Tag Archives: capstone

Maggie Branch’s Capstone

A capstone is a project that takes the knowledge and skills our undergraduates learn in their courses and brings these together in a practical experience. LAUNCH  offers five capstone programs–Undergraduate Research Scholars, Undergraduate Teacher Scholars, Undergraduate Service Scholars, Undergraduate Leadership Scholars (a collaboration with Maroon & White Society), and Undergraduate Performance Scholats–that are open to all Texas A&M Undergraduates.

Students in the University Honors Program are expected to complete a capstone experience as part of the Honors Fellows distinction requirements but sometimes our existing programs do not fit a student’s career goals. Students who have an existing departmental capstone can modify that experience to fit our requirements and have the capstone count for both the department and the University Honors Program.

Maggie Branch ’19

Junior agricultural economics major Maggie Branch ’19 chose to do a departmental capstone to fulfill her capstone requirement. Her project, a study on factors related to the purchase and consumption of specialty eggs, gave Branch specialized knowledge about this topic as well as a better understanding of the tools needed to perform analysis and communicate findings. Below is an excerpt from her reflection on this experience:

I was surprised to discover when I began my project that I wouldn’t even look at my data for several months. The first steps in my project involved learning, and learning, and more learning. I had to first master the program that I would be using to do most of the analysis, called the Statistical Analysis System (SAS). This program is based on a computer programming language used for statistical analysis, and can read data from common spreadsheets and databases and output the results of statistical analyses in tables, graphs, and as RTF, HTML and PDF documents. The most useful thing about SAS is that it can sort through thousands upon thousands of data points in moments, allowing economists to create more accurate models. This program is often used in the Agriculture Economics Masters Programs, but is not introduced to undergraduates until their senior year. While it is extremely useful, it is very difficult to master. One wrong punctuation or letter placement in the programming leaves you with no results at all. It felt like learning a new language in the span of a month or two. Dr. Dharmasena provided me with reading material and practice data to help with the learning process, for which I was extremely grateful. After becoming familiar with SAS, I then did research on the Probit model, which is what I would eventually use to find the probabilities of how different demographic information affected a consumer’s propensity to purchase different egg varieties. After several months of reading and practice, I finally got to take my first look at the data I would use for my project.

The process of sorting the consumer purchase information first involved separating the egg products from the other products using the product descriptor code. The easily identified “Control Brand” egg types were worked with first and separating into regular eggs and specialty eggs. Specialty eggs were defined as any production process that varied from the traditional cage system egg production used by most producers. After the control brands were sorted, the name brands were exported and given a bi-variable indicator (0 or 1) to indicate if it was regular or specialty. This process took several months as I had to individually give the indicator to each one of the over 6000 different egg purchases. At the end of the sorting process I had a table for regular eggs and a table of specialty eggs. Then I added the household and demographic information and started sorting again. Thankfully SAS was actually able to help with the sorting process this time and it took considerably less time. At the end of the second sorting process I had a table for the households that purchased eggs, a table for the households that purchased only regular eggs, a table for the households that purchased only specialty eggs, and a table for the households that purchased both regular and specialty eggs.

To learn more about Branch’s project, visit her blog at: https://mbranchmaggie.wixsite.com/research.

To learn more about capstone opportunities at Texas A&M, visit http://tx.ag/capstones.


Former student connects University Honors to graduate school plans

Adelia Humme ’15 is a graduate of the University Honors program and served LAUNCH as an Honors advisor in the 2015-2016 year. She is now pursuing a master’s in Publishing & Writing at Emerson College. She hopes to demonstrate to new Honors students how their involvement in University Honors can help them achieve their post-graduation goals.

One of the frequent questions that I hear from prospective students who are considering University Honors is What’s the benefit of joining Honors? Students facing the options of various academic programs, as well as more than 800 student organizations at Texas A&M, are right to wonder how their time commitments contribute to their end goals of pursuing further schooling or a career. One way I respond to this question is by emphasizing that any Honors program is what you make of it. LAUNCH provides opportunities and encourages students to reflect on them, but how much you engage is up to you. The second half of my response is more concrete because hearing examples of how I drew connections between my Honors experience and my graduate school plans may help students better visualize how they can benefit from University Honors too.

Firstly, Honors courses gave me the opportunity to focus on the subjects that interest me most and to tailor my coursework to my career plans. Projects in my Honors classes often allowed me to choose a topic to research throughout the semester. One such course was introductory marketing for business minors, which I course contracted for Honors credit. My professor and I designed an independent study project in which I assessed the impacts of digitalization on the book publishing industry, the field I planned to enter after graduation. When I applied for a master’s in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College a year later, I referenced the report and annotated bibliography I created in that marketing class in my application essay.

