What is a Capstone Project?
All Masters of the Environment (MENV) professional graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder must successfully complete a Capstone Project (five credit hours) and the accompanying three (3) one-credit hour Capstone Innovation Lab (CIL) courses as part of their degree requirement. The Capstone Project is an interdisciplinary team project in which students work closely with an external sponsoring organization, called a Capstone Partner, and a faculty advisor to propose innovative solutions to real-world environmental and sustainability challenges that partners face. The three (3) associated CIL courses, which are taken in sequence throughout the 17-month program, are designed to help guide students through the respective phases of the project.
The purpose of the Capstone Project is to give students applied experience working in teams on complex, interdisciplinary challenges alongside professionals in real-world settings. The goals of the project are (1) to prepare students to work on real-world, long term, collaborative projects, (2) to help students grow and strengthen their professional networks in their respective fields, and (3) to provide client organizations with specific solutions to identified environmental and sustainability challenges.
The format of a Capstone Project differs significantly from both a research thesis and traditional summer internship. Capstone Projects are co-developed by student teams (typically of 3 – 5 students) with external partner organizations, and guided and evaluated by MENV faculty. While all Capstone Projects most certainly have research requirements, they do not consist solely of research, data collection and analysis, resulting in an authored academic document.
Rather, Capstone Projects must have applied and professional elements integrated into their design (e.g., interactions with professionals and stakeholders, time in the field and/or office, professional development opportunities, and presentations to a professional audience), as well as result in the production of professionally-oriented work products and/or services, including but not limited to planning documents, management plans, public awareness and advocacy campaigns, product proposals, reports, models, prototypes, or proof of concept projects. MENV students are working on some aspect of the Capstone Project throughout the entire 17-month graduate program.
Capstone Project Criteria
The purpose of this handbook is to guide MENV students and Capstone Partners in determining the nature and management of a Capstone Project.
The Capstone Project, conceptually, should be a discrete project that can be completed in accordance with the MENV timeline. It can be a phase of a larger project with which the partner is engaged or a continuation of a previous Capstone Project. It should not be considered as an internship. The project should be value-added to the organization with clear practical application, and consist of a product that would not or could not be accomplished otherwise.
There are two underlying criteria defining a Capstone project:
Rigor: The project should be substantive enough to serve as a masters-level project for the number of students involved (typically 3 – 5). Students will be expected to demonstrate the following:
- Knowledge of the academic and professional literature relevant to the project
- Specific methods (e.g., data collection, interviews, focus groups) appropriate to address the problem or question at hand
- An analytical component that makes the case for some specific action to address the problem presented by the project
- Identification and prioritization of results, recommendations, best practices, opportunities, and next steps
Finally, each student should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and demonstrate skill development.
Professional Relevance: The project should provide opportunities for the students to engage with a professional network and contribute meaningfully to the profession as a whole. It should not be something that will “sit on a shelf,” rather, it should be actionable and usable by the partner. It should define broader, long-term criteria for success – e.g., behavior change, policy change, or technology implementation.
The Capstone Project should encompass at least three deliverables that reflect the criteria discussed above:
- A written product (e.g., report, white paper, website)
- A product demonstrating engagement with the broader professional community (e.g., conference presentation, webinar, workshop)
- An individual reflective essay (approximately 2,500 words) that connects the project to the student’s future and analyzes the process of engaging with the Capstone Partner.
The Capstone Partner may also require other deliverables of the group (e.g., community meetings, presentations for a board or other group, and other types of interactions with the public, stakeholders, or internal teams).
The MENV faculty and staff will provide Capstone Partners with an orientation early in the spring semester to review the Capstone Project criteria and requirements. Importantly, we ask that the Capstone Partners demand substance from the students. In other words, they should be held to the same standards of accountability and quality as an employee.
Capstone Partner Benefits
The MENV Capstone Project is intended to be educational and for the benefit of the student, providing learning opportunities that build transferable skills that are aligned with the MENV program goals. Capstone Partners can also expect the following benefits by working with a team of MENV students:
- Capacity: By working with the MENV program’s top-level graduate students, Capstone Partners have the added capacity to address challenges that they may not be able to address otherwise.
- Solutions: Through new ideas and approaches undertaken by students, Capstone Partners gain functional and innovative solutions to real-world environmental and sustainability challenges.
- Collaboration: Integrated teams comprised of students, faculty, and industry sponsors focus on the successful completion of the project.
- Outreach: Capstone Projects are showcased to the local community at the MENV Capstone Symposium each December. Capstone Projects may also be presented at professional symposia, workshops, or conferences.
