Published January 28, 2019
Speaking with UB Capstone Clinical Instructor Jeffrey Kohler, you get the sense that he would be passionate about the program even if he were not involved.
Many institutions offer capstone projects as a way for students to reflect upon their learning experience and pull it together into a comprehensive whole. At most schools, however, the capstone is limited to particular fields of study. Here, it forms part of the UB Curriculum, UB’s general education requirements, and that makes the university unique. Kohler and his colleagues have presented on the UB Capstone to not only other area schools, but those from around the country and even Canada; many have expressed interest in developing a program modeled after UB’s.
“I think a lot of schools are dealing with the issue of making general education meaningful, something that students can take with them,” Kohler says. “UB is the trendsetter. We’re on the cutting edge.”
The UB Curriculum, which is crowned by the UB Capstone, is a complete reimagining of general education launched by the university in fall 2016. Before, as in most other schools, general education classes were like hurdles students had to jump over before moving on to their major coursework. They were never asked to think about how knowledge in non-major courses could be useful to them, or how one field of study could relate to and inform another.
By contrast, the UB Curriculum is a holistic educational experience with a beginning and an end. It starts with the UB Seminar, an intimate yet intensive big-idea course that all incoming students take, with titles like “Handling Monsters: A Handbook” and “The Ancient World in the Movie.” After that, students devise their own path, acquiring the building blocks of lifelong learning — scientific literacy, cultural competence and the like — through the Foundations, while digging deep across disciplines on a particular theme, such as equity, power and justice, or human nature, in the Pathways.
That process of connecting knowledge across fields culminates in the UB Capstone, which challenges students to reflect on the entire journey, integrating everything they’ve learned both inside and outside the classroom.
The UB Capstone takes the form of a one-credit course, UBC 399. Throughout the semester, students enrolled in the class assemble a digital “ePortfolio” spanning all of their UB Curriculum coursework. Unlike a more conventional, manila-file portfolio that might wind up socked away in a filing cabinet, the ePortfolio lives on the web, allowing students to personalize their sites, keep a permanent archive of their work, revisit, revise and share.
Students are introduced to the application used to create their ePortfolios during the UB Seminar. Thus, long before they even enroll in UBC 399, they begin working on their final capstone project — at this stage by adding “artifacts” to their ePortfolios. An artifact is an assignment that a student has completed in a UB Curriculum course, one that they feel represents their learning in that particular course. The process of adding artifacts encourages students to start thinking about their education and goals in the long term from the beginning of their UB career.
The ePortfolio includes several other elements in addition to artifacts: a homepage, where students introduce themselves and which they can personalize with photos and backgrounds; a statement about their philosophy of learning; a section where they can write about their extracurricular activities and explore how those have impacted their learning (and vice versa); and two essays in which they reflect on their curriculum Pathways. The reflective essays can help demonstrate the ways in which different classes are related to one another — even when those connections are not necessarily obvious.
Taken together, these components create a comprehensive chart of a student’s general education, demonstrating not only what they’ve learned, but also how their ideas have changed — and changed them — over time.
Although every ePortfolio features the same components, each one is unique, reflecting the individual work and experiences of the student who created it. Matthania Volmy, a senior who completed her capstone last year, says she enjoyed making her portfolio her own. “Even though (capstone) is a course, you can still make it fun,” she says. “I loved being creative and being able to put whatever I want into it.”
Volmy, who is double majoring in health and human services and sociology of health and society, chose to showcase her extensive extracurricular experience, including volunteering with Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and helping with activities programming at a local assisted living facility. “I wanted to include the things that I’m passionate about,” she says, adding that those extracurricular experiences have been just as formative as her lessons inside the classroom in getting her started down the path toward becoming a health care administrator.
Lauren Fibich completed the capstone her senior year and is now enrolled in UB’s Graduate School of Education. “You can learn a lot about yourself, like how you got from point A to point B,” she says. “I think many of us are so rushed from semester to semester that we’re only thinking about handing in this assignment, doing this, doing that, and not really thinking about the long-lasting lessons we can take from our classes.”
Fibich found the capstone so useful she plans to continue using the ePortfolio platform, which students maintain access to as alumni, in graduate school to help demonstrate her competency in the areas and certifications her program requires. And when she becomes a teacher, she says, she will use a similar application with her own students to engage them in the same sort of reflective learning that she benefited from at UB.
The capstone not only helps to consolidate what a student has learned; it can also reveal the path forward, sometimes in unexpected ways. Alexa Reardon, a junior, took her capstone last year as she was preparing to begin her graduate studies under the Early Assurance pharmacy program. She already had doubts about her choice of major, but figured it was too late for her to change course.
Then, as she was writing in her capstone about a physiology class she had taken, she realized she had a passion for patient care that she couldn’t ignore. “The capstone helped push me to focus on what I want: a more general approach to medicine and a more interactive relationship with patients,” she recalls. She ultimately decided to delay graduate school in order to switch her major to biomedical sciences with a minor in pharmacology. Now she’s planning to apply to medical school, with the hope of attending the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and, eventually, practicing in Buffalo.
The capstone may be an academic experience, but its most valuable function is preparing students for their lives after graduation. When the structure of semesters and the regimen of assignments are gone, it will be up to them to spur their own learning and chart their own paths. The capstone gives them the skills and mindset to figure out where they want to go and how to get there.
“It helps students understand more about themselves,” Kohler says, “which at the end of the day is what’s most important — that students recognize that they are well prepared for the job market or graduate school, or whatever comes next. That little bit of self-realization makes all the difference.”