I was also able to link my mentorship involvement in Honors to my graduate school plans. In the application essay, I described how serving as a Sophomore Advisor (SA) taught me how to exercise judgement, to be patient, and to be open to new perspectives, all skills that will serve me well in my next degree. Since being an SA was so impactful to my college experience, I also learned that finding success in graduate school will greatly depend on how I invest my time outside of the classroom. I will have to intentionally seek opportunities for professional development and not rely only on my coursework.

My capstone, too, was instrumental in shaping my college learning. As an Undergraduate Teacher Scholar, I was surprised to discover how much behind-the-scenes effort goes into planning a class. My faculty mentor and I were responsible for creating a course webpage, selecting specific editions of texts for our class, arranging classroom space, and calculating grade averages, all work that I never saw as a student. I realized that every career involves much more than meets the eye and that I need firsthand experience in the publishing industry to understand the challenges of that field.

Another influential aspect of my Honors involvement was University Scholars, a personal development program with a rigorous selection process. The program developed my skills in interviewing, respectful debate, and public speaking to both small groups and large audiences. I anticipate using all of these qualities during my master’s degree and especially in my dream job as a book editor. The flexibility and creativity of University Scholars built my confidence in my career plans and in my ability to share those plans with professors, classmates, and potential employers.

As incoming freshmen, you may not yet be able to see how all the puzzle pieces of your college activities fit together – and that’s okay! One purpose of the first-year seminar for University Honors freshmen is to help you begin connecting those dots. Four years from now, when you prepare to graduate, you may be as surprised as I was to see how much each of your experiences contributed to “the big picture.”

Daniel Garcia’s Capstone: Medialabs – Unifying Design Professions

A capstone is a project that takes the knowledge and skills our undergraduates learn in their courses and brings these together in a practical experience. Honors and Undergraduate Research runs four capstone programs–Undergraduate Research Scholars, Undergraduate Teacher Scholars, Undergraduate Service Scholars, and Undergraduate Leadership Scholars–that are open to all Texas A&M Undergraduates.

Students in the University Honors Program are expected to complete a capstone experience as part of the Honors Fellows distinction requirements but sometimes our existing programs do not fit a student’s career goals. Students who have an existing departmental capstone can modify that experience to fit our requirements and have the capstone count for both the department and the University Honors Program.

A photo mosaic of Daniel Garcia giving his presentation with some close-ups of his presentation posters.Environmental design major Daniel Garcia ’15, chose to pursue a departmental capstone to fulfill his Honors Fellows requirement. His project, an extension of a studio project completed for a class, examines how space can be designed to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and expand opportunities for lifelong learning. Below is an excerpt from Daniel’s presentation of his project:

The chance to complete a capstone project for me meant the opportunity to take what I have been learning the past four years in architecture and take a moment to step back to analyze how the architecture I design can begin to impact on a local, but more importantly, global scale.  Specifically, how Media Labs as a building type can begin to facilitate the spread of ideas and the evolution of technology while unifying design professions.

Through my research I have found that the common thread linking media labs around the world is that media labs are “A PLACE TO DO” and “A PLACE OF ACTION”.  What I mean by this is that Media Labs are the new platforms for design innovation and the advancement of technology.  They serve as a haven for different professionals to come together to conceptualize and create solutions that would be harder to solve in their separate working environments.

To read more about Daniel’s project, visit his blog at https://dangar1.wordpress.com.

To learn more about capstone opportunities at Texas A&M, visit http://tx.ag/capstones.


Architecture School: Integrated Education

Students in the University Honors Program are encouraged to think about how their unique intersection of interest and ability match up to the big challenges facing our world. In their ePortfolios, Honors Students are asked to reflect on how their course work and extra-curricular activities are helping to prepare them to engage those challenges, now and in the future. Brian Sowell, ’14, has created an excellent example of this in the presentation he made for his capstone.

In this presentation, Brian traces the skills he learned in various courses, how he applied and developed those skills throughout his undergraduate career, and how he came to understand himself and his craft better through the process.

