4 Important Things I Learned In My Senior Capstone—No-Brainers We Sometimes Forget
“And the OMSI thing, that’s NOT a crazy idea,” our client from OHSU said from the front row. “I really like it.”
My project team and I had just finished presenting our analysis and were taking questions from the class.
We had finished our 20-minute presentation with a unique idea that even our clients hadn’t thought of. We prefaced it with, “this may be a crazy idea, but …”
Good. Crazy. The client liked it!
You may be thinking, “Cool story, bro. But what in the pork and beans is a senior capstone?”
It’s a college course, required by all bachelor degree candidates, that gives students the opportunity to work together in a cross-functional team to complete a project. The idea is to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from your major and other topics to solve a real-life problem in the local business community.
Pitching ideas to a real client, presenting your work to large groups, managing a real project—these are the kinds of experiences you gain in a senior capstone. Working with a real client makes things feel a little more exciting than your average group project.
Upon first glance, the four key goals of the PSU University Studies Program seem like no-brainers to me. But really, the job of achieving these particular goals is never-ending. And try as we might, we don’t always achieve them when it counts. That’s why it was so interesting to think about how my capstone experience gave my classmates and I the opportunity to develop in these four areas. Where did I excel? Where could I have done better?
At the end of the course, each student was asked to write a reflection on their experience. So, without further adieu…here’s mine.
The University Studies Program (UNST) at PSU has four goals around which each UNST class is designed. Each of the goals have been integrated into the senior capstone course. In the following pages I will outline the connections between my experience in this course and those four goals, and I will answer the question, how have I enhanced my approach to those four areas as a result of my senior capstone experience?
1. Hone Critical Thinking Skills
The first UNST goal is concerned with a student’s ability to “develop and utilize decision criteria for problem/opportunity identification, utilize appropriate data sources, use analytical tools and quantitative evaluation techniques, and select and present a solution consistent with identified decision criteria”. Inquiry and critical thinking were consistent themes woven into much of the coursework I completed over the last 18 months, especially the project work.
I observed a clear connection between this first goal and my experience in this course. This course challenged my team and I throughout the term to identify the root cause of problems and to highlight opportunities while developing tools to select and present the best solution.
The senior capstone group project began in the first week of the term by presenting a real-life problem for a client in our community. My group’s client, OHSU (Oregon Health & Science University), had a problem that was particularly complex, involving an evaluation of two commercialization routes and business models that would bring a new medical device to market. In addition, our team needed to research patents to decide weather a patent would be appropriate for this new device.
For both problems, the business model selection and the patent decision, our team had to develop both quantitative and qualitative decision criteria. For each commercialization route, we used the following decision criteria.
Our weighted decision criteria tool indicated the Service option was the better solution.
- Profit potential
- Risk of failure
- Organized to capture value
- New product development potential
- Inventor time commitment
We used these criteria to build a “weighted decision criteria matrix”, which gave us an objective method to select a solution.
Of all the tools and models I’ve learned how to use during my recent academic studies, the weighted decision criteria matrix is my favorite. This thing is awesome. Learning how to apply this decisioning tool is one way I have improved my approach to the Inquiry and Critical Thinking area. Trying to make a big decision in your personal or professional life? Use this tool. I wish I had known about it years ago.
2. Engage in Effective Communication
The second goal measures a student’s ability to “communicate clearly for a variety of purposes and to diverse audiences; written and oral output is marked by lucid and orderly thinking, substantial depth, fullness and complexity of thought”. Throughout my life I’ve learned, and relearned, that clear communication is an essential skill and critical to one’s success in business. The capstone class provides a rich experience full of opportunities to succeed, and fail, at communicating clearly with others.
During this course I was reminded of the relationship between effective communication and team size. Most upper division courses include group work whereby teams are made up of three-five students. However, in the senior capstone course the class is divided into three teams of 10-12 students each. Each team is then allowed to work in smaller functional teams of two-four students as necessary.
For example, a team of 11 might consist of a smaller functional team of two marketing students, another functional team of three finance/accounting students, a third functional team of three supply chain students, and a final functional team of three management and leadership students.
My experience working on a project team this large reminded me not only that a “divide and conquer” approach often leads to more and better team communication, it’s also more productive. Early in the term, all 11 of us met together to write short weekly papers and presentations. With all of us there at every meeting, the work was laborious and not everyone was able to participate.
We realized that dividing up into functional teams would allow each team to conquer more tasks separately. Once we decided to “divide and conquer”, each team member could communicate more freely and effectively within the sub-teams. As a result, our productivity, and our morale, increased significantly.
I was also reminded how collectively thinking through a problem can lead to clearer insights and better results. It was important for our team to “show our work” when discussing problems and solutions. If one of us voiced a preference for a particular approach, it was helpful for everyone to hear the logic behind it. For example, if you don’t know what steps I took, you don’t know what steps I didn’t take. If you don’t know what questions I asked, you don’t know what questions I didn’t ask. This context can really help clarify interpersonal communication.
3. Appreciate the Diversity of Human Experience
The third goal is for a student to “view issues from multiple perspectives, to question what is being taught, and to construct independent meaning and interpretations; demonstrate broad awareness of how the self (you) appears from the greater perspective of human experience, question own views in light of this awareness, and contemplate its implications for life choices in the personal and public spheres”.
An assignment for our team this term was to complete a Cause Presentation, in which we chose a debatable cause with multiple sides to research and present to class. We chose free tuition for public universities. This assignment forced me to look at a controversial topic from multiple angles and reconsider my assumptions. What are the implications of free tuition for the economy, for the education system, the tax system, and the job market? Analyzing the pros and cons broadened my perspective and led to a better understanding of the issue.
Appreciating human diversity and viewing issues from multiple perspectives allows us to grow intellectually and see things from a perspective we hadn’t considered before. It lets us appreciate people different from us, and strengthen relationships through mutual understanding.
4. Understand Ethical and Social Responsibilities
The final UNST goal measures how a student “creatively and comprehensively articulates approaches to ethical issues and social responsibility, in a scholarly manner, citing specific evidence; demonstrates an ability to view multiple sides of these issues, to question what is being taught, and to construct independent meaning and interpretations”.
There were two specific connections between this goal and my experience in the capstone course. The first occurred when we realized that our client has a potential to offer a benefit to society. Through research we discovered that, although the number of neurosurgeons is increasing each year, demand for neurosurgeons is increasing even faster, creating an ever-widening shortfall in demand. We identified a possibility for OHSU to turn it’s problem into a solution that could reduce this gap in demand by increasing the number of neurosurgeons in the coming years and decades.
The second connection happened when we identified an out-of-the-box solution that would not only generate significant revenue, but also educate the public. We recommended OHSU partner with OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) and other science museums around the country and globe. The inventors could develop an interactive exhibit where the public buys tickets to “try brain surgery”. This idea was a big hit with our classmates and with our clients at OHSU.
After 15 years in the working world, I re-enrolled at Portland State University to pursue a degree in marketing, invest in my education and transition to an exciting new career. Before attending the first class, I sat down one day to write a term-by-term outline detailing each class I would take in order to earn my degree. I noticed the senior capstone class and read the course description. Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about my senior capstone. What would it be like to work on a cross-functional team in a classroom environment?
I had high hopes for this class—the culmination of my new education. I was excited for the opportunity to leverage my new skills while collaborating with others to address a real issue for a real client in our community. The experience has been fantastic.
Thank you for reading! How important are these four areas at your work? What do you think of the weighted decision criteria tool? Have you ever used it to make any big (or small) decisions?