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Capping a successful undergraduate experience

ASU's senior capstones are ranked No. 19, up from No. 28 last year.
September 13, 2020

ASU's senior capstones move up 9 spots in US News and World Report rankings

Designing a space robot as an undergraduate sounds pretty out of this world.

But for John McDougal — the lead systems engineer in one of the School of Earth and Space Exploration's Psyche mission senior capstone projects for the 2019-2020 school year — there were some very down-to-earth aspects that were crucial to master: budget and deadlines.

"It (the capstone project) is a good way to end off the degree — we actually get to apply what we've learned and challenge ourselves. We have a fiscal responsibility, we have a budget, we're not supposed to waste money or time — so it's like the real world," he said, adding that in real life, NASA "wouldn't want us to mess around."

Sometimes referred to as capstone courses or senior thesis, senior capstones are culminating experiences that take place near the end of a student's undergraduate college years. They can take many forms, but they are large, multifaceted projects that integrate knowledge and skills from the student's years of studies. And Arizona State University's senior capstones are gaining national notice: U.S. News & World Report has named ASU to its top 20 for senior capstone experience in its 2021 Best Colleges rankings.

In the rankings released Monday, ASU was No. 19, up from No. 28 last year, the first year that senior capstone was a category. ASU tied with — among others — the Georgia Institute of Technology, and it was ranked ahead of Swarthmore College and Butler University. The ranking is based on a peer survey.

“ASU’s high national ranking in senior capstone experiences signals to students that ASU is committed to creating specialized learning experiences that prepare students to transition into meaningful careers after completing their undergraduate degree,” said Mark S. Searle, ASU’s executive vice president and university provost. “From rigorous research with ASU professors to applied projects with industry sponsors, capstone experiences at ASU are intentionally flexible, so that students apply the knowledge they gained in their undergraduate degree to individual pursuits that fit within their personal career and life objectives.”

More U.S. News & World Report rankings: ASU ranked No. 1 in innovation for 6th year | ASU ranked a top 10 university for 'first-year experiences' | Undergraduate business program rises in rankings

McDougal's team designed the anchoring and mining system for a robot on the Psyche asteroid — ASU's real-life Psyche mission will study it from an orbiting spacecraft, but the student team decided to look at the idea of actually landing on the asteroid and digging into it from an anchored position. They floated a number of ideas with capstone and NASA staffers before landing on their design.

That networking is a part of the capstone experience. McDougal — then an exploration systems design senior, now an electrical engineering graduate student with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — said the teams encountered a number of NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory personnel throughout the yearlong project.  

For Rose Lopez, a mathematics senior last spring, her honors senior capstone helped her meet the source: Carl Pomerance, the inventor of the quadratic sieve algorithm. Lopez's senior capstone looked at that algorithm and the field of cryptography — specifically, at the tactics of the algorithm that balance robustness with speed.

"In this case, we took advantage of Barrett's external examiner option," said Nancy Childress, an associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, a faculty member in Barrett, The Honors College, and Lopez's mentor on her capstone. They invited Pomerance to be the third faculty member on Lopez's honors thesis and "she got to interact with him and hear his stories about how it all came about."

Lopez, winner of the 2020 Charles Wexler Mathematics Prize, the highest honor a mathematics undergraduate can receive, is now in her first semester of a PhD program at Berkeley.

At ASU, the senior capstone experiences can take many forms. The following are a few examples. 

  • Students in the business data analytics program in the W. P. Carey School of Business have worked with the National Industries for the Blind (determining which factors led to the success of different NIB products), vehicle-management firm RTA Fleet (helping better project inventory demand based on maintenance/repair data) and dental continuing-education company Spear Education (optimizing use of its website and identifying trends that lead to membership).
  • In the School of Earth and Space Exploration, students do a two-semester sequence in which they choose from a list of given projects. This year, students will be working on — among other things — building an experiment for a NASA stratospheric balloon to test a new terahertz sensor technology and measure the transparency of the atmosphere in preparation for future missions to observe water around newly forming stars and planets. And in an interdisciplinary capstone done in a larger team along with Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering peers, the school's students will be prototyping a robotic explorer for future surface exploration of the Psyche asteroid.
  • In the School of Life Sciences, molecular biosciences and biotechnology majors research a particular biotechnology industry (medical, agricultural, industrial, etc.) and its associated intellectual property, ethics, and regulatory issues. In the end, they prepare a four-minute elevator pitch to launch a startup company to make products for that industry.
  • Seniors in the School of Politics and Global Studies explore ethics and politics from new angles. One of this year's projects seeks to understand how exposure to different media on police brutality can affect people's attitudes and drive social change, and another thesis will look at whether people would put their own self-interest above all when building a political system or whether philosopher John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" would win out. 

The senior capstone is a chance for students to apply the tools and skills they've been learning all along in a real-world way, said Jason Nichols, assistant chair of the Department of Information Systems and a clinical associate professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business. His CIS 440 students work from a list of broad "problem spaces" — such as getting actionable and honest feedback from employees — that was developed with the input of USAA financial services company.

Working with actual companies and actual issues grounds what the students have been learning all along, Nichols said.