– by Brian Sowell

When I began architecture school in the fall of 2010, I wasn’t sure exactly what I would learn. I knew the curriculum revolved around a core of design studios, but I wasn’t entirely sure what the rest of the curriculum involved or how influential it would be on my education. The four years of my undergraduate degree have involved over 36 all-nighters, 52 books, 8 design studios, 124 credit hours, 6 sketchbooks, and countless pens, lattes, and late-night conversations with my classmates questioning the meaning of our projects and lives. But after all the project deadlines, the presentations and posters, I am struck by how my perceptions and goals changed and developed throughout my undergraduate career. This diagrammatic look at my undergraduate experience is a tool for myself to plot my direction and refocus my intentions as I enter graduate school. But even more so it is an opportunity to demonstrate to incoming freshman and those considering architecture school a snapshot of the degree, so that they may understand some things I did not, and make the most of their education to further architecture in their communities.

Kindall Stephens '14 & Brian Sowell '14 present on their capstones
Kindall Stephens ’14 & Brian Sowell ’14 present on their capstones

Architecture is different from almost any other career. Project development is never a linear process. Often it’s a sideways, shifting progression that requires integration of knowledge from a plethora of fields. Architecture is no-holds barred. Architects are expected to produce the best designs possible, drawing connections and solutions from unexpected and unprecedented sources and fields. Architecture school doesn’t just teach students how to design functional buildings. Students who engage purposefully with the curriculum will also learn how to think creatively, to make connections that others cannot see, and develop successful projects that would be otherwise impossible.

In 2009 most days would find me in blue jeans and a cowboy hat, working in the sun with dirt up to my knees and elbows, running a bobcat or digging up a flower bed. Growing up in a rural area outside Austin Texas, I appreciated open spaces and the opportunity to work hard at the satisfying job of landscape design and construction. My intention to pursue a college degree combined with interest and experience in construction and design led me to pursue architecture in late 2009. The summer before my studies began at Texas A&M, I worked a part time job with Jackson Galloway and Associates where I worked on construction document sets for church projects in Central Texas. My background was shaped by a focus on physical and practical design concerns, and I didn’t give much regard to the bigger picture in design. I had yet to learn to ask, “what can a building do to help the greater community?” I didn’t realize the incredible impact an architect can have when their designs are influenced by history, theory, and community.

My first year at the College of Architecture I had two studio courses, complimented by two design communication courses. The remainder of my schedule was filled with courses in global practice, architecture history, and political science. I focused nearly all of my energy toward my design courses, nearly to the neglect of anything else, including my social life. I found my design courses exciting, however I seldom stopped to ask the question ‘why?’ Rather, I focused my energy on creating, without regard to the connections between my classes, or how my designs might solve problems beyond those immediately present within the project.

The classes I took outside of studio weren’t lost causes. But it took some time before I recognized their value within the context of architecture design. In my second year the design studios focused on very practical problems. We considered questions of space planning, the psychology of architecture, and sustainable, vernacular methods of construction. What I learned in studio was complimented by courses in social and behavioral factors of design and in geosystems. I embraced the scientific application of my new knowledge, and I was gratified to produce projects I felt were successful. But they were only successful unto themselves – the projects only considered how to build around a series of constraints and respond to the needs of their inhabitants. I was still failing to ask the right questions about my projects.

A turning point came when I took ‘The Making of Architecture’ with Michael O’Brien in the second semester of my sophomore year. Throughout the course, Professor O’Brien presented a series of modern projects notable for their innovative structure and construction methods. That same semester I was enrolled in a core curriculum course that considered the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture. The two courses complimented each other – often I would learn the basics and theory behind a project one week, then study the very same project in detail the following week with O’Brien. Through that semester I began to look at projects differently, as something more than just an attractive arrangement of spaces. They became projects that meant something, and produced solutions for the community they were a part of.

When I completed my sophomore year and entered into upper level classification I held an intense interest in architecture for health. Specifically I was interested in how architecture could encourage or discourage health among its users, including healthy public interaction and positive mental outlooks. This interest had grown from my design studios and lecture seminar courses that studied similar topics. To this end, most of my studios had considered very practical, straightforward design challenges, which I tackled head-on through research and application. I had developed a system of design that worked for me and I had embraced computer programs I was most comfortable working in. I was becoming complacent.

The summer between my sophomore and junior year I was unable to find an internship with an architecture firm. The economy was down, and no one was hiring. My old landscape clients might have been interested in work, but there was a drought in Central Texas that stifled developing any business. A friend contacted me and asked me to work as his legal assistant for the summer. I accepted and spent the summer performing evidence research for a case involving property rights, flood plains, and unfulfilled promises from a negligent developer. The work was so intriguing that by the end of the summer I was researching law schools and considered changing my career. I changed my mind when I returned to school and realized there were opportunities to apply what I had learned within a design context. The following semester I took a writing intensive course that considered professional practice for architects. Each week we produced a submittal, request for qualifications, field report, or purpose statement for review, each with an eye for limiting liability. My summer job could not have come at a better time.

