A student wearing a mask looks into a microscope

Capping a successful undergraduate experience

By

Penny Walker

Designing a space robot as an undergraduate sounds pretty out of this world.

But for John McDougal — the lead systems engineer in one of the School of Earth and Space Exploration's Psyche mission senior capstone projects for the 2019-2020 school year — there were some very down-to-earth aspects that were crucial to master: budget and deadlines.

"It (the capstone project) is a good way to end off the degree — we actually get to apply what we've learned and challenge ourselves. We have a fiscal responsibility, we have a budget, we're not supposed to waste money or time — so it's like the real world," he said, adding that in real life, NASA "wouldn't want us to mess around."

Sometimes referred to as capstone courses or senior thesis, senior capstones are culminating experiences that take place near the end of a student's undergraduate college years. They can take many forms, but they are large, multifaceted projects that integrate knowledge and skills from the student's years of studies. And Arizona State University's senior capstones are gaining national notice: U.S. News & World Report has named ASU to its top 20 for senior capstone experience in its 2021 Best Colleges rankings.

In the rankings released Monday, ASU was No. 19, up from No. 28 last year, the first year that senior capstone was a category. ASU tied with — among others — the Georgia Institute of Technology, and it was ranked ahead of Swarthmore College and Butler University. The ranking is based on a peer survey.

“ASU’s high national ranking in senior capstone experiences signals to students that ASU is committed to creating specialized learning experiences that prepare students to transition into meaningful careers after completing their undergraduate degree,” said Mark S. Searle, ASU’s executive vice president and university provost. “From rigorous research with ASU professors to applied projects with industry sponsors, capstone experiences at ASU are intentionally flexible, so that students apply the knowledge they gained in their undergraduate degree to individual pursuits that fit within their personal career and life objectives.”

More U.S. News & World Report rankings: ASU ranked No. 1 in innovation for 6th year | ASU ranked a top 10 university for 'first-year experiences' | Undergraduate business program rises in rankings

McDougal's team designed the anchoring and mining system for a robot on the Psyche asteroid — ASU's real-life Psyche mission will study it from an orbiting spacecraft, but the student team decided to look at the idea of actually landing on the asteroid and digging into it from an anchored position. They floated a number of ideas with capstone and NASA staffers before landing on their design.

That networking is a part of the capstone experience. McDougal — then an exploration systems design senior, now an electrical engineering graduate student with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — said the teams encountered a number of NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory personnel throughout the yearlong project.  

For Rose Lopez, a mathematics senior last spring, her honors senior capstone helped her meet the source: Carl Pomerance, the inventor of the quadratic sieve algorithm. Lopez's senior capstone looked at that algorithm and the field of cryptography — specifically, at the tactics of the algorithm that balance robustness with speed.

"In this case, we took advantage of Barrett's external examiner option," said Nancy Childress, an associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, a faculty member in Barrett, The Honors College, and Lopez's mentor on her capstone. They invited Pomerance to be the third faculty member on Lopez's honors thesis and "she got to interact with him and hear his stories about how it all came about."

Lopez, winner of the 2020 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize, the highest honor a mathematics undergraduate can receive, is now in her first semester of a PhD program at Berkeley.

At ASU, the senior capstone experiences can take many forms. The following are a few examples. 

  • Students in the business data analytics program in the W. P. Carey School of Business have worked with the National Industries for the Blind (determining which factors led to the success of different NIB products), vehicle-management firm RTA Fleet (helping better project inventory demand based on maintenance/repair data) and dental continuing-education company Spear Education (optimizing use of its website and identifying trends that lead to membership).
  • In the School of Earth and Space Exploration, students do a two-semester sequence in which they choose from a list of given projects. This year, students will be working on — among other things — building an experiment for a NASA stratospheric balloon to test a new terahertz sensor technology and measure the transparency of the atmosphere in preparation for future missions to observe water around newly forming stars and planets. And in an interdisciplinary capstone done in a larger team along with Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering peers, the school's students will be prototyping a robotic explorer for future surface exploration of the Psyche asteroid.
  • In the School of Life Sciences, molecular biosciences and biotechnology majors research a particular biotechnology industry (medical, agricultural, industrial, etc.) and its associated intellectual property, ethics, and regulatory issues. In the end, they prepare a four-minute elevator pitch to launch a startup company to make products for that industry.
  • Seniors in the School of Politics and Global Studies explore ethics and politics from new angles. One of this year's projects seeks to understand how exposure to different media on police brutality can affect people's attitudes and drive social change, and another thesis will look at whether people would put their own self-interest above all when building a political system or whether philosopher John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" would win out. 

The senior capstone is a chance for students to apply the tools and skills they've been learning all along in a real-world way, said Jason Nichols, assistant chair of the Department of Information Systems and a clinical associate professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business. His CIS 440 students work from a list of broad "problem spaces" — such as getting actionable and honest feedback from employees — that was developed with the input of USAA financial services company.

Working with actual companies and actual issues grounds what the students have been learning all along, Nichols said.

"It's a chance to step back and see the big picture and see how everything they've learned works together to bring value to them and the organization," he said. "... We approach it from the standpoint that the sum is greater than the parts — it's not just 'tick the boxes,' but combine them creatively to create value."