RFSD News column: Capstone projects giving seniors real-world learning before graduation
“It took a lot of work,” said Glenwood Springs High School senior Austin Burt in his reflection on his capstone project. “But it has become the pinnacle of my high school career.”
That’s a powerful statement. Burt’s capstone project was to learn more about bicycle design and technology through the process of assembling a bike. Throughout the process, he conducted research about bicycle technology and design, did a lot of outreach to bicycle companies requesting part donations, and then designed and assembled a bike.
As a bike enthusiast interested in mechanical engineering, this project was a great fit that also helped Burt learn how to social network and “conduct professional email conversations with many of them.”
Several students are providing similar testimony that the capstones experience has been an important part of their academic careers and hopes for the future. Many others are self-reporting significant learning from their capstone process.
Of course, some students, in Burt’s words, “don’t think capstone is worth it.” These students are not alone. There are students, staff and parents who do not perceive capstone projects to be of high value. Some people do not see any value in capstones. A few parents have questioned the purpose of capstones, arguing that it’s getting in the way of their students’ “real work” and imposing unnecessary stress.
Certainly, capstones provide a very different kind of learning than that offered through traditional coursework. Capstone projects give students the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat. Whereas traditional classes provide assignments for all students that dictate the what, how, and when so as to meet a specific learning goal, capstone projects require students to figure these out for themselves.
For many students, this is the first time they are asked: What are you interested in? What do you want to know? How are you going to figure it out? This experience is a huge opportunity for students to stretch their learning, and it leads to significant growth and reflection.
That being said, change is always hard, and implementing capstones has faced the predictable challenges that come with something new.
First, it’s important to understand what capstone projects entail: Capstones allow students to be stewards of their own learning. With guidance from teachers and community experts, students explore a topic of personal interest. Through the process, they build essential real-world skills for life after high school. Starting with the class of 2018, every student in the Roaring Fork Schools will complete a capstone project prior to graduating.
It’s also important to remember that capstones were inspired by parent and community member feedback. Through the communitywide visioning process in 2013, we held 16 meetings that were attended by 1,400 parents, teachers, students and community members. We heard from our school community that our students needed more authentic learning experiences where they could be self-motivated to find and solve their own problems, pursue their own passions, and be responsible for their own learning.
This is where capstone projects come in. When we brainstormed how to create the authentic learning experiences our communities were asking for, the capstones model rose to the top. Capstones are designed to encourage students to think critically, solve challenging problems, and develop skills such as communication, public speaking, planning, goal setting and character skills. All of this prepares students for college, modern careers and adult life.
Capstones are an increasingly popular model being adopted by schools and colleges across the state and country. Several of our neighboring districts are in the exploring and planning phases for implementing capstones and turning to us for help. Many colleges ask students to do capstone projects, and many college admissions look for applicants who have completed projects in high school.
We know that the most compelling evidence to support capstones is students’ future success, but until we have that evidence in a few years, this student testimony indicates that capstones offer something not provided through the traditional ways we do school.
“This project was about building a bicycle, but it evolved into so much more,” Burt reflected. “This project has helped me to remember to not give everything up when things go sideways. It’s taught me life lessons like persistence and patience, teaching me to step back and re-evaluate when plans don’t work.”
If that experience wasn’t of high value for this student, I don’t know what is. Nor can I think of a reason we wouldn’t provide this opportunity for all students.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools.