.33-49). New