York University’s Capstone Network is up and running

Capstone courses provide students with exciting learning experiences, but they can be challenging to teach, said Danielle Robinson, an associate professor of dance at York University. Thanks to Robinson and engineering Professor Franz Newland, faculty who teach these finishing-year courses can derive support from the new Capstone Network, which will allow them to connect at monthly meetings and online.

Danielle Robinson

“The network came about because of a conversation between Franz and me about the profound impact capstone courses have on students’ lives – and the profound difficulty of teaching them,” Robinson said. “We decided to create a network of professors who can support each other, share resources and help others develop their own capstone courses.”

A capstone course is a final-year course that consolidates everything a student has learned in his or her major during undergraduate studies. It generally involves a project that draws on the skills and knowledge they have already gained, while also acquiring new skills and knowledge in the process.

“A capstone course helps students recognize the value of their degree and prepare for what comes next,” Robinson said. “It’s a bridge to the job market, preparing them to succeed on the other side of graduation. Experiential education is baked into capstone courses, whether through extracurricular workshops, service learning, placements or even professional mentoring.”

Given that most projects created during capstone courses are individualized and a class can have upwards of 20 or 30 students, it’s an intensive endeavour for the faculty who are involved.

Capstone courses are also known as finishing courses and can be challenging to deliver

“They are challenging to deliver, so this grassroots network will allow us to learn from each other and help each other out,” Robinson said. “We’ll be able to spark innovation in each other’s classes, expand our understanding of what capstones can be, and even bring our students together on collaborative projects.”

Monthly meetings

The Capstone Network has begun meeting, and they have started an internal website that includes different capstone resources for instructors. Robinson has already had expressions of interest from 13 professors in a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, international studies, theatre, and health policy and management.

“Given how busy professors are, this is amazing,” she said.

Franz Newland

Robinson and Newland have big plans for the network that include exploring what pedagogical research says about capstone courses and developing best practices. Beginning in January, they will host monthly Capstone Cafés, where professors and students can share coffee, cookies and capstone experiences. Their goal is to make these rich but also overwhelming classes a little easier.

“We’d like to develop a pathway for students in capstone courses to find each other for support and potential collaboration, especially in interdisciplinary projects.”

Robinson sees an opportunity for the University to become a leader in capstone education. The network plans to partner with the Teaching Commons to build workshops on capstone courses and with the Career Centre to create professionalization and career development modules that will work in any capstone setting.

“We’re just getting started, and we are looking for other professors to be part of shaping the network’s future direction,” she said. “Our goal is to reach every campus and every department, since capstone courses are a York priority. They enable students to look beyond their majors and focus on professional skills. Capstone courses push them outside their comfort zones, making them a little braver, a little more confident before graduating.”

Students speak

Robinson can speak with authority about the impact of capstone courses, as she has been teaching them at York since 2006. Last year, she worked with the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design (AMPD) Instructional Technology Team to make mentorship videos with alumni who had taken her capstone course over the years, to find out and share how that experience might have impacted their careers.

Graduate Krista Antonio Onayemi, for example, who has gone on to do graduate work in international development and is now a labour lawyer, created a project called Art for Hope that enabled her to teach dance to children in Ecuador.

“I’m convinced the only way I was able to get into graduate school was from the research and experience I got in my senior [capstone] project,” she said.

Andréa De Keijzer, who created a dance photography installation as part of her capstone course, said, “My senior [capstone] project was a very important launching pad for my career as a dance photographer and choreographer. I discovered that I had the capacity and the skill, and what I didn’t know, I could research and learn on the go.”

Their experiences demonstrate the value of undertaking a capstone course.

“Capstone courses get students to broaden their career possibilities and understand how to work towards the job they want,” Robinson said. “They prepare students to succeed, no matter what they want to do. My hope is that one day every York student will have the benefit of experiencing a capstone course before graduating.”

For more information about the Capstone Network, contact Danielle Robinson at drobin@yorku.ca.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus