As many of us know in higher education, our lens is constantly changing and therefore our work as a teacher-scholar-mentor is also ever evolving. I am in my 11th year of teaching at Elon University. I have taught multiple capstone courses both disciplinary and interdisciplinary and mentored or co-mentored close to 50 students on their capstone undergraduate research experience.

This past summer and over the frantic couple weeks before the semester started, I was simultaneously helping develop the next CEL research seminar on capstone experiences and developing a disciplinary capstone course for Exercise Science majors. Traditionally our disciplinary capstone courses have used a research model in which small groups of students develop and execute a research project around an instructor defined topic. This year I wanted to mix things up moving this course to dynamic, contemporary research process with outcomes that could directly impact the community.

I am an experimenter to the core, okay with chaos, and the topic I have chosen for this course could benefit from a different model – design thinking. Design thinking has been part of many discussions at Elon over the past couple of years, and this course felt like a great opportunity to implement the concept. Thus, this senior seminar class also has the opportunity to join this experiment. I have been upfront with students – we are going to engage in, and learn from, this new creative process together. We will adapt and adjust as we need to, but the process will entail moving from idea to prototype quickly (Knapp, Zeratsky, & Kowitz, 2016). The goal is for the students to produce products that educate, promote, and/or engage kids of various ages, parents, teachers and policy makers about the importance of playing outside (ideally unstructured) for movement development.  This project is vague and the possibilities endless; a course where exploration, mistakes, and kid play is the outcome – who wouldn’t want to participate? I am struck by the wide-eyed looks of students and the immediate insecurity of what to ‘do’. They seem to crave a structured course where the assignments and the outcome are known. They want the rubric, or for me at least, to have identified ‘the what’ and ‘the where’, not just ‘the who’.

The 21st century college student is really good at completing assignments we put in front of them. They can be creative and analytical within the traditional structure of a course. They are comfortable completing a literature review; although they would prefer to know how many pages and resources are expected. They can ‘creatively’ come up with a research question which usually is one they think will be easy enough to meet the assignment objectives. They can break down and assign tasks and get it all done well enough. Complaints about group work will follow; how some don’t contribute and others feel like they do all the work. We have effectively taught our students to meet the bar set, get a grade that will help them achieve their next steps (e.g. graduate programs in the health sciences). Is this type of experience transformative or doing much to prepare them for the life ahead? How do we capitalize on all they have to offer?  A capstone course inherently wants students to be prepared, reflective, and attentive to the world they are entering and the contributions they will make; a responsibility to contribute to the greater good. We want them to own their work and engage fully in the process (Hunter, Keup, Kinzie, & Maietta, 2012).

In contrast, my many experiences mentoring undergraduate research projects often lead to students being intimately engaged in the research process. Students complete a literature review but often go back to it and add topics as they design the project or analyze data and interpret results. Watching students ‘own’ their research project, often presenting at national conferences and publishing their work, is one of the most rewarding aspects of my role in higher education. Many times these experiences lead to creating material to educate the stakeholders or having dynamic conversations with interested parties. These experiences are transformative and students often report back how useful the experience is for their next steps of graduate school and even once they hit the work force and ‘real life’. They clearly see transferable skills they learned as part of their mentored undergraduate research experience and they are not alone (e.g. Lapatto, 2010; Linn et al., 2015; Gregerman, 2009).

So I contemplate how to get my senior seminar course engaged and owning this process of discovery, innovation, and development (Reeve et al., 2004). Is it the grade? Is it the group? Is it the time? They are developing content to be included on a website that I will manage for years to come ( This can make a sustainable impact. I came to this solution for two reasons. First, to address the worry and help structure course outcomes and expectations for students as we embark on this journey through a new and vague process. Additionally, in an effort to move an agenda highlighting my work of why movement matters forward as a teacher-scholar- mentor to be accessible by the general public.

So how do I foster and facilitate students to free themselves to find their creativity, trust their skills, and own this work? Until they buy in, the products are not going to meet the goal. Society doesn’t want annotated bibliographies, literature reviews, and poster presentations. Society will not engage in or digest material that is ‘boring’ or ‘inaccessible’.  However, we also have to understand that the products we give the public have to be grounded in the literature and based on more than just experiences, beliefs, and/or opinions. How do I set up the classroom capstone experience in a way that failing and recovering is part of the process; similar to the safe space of my research lab? How do I empower students to develop, practice, and reflect on transferable skills that will impact them as future healthcare providers, leaders, policy makers, and parents? How do I get the goals and objectives of a single course to become an opportunity for student transformation instead of just another box to check to graduate?

This current ‘experiment’ brings into focus the exciting work we are embarking on for the next CEL research seminar addressing questions around effective capstone experiences. This work does matter and will matter to students, faculty, and institutions that are developing and implementing capstone experiences aimed at transformation and transition preparation. I know one thing for sure; this senior seminar will be a growth experience for each of us. We are going find our way to an end product which, at minimum, gets us comfortable with dealing with the vague and working toward a tangible outcome together – and that is design thinking. Stay tuned for content that will educate, promote, and provide engaging ideas to get kids and their communities embracing playing outside.  My students and the ultimate products are currently ‘work in progress’, which is right where I want us.


  • Gregerman, S. R. (2009). Filling the gap: The role of undergraduate research in student retention and academic success. Broadening participation in undergraduate research: Fostering excellence and enhancing the impact, 245-256.
  • Hunter, M. S., Keup, J. R., Kinzie, J., & Maietta, H. (Eds.). (2012). The senior year: Culminating experiences and transitions. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.
  • Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J. & Kowitz, B. (2016) Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days. Simon & Schuster: New York NY
  • Linn, M.C., Palmer, E., Baranger, A., Gerard, E., & Stone, E., (2015). Undergraduate research experiences: impacts and opportunities. Science, 347 (6222), 1261757.  doi: 10.1126/science.1261757.
  • Lopatto, D. (2010). Undergraduate research as a high-impact student experience. Peer Review, 12(2), 27-30.
  • Reeve, J., Jang, H., Carrell, D., Barch, J., & Jeon, S. (2004). Enhancing students’ engagement by increasing teachers’ autonomy support. Motivation and Emotion, 28, 147-169.

Caroline J. Ketcham, Professor and Chair, Department of Exercise Science, Elon University, is a seminar leader for the 2018-2020 research seminar on Capstone Experiences.

How to cite this post:

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2017, October 5. Inspiring Student Ownership of Capstone. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from