"It's a chance to step back and see the big picture and see how everything they've learned works together to bring value to them and the organization," he said. "... We approach it from the standpoint that the sum is greater than the parts — it's not just 'tick the boxes,' but combine them creatively to create value."

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ASU ranked No. 1 in innovation for 6th year by US News and World Report

September 13, 2020

As world's challenges grow more complex, new ideas are needed more than ever — and ASU's creative minds are finding solutions from the ocean to the reaches of space

Editor’s note:  This story is being highlighted in ASU Now’s year in review. Read more top stories from 2020.

Long before it was a buzzword, innovation was a concept that Arizona State University embraced in the name of reimagining the role of an institution of higher education.

Over the past several years, that credo has manifested in a host of breakthroughs, advancements and transformations. In recognition of the university’s culture of discovery, U.S. News & World Report has announced that it has named ASU the most innovative university in the nation for the sixth year in a row, as well as one of the top 50 public schools in the U.S.

“Innovation is infused in ASU’s DNA because we are designed to spark, support and manifest new ideas,” President Michael Crow said. “Innovation can be found at all levels of our education, our research and our community engagement. It drives our perpetual evolution and it will continue to guide us as we work toward solutions to the next great challenges of a complex future.”

The ranking is based on a survey of peers that includes college presidents, provosts and admissions deans from around the country who nominate up to 15 schools that are making the most innovative improvements to and for curricula, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities, according to the magazine.

After ASU, U.S. News & World Report ranked the most innovative universities for 2021 as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Purdue. Rounding out the top 10 this year are Stanford, California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, University of Maryland – Baltimore County and Elon University.

In addition to ranking No. 1 in innovation, ASU earned multiple spots on the badge-eligible list of 2021 Best Colleges. U.S. News badges are widely recognized as symbols of excellence in higher education that are conferred by an unbiased trust agent.

Those rankings include:

  • No. 9 in First-Year Experiences. For the second year in a row, ASU’s Tempe campus ranked ninth in the nation — outperforming Brown University, Princeton University and University of Texas at Austin — for its commitment to helping students transition from high school and community college to life at a four-year university. This fall, the First-Year Success Center – which is home to Game Changers, a program specifically for first-generation freshmen – has expanded its remote options to include Zoom sessions with peer coaches and other digital support services, including YouTube videos on how to successfully work in ASU Sync, coaching communities through Slack and one-on-one coach-student texting through SalesForce. 
  • No. 16 in Undergraduate Teaching. ASU is among the top 20 in the nation for undergraduate teaching, with its more than 4,700 faculty members counting five MacArthur fellows, five Nobel laureates, seven Pulitzer Prize winners and hundreds of other award recipients among them. In recent years, ASU has expanded the use of adaptive learning, a personalized method of teaching that combines online and classroom work, and offers a vast array of undergraduate research opportunities. In this category, ASU was ranked ahead of Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and Emory University, among others.
  • No. 19 in Senior Capstones. ASU moved up nine spots from No. 28 last year with the variety and robustness of its senior capstone experiences. Sometimes referred to as a senior thesis, these are large, multifaceted projects that integrate knowledge and skills from the student's years of undergraduate studies. At ASU, those can range from prototyping a robotic explorer for the Psyche asteroid, to delving into how exposure to different media affects people's attitude toward social change, to helping a real-world vehicle-management firm better project its inventory based on repairs data. ASU tied with — among others — the Georgia Institute of Technology, and it was ranked ahead of Swarthmore College and Butler University.
  • No. 46 in Top Public Schools. In the overall category of top public schools, U.S. News ranked ASU among the top 50 in the nation, up seven spots from last year. ASU tied Temple University and the University of Oregon and was ranked ahead of the University of Illinois–Chicago, among others. Universities are graded on more than a dozen diverse measures of academic quality including student outcomes such as how many first-year students return for their sophomore year and how many students earn a degree in six years or less. ASU’s retention rate for first-year students is 86.7%, an increase of 10 percentage points since 2002. The university’s six-year graduation rate is 70.4%, an increase of nearly 17 percentage points since 2002.

In other accomplishments this past year, ASU achieved carbon neutrality six years earlier than its goal of 2025; researchers at the Biodesign Institute developed the state’s first saliva-based COVID-19 test; and ASU Prep Digital, launched in 2017 as a public charter school for grades nine through 12, expanded its offerings to kindergarteners through eighth graders.

This summer, when Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan began his six-year appointment as the 15th director of the National Science Foundation, Neal Woodbury took over as interim executive vice president of ASU Knowledge Enterprise. In this role, Woodbury will continue to advance ASU’s research, economic development, international development and corporate engagement and strategic partnership agendas, as well as oversee activities related to Knowledge Enterprise operations, institutes and initiatives.

“The No. 1 in innovation ranking is a welcome reminder of the mission and beliefs that fuel discovery and progress at ASU,” Woodbury said. “Particularly at a time when universities worldwide are reimagining what traditional and remote learning looks like, I am very proud of our continued efforts to innovate with speed, at scale.”

Top image: ASU scientist Jesse Senko’s solar-powered lights are rescuing sea turtles and transforming the future of sustainable fishing.

Learn more about the stories highlighted in our video: