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Why Do I Have to Take a Capstone Course?

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Capstone courses may seem a nuisance to some college seniors, or just one more project to complete. However, the reality is that capstone courses are designed to help students transition from college to the workforce. In general, capstone courses are designed to give students practical experience and skill sets they can transfer to their careers.

Purpose of Capstone Courses

While the format of capstone courses varies greatly among colleges and universities, the purpose is the same. The name of the course comes from the term capstone, used to describe the final stone placed at the top of a building or a monument. So capstone courses serve as the pinnacle of a program of study. They are designed to give students experience in practical applications of their coursework as final preparation for entering the workforce.

There are a variety of formats for the capstone course. Often they are built around the competencies professional organizations have identified they need in individuals who pursue those careers. While these professional competencies vary amongst profession, there is a core set of skills to all of them. These competencies are communication, teamwork, critical thinking, research, problem-solving, and professional orientation.

Communication and Teamwork are Marketable Job Skills

Often capstone courses are designed as a group project where students are asked to demonstrate that they have mastered the goals of their major or department. In this model, these projects are most often designed as part of a single course students complete in their senior year of college. In this model, the course is designed around presenting students with a problem that they need to work on together to create a proposed solution.

Teamwork and Communication are important skills not only in mastering your program in college but in making yourself marketable in the workforce. In our world today, there are very few jobs where you work solo. As a result, your ability to communicate and work as a team is nearly as important as the specific knowledge and skills you have acquired while earning your degree.

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Learning to Ask Questions in Capstone Courses

Achieving success in your capstone project will require you to work together with your team to discuss all of the knowledge and proposed solutions relating to the assigned problems. Communication is not just about your ability to talk about the information or problems in your project; it is also tied to your ability to listen to others. Included in communication is watching and understanding the body language of the person(s) around you.

Asking questions is a key part of the communication and teamwork skills you polish in your capstone course. Part of communication is learning to ask open-ended questions to your teammates. These could be questions tied to helping your teammates communicate their perspective on the problem or proposed solutions. It also could be in response to their body language if you notice a teammate feels tense or looks annoyed. These open-ended questions can help keep your entire team on the same page and draw out their perspective on the ideas being discussed. With everyone's idea out in the open, your team will have a solid foundation for your proposed solution.

Problem-Solving and Research in Capstone Courses

While some capstone experiences are designed as a course, others are set up more like an independent study for students. Rather than completing this capstone experience in a single course, students can work on the capstone at their pace during their final semester(s) of college. In this model, students are expected to complete a research paper or project which they then present to a panel of faculty as part of their program of study.

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The independent study begins with the student meeting with a faculty advisor to begin the process. During this meeting, the student will be asked to propose their project or paper within the guidelines the program has given them. It may begin by the student identifying a problem that relates to their field of study, and then researching to propose a possible solution. This method is similar to a course model, where students are asked to demonstrate their ability to apply the knowledge they have learned to real-world problems.

Students then research their proposed problem, working with faculty along the way to develop their project/proposal and to get feedback. In this model, students may even be required to work with community members in the development of their proposed solutions. How the project/paper takes shape will all depend on the expectations of your particular program of study. Regardless of the guidelines, the final project will expect you to demonstrate your ability to research, and then apply that knowledge to a problem relevant to your major.

Internships and Work Experience in Capstone Courses

Another model of capstone courses is called experiential model of learning. These sorts of capstone experiences are built around internships or other forms of workforce experience. In this way, the college or university is trying to guarantee that students emerge from their major with some practical work experience.

For example, your capstone experience might be to complete a required number of internship hours in your field. Depending on your major, you may be required to locate your internship, or you may be assigned to a particular site. For example, students in education programs usually complete their capstone experience by student teaching in a school where they are assigned to a specific school and teacher. If you were a nursing major, you probably would be assigned to work in a specific hospital department as a nurse to master the skills you have learned.

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If you are expected to locate your internships, you want to be sure to start early. Some programs may give you some options for locating internship opportunities, but the burden will still be on you to find a site where you can complete your required hours. In those cases, you are usually given a longer timeframe to complete your internships, such as your junior or senior year. Often you can complete these internships in the summer while you are on break. In either case, you leave college with work experience on your resume that applies directly to your field of study.

By Rachel Tustin
July 2017
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