- Recruitment: Close interaction with student teams provide Capstone Partners with a unique opportunity to recruit talented professionals.
Capstone Partner Expectations
All Capstone Partners are expected to be supportive of the educational objectives of the project and to be active participants in their sponsored project. Successful Capstone Partners do the following:
- Provide a Project Lead who can dedicate at least one hour per week to the project during the academic year and up to two hours per week to the project during the summer;
- Set a meeting schedule and communicate regularly with the student team and provide timely and constructive feedback (It is suggested that partner-team interactions take place at least every two weeks);
- Provide mentoring and professional development opportunities to student teams and help them develop their skill sets and networks;
- At a minimum, cover the direct financial costs of the project, including but not limited to travel expenses (including mileage and/or lodging for work outside of the Denver Metro Area) and printing/supplies. (While partners are not required to compensate students, some elect to do so. These paid projects are often the most highly sought after and competitive.)
During the first semester, it is the sole responsibility of MENV students to (1) identify a Capstone Partner willing to work with a team of 3 – 5 students; (2) develop and vet a project idea; (3) execute a letter of engagement with the Capstone Partner; and (4) submit a formal project proposal.
One important aspect of the MENV Graduate Program is to train students to become leaders and innovators. As such, once the research scope is defined and the letter of engagement is executed, the formal project proposal, research, and associated work are expected to be student-driven. Client input is critical, but ultimately student teams are responsible for moving the project forward. Successful MENV students:
- Take initiative in identifying a Capstone Partner and developing a relationship with them in the first fall semester;
- Work closely with teammates and faculty advisors to set clear project goals and benchmarks;
- Drive the progress of the project with solution-orientated approaches;
- Demonstrate professionalism in all interactions with partner organizations and other stakeholders;
- Communicate regularly and professionally with the Capstone Partner and provide material for them to provide feedback.
- Produce high-quality, sophisticated, professional products and services.
The Capstone Project and associated Capstone Innovation Lab (CIL) courses make up eight (8) credit hours in total over the 17-month program: One (1) credit hour for each of the three CIL classes. CIL 1, CIL 2, and CIL 3, taken in Fall 1, Spring 1, and Fall 2, respectively, and five (5) credit hours for the Capstone Project during the summer.
Fall I: Capstone Partnership Agreements and Project Proposals
During the students’ first semester, the MENV programs hosts a series of networking events aimed at introducing students to prospective Capstone Partners. These events give prospective partners an opportunity to learn more about the program, project requirements, MENV students. Students are not limited to working with a prospective partner at the networking events; they are also welcome to recruit other prospective partner organizations to participate in a project. Over the course of the semester, MENV students must (1) identify a Capstone Partner willing to work with a team of 3 – 5 students and (2) develop and vet a project idea; (3) execute a letter of engagement with the Capstone Partner; and (4) submit a formal project proposal. All student teams must submit a project proposal to the MENV faculty for approval by the first week in December.
Spring: Development of Scope of Work and Work Plans
By the beginning of the spring semester, each Capstone team is assigned an MENV faculty advisor. Faculty advisors serve as the primary point-of-contact between the Capstone Partner organization and the MENV student team. During this period student teams and client organizations should agree on a communications schedule. Students will also develop team contracts (which define roles and responsibilities) and work plans, begin preliminary research, and refine the project scope as necessary. Student teams will present their research and work plans to Capstone Partners and MENV faculty for comment.
*Students are expected to work an average of approximately 8-10 hours per week outside of class on the Capstone Project during the spring semester.
*Student teams and partners are expected to check in, either in-person or remotely, no less than every other week.
Summer Session: Intensive Capstone Immersion
While students generally do not take classes on campus over the summer, they have options to take a Maymester course directly following the spring semester or an Augmester course just before the fall semeseter. Those students who choose not to take a Maymester course may begin working intensively in the Capstone project beginning in May. Those students who choose to take the a Maymester course, will likely not be able to begin working intensively on the Capstone Project until the first week of June. Similarly, students who choose not to take a Augmester course may continue working intensively in the Capstone project into the month of August. Those students who choose to take the a Augmester course, will likely finish their intenstive summer immersion the first week of August. Capstone teams will need to plan accordingly and ensure that they communicate work schedules clearly to their Capstone Partner. Summer Capstone work may involve co-location at the partners’ facilities and other travel, including on and off-site visits, and professional, data-gathering, and analytical obligations as part of the project.
