Senior Capstones, Projects, Theses: The Method Behind the Madness

By Cadence Russell, Editor-in-Chief

In most departments across the university, students are required to complete an undergraduate thesis or capstone project as a culmination of their degree. Across the disciplines, however, this project looks vastly different.

“You’re going to experience kind of what it’s like to be political scientist, historian, doing this research, and then results in a final draft plus the presentation,” Dr. Jay Wendland, chair of the History and Political Science Department said. 

In Wendland’s department, students start in the research sequence in the spring of their junior year taking a research methods course, before continuing on to the capstone course in the fall of their senior year. 

“The methods basically convey kind of normal disciplinary methodological approaches to doing research. So in political science, we cover just kind of basic research design and then a couple of different types of research designs that focus mainly on ones students might be more likely to use, like case studies,” Wendland said. “And then in the actual capstone course, our students pick a research topic, their of own choosing, develop a research question, and then a research design around that question.”

For history and political science students, their capstone project is usually a deep dive into the literature surrounding their chosen topic, with the choice to continue their research into the spring semester. 

For English and Professional Writing and Rhetoric majors, the three-credit capstone course is broken up over a year. 

“The idea is that in that seminar, the students develop an independent research project of their own of their own choosing on a topic which is relevant to the field in some way,” Dr. Hamish Dalley, chair of the English Department said. “And one of the expectations that we have for this capstone is, is that it’s an original contribution to knowledge.”

By the end of the course, the student will have written their thesis, with guidance from another faculty member who is an expert in the field. In years past, students would give an oral presentation at the Academic Festival, which has not occurred in its traditional setting since 2019. 

Traditionally, the Academic Festival has served as the primary way student projects, including senior capstones and theses, have been presented. An online version occurred in 2020, but the in-person presentations have not occurred since. The Academic Festival is tentatively scheduled for April 17th, 2024, barring any extreme circumstances, like the flooding of DS which eliminated the festival last year. Without the festival, some departments have taken to hosting their own presentations on a much smaller scale. 

“We do departmental presentations, where we do require students to present all faculty in the department are invited to come in as questions observe,” Wendland said. “So we’ve done our own little departmental Academic Festival if you will.”

The Natural Science Department also hosts a departmental presentation in the spring, where senior students present their scientific posters on their research. Faculty members and other undergraduate students from sophomore and junior research courses attend. 

The research presented in the Natural Sciences presentations is the culmination of two years of work by undergraduate students, who officially start planning their own projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor in the fall of their junior year, before developing their methodology and defending their research question in front of the department at junior defense in the spring of their junior year. Once students have completed the defense, they then start implementing their project, gathering and analyzing data to write their final paper and presentation in the spring of their senior year. 

“Research is like a rollercoaster, it rarely follows a linear path,” Haley Hinds, senior biochemistry major said. “There can be challenges and setbacks but just the thought of discovering something new, interesting, or impactful makes it worthwhile. It is the not knowing of what comes next that keeps it exciting and compels you to want to learn more.”

Hind’s research is centered around chemicals within menstrual products. 

Wendland speaks back to a project he mentored that won the Best Capstone Project within the department that looked at how presidential typology predicts a presidential candidate’s personality during the 2016 election. 

“You got a good sense of what their personality their character type was when you looked at Twitter and now this research that he pulled from like basically says, if they exhibit these characteristics on the campaign trail, here’s how you should expect them to govern,” Wendland said. 

These projects are more than just busy work or resume padding. They aim to develop critical skills for students within their field once they graduate.

“Once you scale up to a full-size thesis, there are so many moving pieces, and to be able to harness all of that information, all those different ideas, those different texts, those different key points, to be able to shape and organize something coherent, something readable, and something persuasive requires really, really kind of sophisticated rhetorical skills,” Dalley said.

The capstone itself is like a gift wrap on a student’s degree, pulling together all the information and skills learned throughout their undergraduate experience. 

“We want to see kind of what you’ve learned and in your final kind of big research project for us, you get to choose your own topic,” Wendland said. “You get to highlight all of the skills you’ve gained throughout your time at Daemen, the skills you’ve gained from sitting in our classes, hopefully retaining some knowledge that we’ve imparted, and kind of highlight here is my here’s the kind of culmination of my, my, my work and time here.

Starting the capstone sequence can be intimidating. Dalley mentions that capstone projects are much more of a process rather than a sprint and that the project you start with is very rarely what you end up with in April and May, and to allow yourself to be flexible. 

“Everybody gets very nervous when they hear about the capstone,” Wendland said. “They think it’s this big mountain that they have to climb and it’s not that it’s not important, it is. And we do expect a good amount of time and effort to be placed into this paper. But it’s also, you’re researching a topic of your own choosing. So theoretically, you’re going to like it quite a bit.”

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