Capstones & Project-Based Learning

Capstones and project-based learning provide opportunities for students to address relevant, real-world problems that businesses, communities, or individuals face while demonstrating their knowledge and skills. Both capstones and project-based learning incorporate a culminating exhibition of the project and the student’s findings as a way to measure learning and competencies gained during the structured experience. This section focuses on projects and experiences that leverage industry and community partners.

Benefits and Challenges

Businesses

Benefits
  • Add relevancy to students’ learning by providing real-world problems for projects and capstones
  • Build awareness and interest among students who may be prospective employees down the road
  • Build relationships with schools and educators in communities where your employees live and work
  • Get fresh student perspectives on today’s most pressing issues
Potential Challenges
  • Finding local educators or district partners
  • Making the time to develop a project or capstone in collaboration with an educator

Students & Educators

Benefits
  • Educators can bring standards to life in a meaningful, authentic, and engaging way
  • Opportunity to work alongside industry experts
  • Students engage in real challenges facing businesses to better understand their passions, potential career paths and the types of projects involved
  • An option for demonstrating mastery of competencies in order to graduate under Colorado Graduation Guidelines
Potential Challenges
  • Shift in pedagogy for some educators
  • Finding community partners to contribute project ideas and engage with students and educators

Business Role in Capstones and Projects

Create Relevant Projects

One entry point for business is supporting the creation of relevant projects. In the ideal state, businesses engage directly with educators to collaboratively develop projects. However, there are many ways to participate and it’s important to determine what level is right for you.

In general, projects:

  • are rooted in relevant context involving actual tools, scenarios, and activities
  • provide a scenario where students can demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and learning around a relevant subject matter 
  • can be made public when completed, as most students report out the results of their project through public presentations

Become an Industry Partner

The role of an industry partner is to share expertise and perspective with students to guide them, and serve as a thought partner for both educators and students throughout the project experience.

Participating as an industry partner will likely involve:

  • on-going check-in meetings with students and educators
  • providing real-world experience and applicability regularly to the skills being learned
  • opportunities for students to work alongside you or other industry experts at your company to practice skills learned and build social capital

Review District Graduation Policies

Since creating a capstone program is a shift in the approach of a school or district, it is important to first review the graduation requirement policies for your district. Here are some examples of policies submitted to CDE.

Develop Strong Evaluation Rubrics

Document Your Plans

Some districts have created a list of minimum criteria that must be documented and presented for the district to approve any capstone project.

Key elements include:

  • Purpose and goals of the school’s capstone portfolio plan
  • Implementation steps, associated barriers, and mitigation strategies
  • Progress is outlined for monitoring college and career readiness, starting with a student’s capstone inception and continuing through completion
  • An oversight committee is outlined to supervise, guide, and audit the capstone portfolio for ensuring equal rigor to other pathways
  • A rigorous portfolio assessment and evaluation process that promotes fairness and ensures students will be ready for college and/or career
  • Products and artifacts are tied to rubrics built from standards/competencies in English or Math that clearly define college and career readiness outcome (if to be used to meet graduation requirements

Plan for Reflection

As students complete their capstone projects, it can be easy to forget to make time with your partner (business or school) to reflect on the process and plan improvements for future years. The partnership can be evaluated on several levels:

  • Did students get a relevant experience that met the rigorous criteria set out at the start of the program?
  • Was the capstone project rigorous? Did it push students to think critically about a real-life challenge or opportunity
  • How did the working relationship of the school and business project leads serve each person’s or group’s needs?
  • What could be done differently to make future projects more meaningful and impactful for both students and business partners?
There is a lot to think about when considering these questions. Be sure to make time for reflection and evaluation to ensure that your partnership improves and grows stronger each year. 

Examples and Partners

Roaring Fork School District requires all 12th graders to complete their Capstone Program prior to graduating. Community experts from all backgrounds are invited to lend their experience and support to students. 

Contact: 
Tom Penzel, Capstone Coordinator

Resources:
Community Expert Agreement Form 
Roaring Fork HS Capstone Topics
Basalt HS Capstone Topics 
Glenwood Springs HS Capstone Topics

Denver Public Schools developed a Capstone Implementation Guide for its schools and teachers focused on a competency-based approach, including a sample capstone plan for a high school.

 

Colorado Department of Education has expertise and resources for understanding capstones, list of examples of capstones in CO, and planning graduation policies.  

Contact: 
Robin Russell, Graduation Guidelines Manager

The Colorado Education Initiative is supporting a group of Colorado districts in developing capstone / portfolio projects with an intentional focus on equity.

Contact: 
Amy Spicer, Senior Program Lead

America Achieves developed a toolkit to support educators in developing Performance Tasks for Capstone projects. This was the culmination of their annual educator voice fellowship

Contact:
David Bramlett, Senior Director 

Buck Institute is a national non-profit committed to supporting schools and educators in implementing a project-based learning approach to instruction. 

Resources:
Sample Projects and Planning Resources