It is up to the students and partners to decide on a format for the summer term in terms of when they are expected to be on site. When they are on site, partners are expected to provide work space for the students. Students and partners should determine what equipment is needed, such as a computer beyond their own personal one, software, other hardware, etc. Partners are also expected to provide those items in the workspace if it is determined that they are needed with the exception of existing non-monetary resources of the University that can be utilized or to which the student has access (e.g., software licenses, equipment, etc.).
*Students are required to work a minimum 60 hours for every credit hour earned over the summer. To earn five (5) credit hours for the Capstone project over the summer, students are required to work a minimum of 300 hours. Most students spread these hours out over 10-12 weeks.
Fall II: Synthesis, Analysis, and Deliverables
In their final semester, students return to campus and resume classes, synthesize their Capstone work, and begin their final analyses. They also begin the production of the agreed upon deliverables for the Capstone Partner, as well as the academic components for MENV faculty. Students are also required to prepare a product demonstrating engagement with the broader professional community related to their Capstone project (e.g., conference presentation, webinar, workshop). This engagement should be planned in the spring semester, and may take place anytime in the summer or fall. The advisor can help to identify potential opportunities for this requirement.
The Capstone Partner may also require other deliverables of the group (e.g., community meeting, presentation for the Board or other group, and other types of interactions with the public, stakeholders, or internal organization team). By the end of the semester, student teams will present these deliverables to client organizations, MENV faculty, and any relevant stakeholders. The Capstone Project will culminate in a written product and presentation at the annual Capstone Symposium hosted by the MENV Graduate Program on campus in early-December.
*Students are expected to work an average of approximately 8-10 hours per week outside of class on the Capstone Project during the second fall semester.
*Student teams and partners are expected to check in either in-person or remotely no less than every other week.
Important Dates: 2019-20
Monday, August 5: First day of Augmester
Friday, August 23: Capstone Poster Session with second-year MENV students
Monday, August 26: First day of fall semester
Friday, September 6: Networking Workshop I
Friday, September 13: Networking Workshop II
Friday, September 20: Site visit to City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks
Thursday, September 26: Capstone Networking Night I (CU Boulder)
Thursday, October 3: Capstone Networking Night II (Downtown Denver)
Thursday, October 10: Capstone Networking Night III (Downtown Boulder)
Friday, November 1: Official partnership offers begin; earliest date to submit letters of engagement
Friday, December 6: Letters of engagement and project proposals due
Wednesday, December 18: Project proposals returned
Monday, January 13: First day of spring term
Wednesday, January 15: First meeting of CIL 2; students meet with advisors
Friday, February 7: Capstone Partner Orientation
Friday, February 28: Draft of project scope of work (SOW)
Friday, March 20: Student design charette
Friday, April 24: Final project scope of work (SOW)
Wednesday, May 6: Presentation of final project design/work plan
Monday, May 11: Maymester begins
Friday, May 29: Maymester ends
Monday, June 1: First day of summer term
Friday, August 7: Last day of summer term
Friday, August 21: Summer poster session
Monday, August 24: First day of fall term
Friday, December 4: Capstone Symposium / Final presentations
Friday, December 11: Final Capstone deliverables due
Thursday, December 17: Graduation
Formation of Teams
At the start of their first semester, MENV students have multiple opportunities, both formal and informal, to meet with one another to discuss their respective interests and skills, as well as their goals and objectives for their Capstone Projects. Students will then meet with prospective partners during Capstone Networking Nights and further refine their interests and prioritize potential Capstone Projects.
Team size and composition are dependent upon the project topic, project scope, and partner resources available for the Capstone Project. However, MENV requires that Capstone teams consist of no fewer than three students, and no more than five students. Capstone team members may all represent one specialization area, or they may be comprised of students across specializations.
Please note that not all prospective partners are guaranteed a team of MENV students. Similarly, there are no assurances that students will work with a specific partner or on a specific project. In instances where there are more students interested in a project than there are spaces available on the project team, the partner will be asked to select the students for their Capstone team.
Once student teams and Capstone Partners agree to work with one another, all parties must read and sign the MENV Capstone Partnership Letter of Engagement.
Co-developing a Proposal
MENV teams must work together to develop a project and submit a Capstone Project proposal to the Capstone Innovation Lab instructor, Ms. Carey Albertine. In most cases project topics are suggested by external project sponsors and then developed into full Capstone Projects by the student team. The MENV Assistant Director for Recruitment and External Relations, Mr. Myles Maland, will help develop and coordinate projects, while working in conjunction with clients, faculty, and students. It is critical that students avail themselves of every opportunity to learn more about project possibilities and to share their own ideas with fellow students and faculty.
