Illustration by Rosy Tahan

Dealing with the Capstone Challenge

What challenges do the Capstone projects bring to NYUAD students and faculty?

Over crispy chicken sliders and mint lemonade from Circle Café — an NYU Abu Dhabi favorite — Adam Ashraf, Class of 2018, practiced his elevator pitch to a group of students gathered at the Arts and Humanities Capstone Open House.
“My capstone is a play documenting and dramatizing the experience of queer men in Egypt over the last two decades. I am exploring different ways to document this narrative without recreating orientalist or postcolonial tropes,” said Ashraf.
Ashraf was participating in an informal gathering about Arts and Humanities but had his answer almost memorized. The ubiquity of the capstone question to students in their final year at NYUAD had prepared him well.
The room was abuzz with loud conversations but for some students the Open House felt redundant — like a missed opportunity.
“I wish the event was held in the beginning of the semester because in that way I could actually think about collaborating with students from different majors, and also now that I am in the middle of my project, it’s hard to incorporate feedback or bring in big inspirational changes,” said Andrea Chung, Class of 2018, who is currently in the process of making a short documentary film.
Like Ashraf and Chung, all of the students from the Class of 2018 are engaged in a capstone project, a requirement for students to complete before graduation. The NYUAD website states the purpose of the project as: “The fundamental challenge is to enter unmapped terrain and to extend oneself in making knowledge, reframing conventional approaches to an issue or creating something new.”
Increasing student concerns about the questionable role of the capstone in their career trajectory, however, has put pressure on some academic divisions, leading to discussions about the future of the capstone project as a whole.
Dean of Science David Scicchitano, who played an instrumental role in the design of the NYUAD undergraduate curriculum, recalls the days when the capstone project was envisioned. While some wanted students to take on any project in any discipline, more administrators advocated for a project that was the culmination of a student's academic interest.
“One of the main challenges for faculty then was how can they prepare students to take on this year-long endeavor, thereby leading to a thorough design of the capstone seminar and project course and also the research seminars in the junior year where students explore and develop their projects,” said Dean Scicchitano.
For Dean Scicchitano, the capstone project within the natural sciences is predicated on what a student is going to do next, and he described the purpose of the project as a “stepping stone into the next phase of a student’s career.”
In the engineering division, on the other hand, the administration faces a whole set of unique challenges, given the fact that they need to fit the experience of students into the NYUAD liberal arts curriculum and the criteria provided by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. Dean of Engineering Samer Madanat referred to it as a ”unique capstone experience.”
“Under ABET, a capstone is supposed to be a major design experience. For a civil engineering student, it might be designing an airport … it is not expected to have research but it has to have a design concept under constraints financial or [temporal], the purpose being to put students in the shoes of a working engineer,” said Dean Madanat.
He highlighted that this was one of the major challenges that the department faced, and that they are still unsure of how to fix the issue.
“The problem with that means that there are some ideas that our students have which might be interesting as an experience for them but they aren’t appropriate for them to satisfy what ABET wants,” added Dean Madanat. He also acknowledged the frustration that some Engineering students face with this process especially when they see their peers in other departments engaging with their own ideas and projects.
For Sofia Fernandez Santoyo, Class of 2018 and a Mechanical Engineering major, the capstone project reminds her of her freshman year when she took the course Design and Innovation during January Term. Now she has taken up a similar design challenge and is working with a group of four students to design a solar tube lighting device which collects sunlight and distributes it throughout a house so that the house can be lit with natural sunlight.
During Design and Innovation, Santoyo reflects on how they were given a prompt on which they could base their idea, but now for the capstone project they are given a specific list of projects to choose from.
“We don’t have the opportunity to be creative and come up with our own ideas. We are given an opportunity to propose our own project but very few choose to do that. Most students chose to select a project from the list because our professors encourage to choose the latter and we are given very little space to explore,” explained Santoyo.
Similar experiences also hold true for students in the Department of Social Science, where the specific criteria of the capstone project has inhibited them from exploring their interests and producing a project that aligns with their post-graduation plans.
“As someone who will be joining a consultancy after graduation and hopes to one day start my own business, I would have preferred to have spent these countless hours during my senior year on more relevant and fruitful initiatives,” said Nick Chaubey, Class of 2018 and a Political Science major.
Chaubey is studying the Committee on Foreign Direct Investment in the U.S., a U.S. American federal government committee that evaluates major foreign investment deals to determine if they might have negative national security implications for the U.S.
“I hope the university realizes that Political Science students can demonstrate their learning and bring together the skills they've learned over four years in academically and professionally beneficial ways through creative projects that go beyond producing academic articles written in an esoteric, [U.S.] American political science format,” said Chaubey. “Not all of us aspire to be Political Science professors or government technocrats, and this should be reflected in our options for capstone,” Chaubey said.
For the administration, there is an equal amount of burden as each capstone project requires the supervision of a mentor. The Department of Social Science suffers from a huge capacity constraint as they have the highest student-to-faculty ratio.
“The main question for the division and for me is about sustainability. [The capstone project] is a life-changing experience and I would love to pursue it but I am not sure if we can do it with the faculty resources that we have, frankly,” said Dean of Social Science Hervé Crès.
He further explained that Social Science professors are given time off from their teaching load depending on the number of capstone students they mentor because of the commitment that is required from their side. Even though the Engineering division has the lowest student-to-faculty ratio, they also offer a similar deal to their professors, given the increase of students opting for an Engineering degree.
Regarding the sustainability of its capstone model, the Department of Arts and Humanities sees a foreseeable change in the structure of how students engage with the capstone project.
“Rather than having a student do a complete production by themselves, which is an extraordinary thing, you could have somebody write it [or] act in it. You could work in a team and put together a larger thing, which is how plays and films are done. Nobody makes a film or play by themselves,” said Dean of Arts and Humanities Robert Young.
He admitted that this would be harder to implement in the Humanities, but still possible since research in the Humanities is increasingly being done in teams.
There are also new initiatives being adopted into a few departments’ capstone project models that look promising and fit the liberal arts ideal of encouraging interdisciplinary studies.
For example, Professors Sophia Kalantzakos and Dale Hudson are spearheading a new initiative titled the eARThumanities Capstone Greenhouse, which will be held in Feb. 2018.
“It will be a workshop designed to help ideas grow in environmentally aware ways. The aim is to help students develop ideas within their current or future academic research or arts practice,” said Hudson. “Faculty will introduce critical vocabulary, offer examples of academic research and arts practice that engage environmentalism, and describe current research or practice.”
This initiative falls under the newly designed Environmental Humanities research division, which seeks to generate “new perspectives on the study of topics in the Anthropocene” through interdisciplinary research and outreach.
While it would be an overstatement to say that the capstone project is critical to the NYUAD undergraduate experience, students have highlighted the varied experience of the process of doing capstones in different divisions.
All of the divisions have proven their flexibility and openness to change by incorporating feedback from students who take on the capstone project and faculty who mentor these students. However, imposing big changes such as making the capstone an optional task is still unknown.
Karma Gurung is Editor-at-Large. Email her at
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