The fall of my junior year came as a shock. The program shifted from a focus on practical design issues to questions of theory, design, and the application of architecture history. To say the least, my background and preference for literal concepts with practical application left me ill prepared for my studio course that focused on design theory, and I floundered for the first half of the semester. It wasn’t until I began to let go of my preconceived notions of design that I was able to understand and embrace the concepts I was being taught in studio. During the course of the semester we considered concepts such as phenomenal transparency, the feeling of space, and how architecture form changes the perception and application for a space. Slowly but surely I began to understand that the studio didn’t invalidate what I had learned before. Rather, it opened a new realm of application. I began to understand that architecture was more than attractive and efficient organization of spaces. Architecture is found in the manipulation of space that creates new environments and causes its users to consider something beyond themselves – the people around them, or new experiences provided by the architecture.

In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs describes the social interaction on Hudson Street in Boston as a sidewalk ballet. Architecture is an active performer in the ballet, providing public forums for social action. These public spaces are the great equalizer, disregarding social status, race, or belief system. While these social interactions are not caused by the architecture, the thoughtful design of the public space provides outlets for the interactions to take place. In the spring of my junior year I traveled abroad to study in Barcelona where I had the privilege to witness a similar effect on La Rambla. Comparing my experiences in small towns in rural Texas to the social engine of Barcelona, I recognized a distinct difference in their attitudes toward public space. Barcelona embraces the knowledge that the plaça belongs to the public, while Texans seem to eschew any public right. This observation helped me to clarify my understanding that architecture is the direct product of the designer’s beliefs and experiences, and led me to question my own understanding of the architecture framework I considered valid.

My senior year provided the culmination of everything I had been learning throughout my studios. The integrated studio sequence in the fall combines structure, systems, and design into one project. Students are expected to draw on all their previous experiences to successfully produce thought-out, meaningful projects. During our investigation the design of a small community theater, my partner and I were inspired by Lewis Mumford’s interpretation of the city as a stage for social action. We investigated ways our theater might be a stage of performance for both the ticket holders as well as the general public, opening the city to the interior. This progression forced me to ask questions about the project’s greater impact on the community. We strove to create architecture that did more than simply fulfil a programmatic need. Instead, we created something that would activate the surrounding community and promote positive discourse.

Our final studio developed ten design interventions for a small town in Kentucky that had been decimated by a tornado in 2012. This studio presented a unique challenge. In all of my previous studios we have been designing for a theoretical client at best. This spring we were designing in a real context for a city that was hurting. Our designs couldn’t get lost in theoretical permutations or muddled in expensive artistic elements. The city needed invigorating design that would give their economy a jump-start and promote sustainable growth. To accomplish this our approach had to be different from previous studios. Rather than beginning with the architecture design, we devoted the entire first half of the studio to researching the city, its history, and what made it unique. We sought to find an economic driver for the city that could help them recover and carry forward. Then each design intervention began by considering a greater network of connections it would stimulate. In this way our studio attempted to not only create new buildings for the city, but cast a vision for a future economy that would sustain the city moving forward.

Brian Sowell's map of an integrated curriculum.
Brian Sowell’s map of an integrated curriculum.

Looking back on my undergraduate career I’m struck by how my goals have developed and changed. When I began at Texas A&M I just wanted to become an architect and design buildings. I had no concept of the power and impact architecture provides. By the end of my sophomore year I had developed an interest in architecture for health, but my interest was limited to a project’s direct impact on its users. My thinking was still limited, and I had yet to connect my projects to the larger context provided by my other classes. Junior studios shifted my thinking to consider the art of a project, and the greater impact of a building on its city. My senior year provided two projects that demanded integration from all my classes, and required drawing meaning from more than the needs of the project program. I shifted from merely considering design projects within their immediate context to expanding my view to integrate everything from economics, history, or technology.

A recent lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture proclaimed ‘everything is architecture!’ He was making an argument for art developments in the 1960s, but the statement rings true for developing architects as well. Everything relates to architecture, and everything drives designs. It is the architect’s duty to consider the bigger picture and develop connections to sources outside the

ir background and comfort zone. Architecture must enhance and serve the community it inhabits. That service will only be effective when the designer considers the complexity of the system they are plugging into, and looks for innovative opportunities that enhance the system. The architecture student holds a responsibility to cultivate creative thinking while in school so they may enter the profession engaged to the needs of the community and conscious of what will drive successful architecture.