So what the heck do people really do for their Capstone project, anyway?

Hey again, everyone! I’ve gotten in to the swing of things, finally feeling normal after making the strange switch from FES student to FES staff. Freshly back from my first couple of recruiting trips (to NYC and Boston) and our first On Campus Open House, and feeling the rush and excitement of all you folks just starting in on the awesome journey that is grad school.
During those first few events, I found that many people seemed confused about what we mean when we say that an MEM (Master of Environmental Management) student needs to do a “Capstone class or project” in order to graduate. And I totally get it. Before I arrived at FES, my idea of a final grad school project was the very traditional Masters Thesis based on original research and deeply analyzing that research. And indeed, many students at FES do exactly that (the MESc and MFS students are required to, and many MEM students choose to).
The Capstone Class is fairly straightforward. There are around 4 or 5 classes offered every year that are considered a “Capstone Class.” If you take the class in your second year, you get credit for having completed the capstone requirement. The classes tend to be focused on group projects, and you are generally working for a client outside of Yale. Some of the classes in the past that have counted as capstones have been:
• Management Plans for protected areas (working with a local land owner to find the best management practices for their property),
• Environmental Protection Clinic (working on a consulting project with a government or non-profit client),
• Business Sustainability Consulting Clinic (working on a consulting project with a private sector client), and
• Large Scale Conservation (went on a week-long field trip to Wyoming to interview land owners and understand conservation issues).

But what is so awesome about the MEM program is that your capstone project can be ANYTHING! I mean really, anything (so long as your advisor decides it is enough work and enough related to your approximate course of study to be considered the culmination of your two years as a grad student).

I wrote a book of science-based poetry for my capstone project. My studies focused on communities and how you create sustainability with the people you live with. I decided to use FES as a micro-scale community, hoping to bring our community together in a way that we generally don’t—through our research (FES is a VERY close-knit community, but we don’t often talk about our research projects with one another; most times you just want to relax and talk about anything other than school). So, I interviewed many of my classmates about their projects, why they were interesting, and why they were important. Then, I wrote this information up in a series of poems, designed to be shared with the rest of the community in a non-academic paper, non-conference setting.

Another one of my classmates last year made a documentary about sustainable farming for her capstone.

The year before I arrived at FES a girl who became a sort of mentor for me had installed an LCA (lifecycle analysis) art installation in one of the stairwells of Kroon Hall. The hall was filled with red ribbons of different widths, each representing the carbon footprint associated with each component of an IKEA chair.

A close friend of mine experimented with do-it-yourself aerial photography and LiDAR (a way of photographing in infrared in order to see photosynthesizing biomass). He used just about $50 worth of materials, strapped a camera to a balloon, and ended up with a series of high-quality aerial photos that look better than GoogleEarth and cost a fraction of what the Google images did.

A team of buddies got together last year and started an energy consulting business for their capstone. They are working out how to scale the company up and keep it successful.

The reason I decided to come to FES had a lot to do with the freedom I had in the MEM program. You have only one required class (plus several recommended, but not required classes), and the rest is up to you. I was not forced to pigeon-hole my interests, follow a prescribed specialization track, or take classes that I was not interested in taking. You have the freedom to explore and even change your mind completely. If you completely change your track of study, there are no penalties, and you can still finish everything you need to before you graduate (the only caveat, I suppose, is if you decide late in the game to change degree programs, you might run into some problems). And if your interests extend into things outside of FES’s many course offerings, you are allowed to take up to 50% of your classes in any other Yale School (Law School, Management School, Yale College, etc etc etc). At graduation, you’ll never find two students who took the same set of classes to get from point A to point B. And that’s why the FES community is such an interesting place to be!
Off to DC this week for the DC Idealist Fair and the DC Green Festival! After that—I’m headed west. Hope to see you on the road!