Capstone courses reinvent community engagement for post-COVID world

Senior Capstone courses at Portland State get students out of the classroom and into the field, allowing them to apply the skills and knowledge they’ve gained in their undergraduate courses for the benefit of community partners. But what happens when a global pandemic makes getting into the field difficult, if not impossible? 

Under normal circumstances, capstone courses reflect PSU's identity as a community partner. "The capstone project allows us to make our motto come to life to — let knowledge serve the city — and allows us to build reciprocal relationships with the community," says Seanna Kerrigan, PSU’s Capstone Project Director.

When PSU moved spring term classes to remote teaching and learning to slow the spread of COVID-19, it posed obstacles to the program. 

“The real challenge was how to engage in work that is so highly relational and do it in a remote way,” Kerrigan says.

PSU faculty members, however, have reimagined capstone projects with their community partners to deliver them in a virtual way.

How does a Capstone project work remotely? Here are three examples. 

Bringing the outdoors indoors

Rick Hugo teaches the Capstone course Science Inquiry in the Outdoor Classroom. This Capstone partners with nonprofit organizations to manage outdoor field trips for K-12 students. Pre-pandemic, Capstone students acted as mentors on these field trips. They worked directly with small groups of students and taught them how to do science — ask questions, collect data, make conclusions — in the outdoors. 

Of course this model wouldn’t work with Oregon’s physical distancing directives. 

“When the announcement came that we weren't going to have in-person classes, I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to cancel this class.’ I couldn't see any way that that it might work,” says Hugo. “But then I was talking to a colleague of mine, just down the hall, who creates virtual field environments, and I thought, ‘Well, there's something I could do.’” 

In the span of just a few weeks, Hugo transformed his Capstone course’s methods but not its essence. Students in his course are now creating interactive online field trips for K-12 students with the help of virtual field environments.  

“One of the most important aspects of a capstone class is service to a community partner,” says Hugo. “This was an idea that the community partner will be able to use long term, not just in the immediate future.” He hopes that the course’s community partner, Clean Rivers Education, will continue to use these virtual field environments once in-person field trips resume to get students prepared and excited for visiting the sites.  

Virtual field environment

A virtual field environment is a 360-degree spherical panoramic view of a specific location that contains interactive elements. Hugo’s Capstone students are creating virtual field environments at Whitaker Ponds Nature Park in northeast Portland and Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge in southeast Portland. Students who are able are traveling to these sites to collect the interactive elements of the virtual field trips such as photographs and audio and video clips. Students who aren’t able to travel to those sites will be collecting materials from their own neighborhoods. 

Hugo says his students have been hard at work brainstorming how to make virtual field environments that Clean Rivers Education will be able to use to give K-12 students meaningful educational experiences online. 

“To replace the stimulation of the three senses we're missing — smell, taste and touch — my students have had a great idea to try and put a game element into the field site — a treasure or scavenger hunt where students have to gather clues and solve some sort of mystery,” says Hugo. 

Hugo says his Capstone students are giving it their all in a trying situation. 

“Students signed up to go outside and work with kids, and we’re not doing either of those things,” says Hugo. “But they’ve really done an amazing job of drawing on the strength that they already have and their curiosity about what makes a good learning experience. They’re really throwing themselves into it, and it’s been great.” 

Farm to home table

Celine Fitzmaurice is teaching her Farm Education for Youth Capstone this term, as she has since 2005. But this year it looks a little different.

Normally, her students would be leading farm-based field trips for elementary students primarily from north and northeast Portland schools at the Sauvie Island Center. 

“The idea is to supplement the kids’ science education by exposing them to food and where it comes from and using that as a springboard for investigating all kinds of environmental science topics,” says Fitzmaurice. 

Capstone students are vital to the operations of the Sauvie Island Center

“We are a very, very small organization, and what Capstones offer us is the ability to actually run our programs,” says Aliesje King, program manager of the Sauvie Island Center

“One thing that's really special is that Capstone students offer a wide variety of life experiences that our students can relate to,” says King. For example, she says no one on the Sauvie Island Center staff speaks Spanish, but each term there are Capstone students who do. 

