Originally published in UCLA Today
By Alison Hewitt
Itching to start field research, UCLA student Kalina Ward, an environmental science major, finally got her chance last year: five weeks in the Mojave Desert studying caterpillars.
But something was missing. It just wasn’t the research she’d dreamed of. Ward began to doubt her entire educational trajectory, until her senior project gave her a revived love of field work – with consumers instead of bugs.
Like all her fellow majors, Ward joined a team of students in a yearlong project this year that put her environmental business skills to the test. The team’s senior project — a capstone in UCLA parlance — requires undergrads to bring the threads of their various classes together in one culminating venture. Ward’s team is surveying consumers to study whether there’s a way that California vintners can attract buyers by putting their organic credentials on their wine labels.
And, as it turns out, Ward discovered she loves market research.
“This was such an important, real-world experience for me,” said the senior. “I learned so much about myself.”
Growing numbers of UCLA departments are offering or requiring capstones. College administrators have encouraged faculty to give more students the chance to sink their teeth into a final project. About 30 percent of UCLA majors now offer or require capstones: Engineering students design and test new inventions. History majors write a senior thesis. Theater students can perform in a play, and statistics majors combine research and community service by providing free statistical analysis to a community partner.
It’s the kind of opportunity offered at many small liberal arts colleges, but rarely at a large research university where such resources are usually offered only to graduate students, said Judith Smith, vice provost of undergraduate education.
“The value of a research university is that people are making discoveries that advance their fields, and undergraduates are capable of doing that as well,” Smith said.
Smith has set up a faculty workgroup to define and expand UCLA’s capstone offerings for all undergraduates. Musicology Professor Raymond Knapp chairs the workgroup, which has surveyed the College’s approximately 125 majors to find out who was already offering a capstone-style program and who was interested. The group offers encouragement, options and advice to departments about how to develop their own capstone program. About a third now have certified capstone programs, and 15 to 20 more are on the way, Knapp said.
“We don’t want to make capstones a requirement, but we’re trying to build up to offering capstones to at least 60 percent of students,” Knapp said. “It allows the students to tackle a project like the ones they’ve been studying their entire academic career. We’re the largest and one of the first major research universities to do this.”
One challenge for departments is determining what requirements, if any, to cut in order to give students time to incorporate a capstone, Knapp said. “The capstone is a little like a dissertation,” he said. “If graduate programs wanted to pare down their requirements, they would definitely keep the dissertation. It’s been heartening to see that undergraduate programs with capstones are starting to think that way.”
The capstone experience also gives a new focus to undergraduate education, said Jennifer Lindholm, who works on the capstone workgroup and is special assistant to the vice provost for undergraduate education.
“In some cases, undergrads just check off their requirements, but when they know there will be this culminating experience where they must ask a question, develop a thesis and write a paper, it allows them to own their education and think about how they will use it down the road,” Lindholm said.
It’s also a chance for UCLA faculty to share their love of research, she added. “To engage in new research and generate new scholarly information … that’s what we all enjoy. It’s fun to share that with the students.”
For Daniel Mabasa, who works with Ward on researching consumer response to wine labels, it’s an ideal transition from academics to the professional world.
“It’s like we’re working in the field,” Mabasa said. “The most fulfilling aspect is that we’re really interacting with our classmates,” people who may someday become professional colleagues. “We’re building our professional network now. In a regular class, you don’t have this kind of team interaction and connection.”
Ward agreed. “These kinds of friendships almost never form in a regular UCLA class,” she said. Her team hosted a wine tasting, comparing inexpensive “two-buck Chuck” Charles Shaw wines with a few $40 organic wines. She and Mabasa have also built a strong connection to their adviser, Magali Delmas, an associate professor of management with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment.
“Students don’t often have the opportunity to work on real research projects from start to finish,” Delmas said. They are learning how to manage people and what skills they excel at. “They’re really evolving and learning about themselves and what kind of projects they like to work on.”
While the campus as a whole is embracing the capstone, Lindholm said, it’s still a challenge for large departments and busy faculty who need to make time to advise students.
“For a large department, it’s difficult to provide students with an individualized experience, given the amount of resources involved,” she said. “That said, history is a very big major, and they have a certified capstone that is a great example to other large departments who don’t think they can do it.”
By UCLA’s centennial in 2019, Smith said she hopes to have at least 60 percent of students completing a capstone.
“It’s a big benefit to the students, but also to the faculty. The students will have unusual ideas and different insights,” Smith said. “At UCLA, our undergraduates are among the best and the brightest, and they ought to be called upon to do something of their own that matches their passion.