Learning From the Real World
Capstone experiences challenge Bush students in their final semesters to find real solutions to real problems for real clients.
By KARA BOUNDS SOCOL
In the wake of 2008’s Hurricane Ike, former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton joined forces to help rebuild the communities that the storm hit hardest.
For Bush, finding researchers who could study the damaged communities, analyze options and prepare solutions was an easy task. He simply turned to students at the institution that bears his name: Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.
The Bush School answered Bush’s request with a capstone course: a team-based, applied research project that a faculty member leads on behalf of a client agency but that graduate students in their final year or semester carry out exclusively.
Here, the faculty member was Sharon Caudle, the Younger-Carter Distinguished Policymaker in Residence. The client—and project funding source—was the Bush–Clinton Coastal Recovery Fund.
“Frequently, graduate public-affairs programs have capstone courses that simply try to integrate the work that has been done over a student’s course of graduate study,” explains Sam Kirkpatrick, the Bush School’s executive associate dean for academic affairs and management. “Ours goes beyond that. We bring together substantive knowledge and research skills and apply them in a real-world context with real-world clients and real-world problems.”
For the Bush School, these real-world clients are often nonprofit organizations and governmental entities, giving students in the international affairs (MPIA) and public service and administration (MPSA) programs a taste of what lies ahead. And these clients often fund at least part of the project cost—an unusual occurrence in a graduate-school setting, according to Kirkpatrick.
As Arnold Vedlitz, the Bob Bullock Chair in Government and Public Policy, puts it, “It’s worth the price of graduate school just to get this kind of experience.”
Wrestling With Real-World Situations
For more than a decade, nonprofits, governmental agencies and the occasional private business have relied on students in Bush School capstone courses to help analyze everything from border security policies to local nonprofit effectiveness to child labor in Panama.
Final-semester capstone courses that integrate skills and lessons learned throughout an academic program are common in graduate-level public-affairs programs. But the Bush School’s courses take a different approach. Instead of taking on hypothetical situations, they grapple with hands-on endeavors. Replacing the traditional thesis, the mandatory course consists of roughly 10 students and lasts one semester for MPIA students and two for those in the MPSA program.
Jeryl Mumpower, director of the MPSA program and the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Chair in Business and Government, says the courses serve two main objectives.
“From the students’ perspective, the capstone represents a distinctive experiential learning opportunity in which they integrate the knowledge, understanding and skills they’ve developed in the classroom and apply them to genuine policy or management problems,” he says.
“In contributing to government agencies’ or nonprofit organizations’ efforts to address issues of concern,” he adds, “the capstone projects also contribute to our objective of service to the communities in which our students will work.”
Helping Communities Move Forward
The Bush–Clinton fund project is a clear example of how the Bush School capstone courses combine unique learning experiences for students with real service to others.
“Initially, it’s difficult to explain sometimes that this is not an undergraduate research project,” says Caudle, who has overseen MPSA capstone projects for three years.
But with responsibilities involving economic analysis and outlooks, in-depth research, client consultations, budget oversight, and even travel and meeting arrangements, capstone experiences thrust students into challenging and demanding governmental and nonprofit arenas, where they must succeed or fail on their own merits.
During the 2009–2010 academic year, three of Caudle’s students worked directly with Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston County officials and community leaders, while four worked with the Office of Planning and Development of Cameron Parish, La.
The Bolivar project focused on economic development, whereas the Cameron Parish project dealt more with housing needs and attracting businesses back to the area.
Caudle says that merely building a replica of the communities prior to their destruction did not interest their clients.
Instead, they wanted to find ways to capitalize on some of the industries they already had while simultaneously looking at new possibilities.
“Something as devastating as a hurricane unfreezes your conceptions,” Caudle says. “It gives you a chance to explore different priorities and new ways of doing things. The projects they were interested in us helping them with were those where we could look forward and envision an entirely new community.”
Community leaders were so impressed with the resulting presentations that they asked the students to return for follow-up assessments. The students likewise briefed the elder President Bush on their findings, and their research was submitted as input to European Union officials developing civil protection guidelines for rural and coastal areas.
New Challenges, New Lessons
While Caudle’s capstone students researched the needs of hurricane-ravaged communities, the students of Bush School Assistant Professor Angela Bies were creating a method to determine the infrastructure adequacy of Texas nonprofit agencies. The nonprofit OneStar Foundation requested and funded this project through a grant from the Meadows Foundation.
Meanwhile, Vedlitz’ capstone students were poring through New Orleans city documents, consulting city and state officials, analyzing the city’s civil-service processes and making comparisons with other cities. About 70 city leaders attended the students’ resulting presentation on options to streamline and improve the effectiveness of the New Orleans civil-service system. The students later returned for a requested press conference that the local newspaper covered. The Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region funded the New Orleans project.
“It’s the hardest thing students do in their studies at the Bush School,” Vedlitz says of the capstone projects. “Every day has a new issue to overcome and a new lesson to learn.”
Setting Graduates Apart
As director of the Bush School’s Certificate in Nonprofit Management, Associate Professor William Brown appreciates that the capstone courses introduce students to the world of nonprofit agencies. “It’s increasingly recognized that nonprofits are unique entities with unique characteristics,” Brown says. “They are not businesses.”
Accrediting agencies also express admiration for the novelty of the Bush School’s capstone program.
“When our accreditors come and look at us, they say they’ve never seen anything like this,” says Kirkpatrick. “One said he had never seen a collaborative learning environment with so many components.”
The capstone projects have changed agency policies and have even influenced federal rules and regulations. In fact, Kirkpatrick says the Bush School is among only a few public-affairs schools in the nation that the Congressional Research Service contacts to conduct research for Congress—a duty that students undertake with capstone projects.
“I think Bush School capstone research and the efforts of our students will really be impacting nonprofit organizations and their funding priorities,” says Bies, formerly an executive for several well-known nonprofit agencies. “The capstone is one of the most important things we do at the Bush School.”
Adds Kirkpatrick, “Our alums often say that their capstone, more than anything else, prepared them for the real world. It sets our graduates apart.”
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