Now that they can’t lead field trips at the Sauvie Island Center, Capstone students are creating digital content modules for kids and teachers who had planned to come out to the farm for field trips this spring. They’ve actually had the opportunity to expand the content that they’re teaching. 

“They’re seeing what it’s like behind the scenes and developing a curriculum that reaches a wide variety of students,” says King.

One module that’s new is focused on recipes. The recipe team is finding healthy, easy-to-prepare recipes that use seasonal vegetables, purchasing the ingredients, filming themselves preparing the recipes and then dubbing the videos in English and Spanish.

“It’s really getting kids excited about cooking,” says Fitzmaurice. 

Other groups are working on modules about pollination and plant parts. 

“I learn this every term, but once again I'm learning about the really deep well of creativity that students bring to our partnership,” Fitzmaurice says. “They're coming up with all sorts of really great ideas for how to connect with young learners.”

In addition to preparing content for virtual farm visits, students in Fitzmaurice’s Capstone course are learning about the intersection between young people and our national food system, with topics ranging from food insecurity to food marketing to kids to diet-related illnesses.

Another new thing the Capstone students are doing: growing their own vegetables — despite a national run on seeds.

“It's a high point of our class session every week to have people raise their hand to say whether or not their seeds have arrived,” says Fitzmaurice. “This week they're being shipped so we're really excited to start planting next week.” The class is also planning a virtual potluck at the end of the term in which everyone prepares a dish that is important to them or uses the vegetables they grew as part of the Capstone.

Fitzmaurice says her Capstone course has provided a welcome opportunity for connection in a time of isolation. 

“Students are facing some major, major challenges in terms of employment, in terms of getting those checks that are being delivered by the federal government, in terms of caring for family members, and we’re actually able to talk about that in class,” says Fitzmaurice. “My goal this term has been to teach with compassion, to really lead with compassion so I've tried to set that tone in our class.”

Every class session starts with a check-in question, and today students started introducing their pets. 

Despite the challenges of the term, Fitzmaurice has been heartened by the levels of connection she’s seen in her Capstone. 

“I didn't anticipate that they would be connecting in the way they are on Zoom,” says Fitzmaurice. “I've been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities to build community.”

Let knowledge serve

“I was worried when this remote arrangement was announced that we would end up just trying to find some busy work for our students,” says Kristin Teigen who teaches the Racial Equity in Oregon Capstone. “But that is completely not the case.”

Students in Teigen’s course learn about the history of diverse communities in Portland and work with nonprofit partners to fight racism and white supremacy. 

It turns out that Teigen’s students are needed more than ever due to the pandemic.

One of the partner organizations for the Racial Equity in Oregon Capstone is the Community Alliance of Tenants (or CAT). CAT is a tenants union that works to help tenants stay housed or become housed. Many of CAT’s members are low income, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) people, elderly or people with disabilities — populations who have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19.  

“These are people who on the best of days skirt the edges of being able to keep their head above water,” says Teigen. Now many are dealing with drops in income and other difficulties that are making their housing situations even more precarious.

Capstone students have been calling CAT members and connecting them with resources for navigating new eviction moratoriums and finance programs so tenants don’t lose their homes. 

“CAT has been really clear on the fact that it would be very difficult to get through to all of their members and try to meet all of their needs without the support that the students have been able to provide,” says Teigen. 

Capstone students have also been working with Campus Compact, a nonprofit organization that works with educational institutions to help them provide inclusive and equitable learning opportunities. Students are researching and writing grants for Campus Compact, which, like most nonprofits, is experiencing financial challenges and understaffing during the pandemic. 

“The fact that the students have been able to come in and help fill a gap has been anything but busy work; the work is more essential than it has ever been and incredibly meaningful,” says Teigen.