The planning process for Capstone Projects formally begins the first week of fall classes. During the Capstone Innovation Lab I course (CIL I), students learn more about the project requirements and timeline, and attend interim presentations by current or past project groups. CIL I also allows students the opportunity to think about potential project ideas, to get to know students from other specializations, and to develop a better idea of the scope of work expected in a Capstone team. Capstone Project proposals are due to Capstone Innovation Lab 1 instructor by December 6. The fall semester concludes with a faculty committee review of all Capstone Project proposals to ensure that the topics presented in CIL I are rigorous, interdisciplinary, and can be complete within the proposed timeline.
The Capstone Project proposal is an agreement between the MENV student team and the sponsoring Capstone Partner organization. While proposals are co-developed between students and clients, it is the responsibility of each Capstone Project team to submit a clear and comprehensive proposal to faculty for approval. Again, once the research scope is defined and the proposal is written, the research and work is student-driven. One important aspect of the MENV Graduate Program is to train students to become leaders and innovators. Client input is critical, but ultimately students will drive the shape of the final product(s).
Thus, the proposal is an important step in the Capstone Project process. The written proposal, agreed upon by team members, clients, and ultimately faculty, should include the following information:
- Executive summary
- Goals and purpose
- Team member responsibilities
- Skills / professional development opportunities
- Additional information
Further information to discuss and put in writing with the partner and team members before the project begins:
- Ownership of data and the guidelines and restrictions put upon students by the University of Colorado Boulder Institutional Review Board (IRB)
- Description of deliverables/products
- Discussion of communications schedule and the delivery of client feedback
As part of the proposal process, students will also ask Capstone Partners for a high-definition logo (JPEG, TIFF, etc.) that will may displayed on the MENV website (along with a project abstract) and in print promotional materials.
Please note that if a student is unable to identify a partner or team and/or develop and submit an approvable proposal by the end of the fall semester, they cannot successfully complete CIL I, and therefore may not continue on to CIL II nor pursue a Capstone Project until they have successfully completed CIL I (which is only offered in the fall semester).
Role of Capstone Advisors
MENV Capstone Advisors are the primary faculty points-of-contact for the Capstone Partners and Capstone student teams from January - December. (Prior to that, August – December, the Assistant Director for Recruitment & External Relations, Myles Maland, is the point-of-contact.) Many of the advisors’ duties are akin to an academic advising position, detailed below.
Capstone Advisors will conduct regular check-ins with students regarding their projects. These check-ins will occur during the Capstone Innovation Lab (CIL) course meetings, as well as in bi-weekly meetings with students. Meeting schedules and structure will be determined between advisor and advisees at the start of the spring semester.
Capstone Advisors will advise students on the direction of their projects as well as help guide engagement with the Capstone Partner, as necessary. These tasks include:
- Meet with students at the beginning of the semester to set a schedule and expectations;
- Conduct regular check-ins with students regarding their projects;
- Advise students on the direction of their projects as well as how they should engage with the Capstone Partner;
- Establish project timeline & benchmarks;
- Help as needed to create the substantive content of project planning, including project design, methods, budget, & resources;
- Promote equitable workload among team members;
- Connect students with other experts as needed or source required expertise. These “consultants” may be on- or off-campus;
- Monitor and help ensure academic rigor of Capstone projects;
- Help students problem-solve and prompt them to think creatively and critically about various aspects of their projects.
Engagement with Capstone Partners
Capstone Advisors should be the first point of contact for any concerns or questions that the Capstone Partner has; and involve the Capstone Manager, Kimberly Kosmenko, if needed. Advisors shall engage with and develop a relationship with the Capstone Partners. They will meet as needed.
Capstone Advisors will join at least one initial meeting, either in person or by phone or video conference between the Capstone Partner and the students at the beginning of the spring semester. Additional check-ins may be scheduled in March and May, either in person or by phone. However, advisees are expected to have a high level of independence and take the lead in project design and implementation of their projects and interaction with the Capstone Partner.
Capstone Advisors may also provide memoranda to the Capstone Partners as well as the MENV faculty and staff periodically throughout the semester to keep all appraised of progress.
While there is no expectation that student teams are directly compensated for the Capstone Project, it is the clear and explicit expectation that Capstone Partner organizations pay for the budgeted costs associated with the project and agreed upon as part of the proposal. (Partner organizations are welcome to directly compensate teams, should they choose to do so.)
Development of the project budget is the Capstone team's responsibility, and must include projection of both expenditures and funding. The group must operate within this budget unless additional funding is obtained. Cost overruns must be covered by the project team members. Funding may be received from a sponsoring organization, accumulated by additional fundraising, provided by team members, allocated by the MENV program, or a combination of the above.
While in almost every case, Capstone Partners will reimburse project-related expenses, in some rare cases some partners may be unable to pay for all of the budgeted costs associated with a project.
Capstone Recognition Program
The Capstone Recognition Program is intended to reimburse students for direct costs that they incur in order to execute their Capstone Projects. Capstone Partners are requested to pay costs associated with Capstone Projects. Students should develop a project budget and enquire with their Capstone Partners if they will pay or provide reimbursement for costs incurred by the students. In most cases, they will do so – but sometimes they will not, or are unable to. If an organization will not do so (either in full or in part), students may apply for reimbursement of costs incurred. The following steps outline the process.
- One reimbursement application per individual.
- If a student is unsure whether a given expense may be reimbursed under the program, they should enquire with their Capstone Advisor in advance of incurring that expense.
- Students apply for reimbursement between May 15, 2020 - November 30, 2020
- Students must provide an itemized list of expenses incurred for which they are requesting reimbursement. This should include date, vendor, and justification of expense. Students must include a receipt for each itemized expense.
- Itemized expense requests may be less than $500 per student. No more than $500 in expenses will be reimbursed.
- The application will be submitted to each student’s respective Capstone Advisor. The Capstone Advisor will review and, if approved, will then submit to the MENV administration for reimbursement processing.
MENV will provide step-by-step guidance to students on how to complete and submit their reimbursement requests. That guidance will be posted during CIL 2.
Please note that the maximum amount of the student reimbursement is subject to change each year.
Capstone Partners may request non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) due to the nature of the data they share with student team members. This is an agreement between the students and client organization, and as a general-rule students do not sign this document on behalf of the University of Colorado Boulder. Whatever proprietary statement is signed cannot prohibit student work from being shared with the general public, but the agreement can be written to mask proprietary information, for example, substituting a pseudonym (e.g. Company X) for a specific organization name. Negotiation of the terms and conditions of an agreement may be necessary. These negotiations are conducted through the University of Colorado Boulder Office of Contracts and Grants, who has expertise related to openness of research. A sample Capstone Project non-disclosure agreement is available
Institutional Review Board (IRB) Review
The University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) requires that all research involving human subjects conducted by faculty or staff affiliated with the university be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) prior to initiation. Investigators may not solicit subject participation or begin data collection until they have received written approval from the IRB. The IRB further requires that all student research activities are supervised by a faculty member; however, some types of student research activities may not require IRB review above and beyond faculty supervision. CU Boulder supports a wide range of both undergraduate and graduate student research projects using human subjects from course related research exercises to dissertation studies. Not all projects that have an investigative aspect are considered to meet the definition of “research” or “human subjects research”. For Capstone projects that involve surveys or interviews, students will need to assess whether these activities for their project require IRB review. In order to determine if your project requires IRB review contact the Institutional Review Board Office (303-735-3702). IRB review will be discussed toward the beginning of Capstone Innovation Lab 2 as you are beginning to finalize the scope of your project, your goals, objectives, and work plan.
Grading for Capstone Projects
The Capstone sequence consists of two types of courses: a three (3)-unit Capstone Innovation Lab (‘CIL’) sequence, and a five (5)-unit Capstone Project summer course. The CIL courses are one (1)-credit each and are offered sequentially during the first and second fall semesters and in the spring semester. The summer component of the Capstone course is listed as ENVM 6003 in the course catalog. It is a 10-week, five (5)-credit course taken during Summer Session D. There are no traditional MENV classroom activities associated with the summer session outside of the study abroad courses in May and August; students are expected to be working on their Capstone Projects throughout the summer.
The CIL courses provide a letter grade that is determined at the end of each respective semester. Individual components of the Capstone Innovation Lab grades will be outlined in the syllabus for that class.
Summer Capstone Project hours will receive an interim ‘In Progress (IP)’ grade at the end of the summer. Capstone advisors will review students’ final deliverable at the end of the second fall semester, and provide their recommended Capstone deliverable grade with justification. Capstone Partners may provide input and feedback, but may not grade students’ work. The Capstone Manager, Ms. Kimberly Kosmenko, will be the final arbiter of the Capstone deliverable grade, and will update the IP grades that were assigned at the end of the summer semester.
This grade will be determined through the quality of the final Capstone product or deliverable, the quality of the Capstone presentation, a review of work done over the summer, as well as feedback from the Capstone Partner and the MENV Capstone Advisor.
Minimum grades for both course types are B-.