Grad’s Essential Studies curriculum ‘caps’ a fulfilling academic experience

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Grad’s Essential Studies curriculum ‘caps’ a fulfilling academic experience

UND's Essential Studies (ES) curriculum--including innovative capstone courses across campus--is all about giving students a leg up on their future. It's all about connecting a college education to a career.

"The capstone courses are offered in all majors," said Tom Steen, professor of Physical Education and Exercise Science and director of the UND Office of Essential Studies. "They provide undergraduates, usually in their senior year, the opportunity to summarize, evaluate, and integrate some or all of their previous coursework, especially in their major field of study."

An ES capstone is important as a means of emphasizing — one final time — goals that faculty generally agree are important for all students, and in a context where the learning is especially likely to be perceived by students as important.

"It's all about effective ways to help students learn what they need to," said Steen, who was part of a team including Joan Hawthorne in the Provost's Office and Anne Kelsch, a professor of History and director of the Office of Instructional Development, that developed capstone course guidelines.

Throughout their capstone experience, students learn about and conduct peer-to-peer assessment of learning outcomes--they work on helping each other out.

Early start For senior chemical engineering student Michelle Benz, a Bismarck native, the ES curriculum, including the Plant Design II course that's the major's capstone, were critical to her academic success--she's completing her degree in eight semesters.

"I was one of those who really enjoyed math and science, and I wanted a major that was really going to challenge me," said Benz, who graduates form UND on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. "I was also looking for a field that was going to constantly make me learn. I talked to a few chemical engineers--they all loved their jobs. So I thought I'd try it out for a couple of years; I could always change my major."

After completing all the requirements of the Essential Studies early on, Benz dug into all the math, physics and other science courses required of her major.

"I ended up taking a co-op in my junior year, an eight month paid internship, with Cargill at its Iowa Falls (Iowa) soybean oil extraction plant, and I did a summer internship with Cargill at its flavor systems plant in Cincinnati," said Benz. "I learned a lot, had a great time and thought, 'I'll stick with this.'"

"A lot of times I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this program is difficult,' but right now I have a 3.7 GPA, and I'm a Presidential Scholar," Benz said. "My major advisor, Dr. Frank Bowman, was a great resource."

Benz observed that the capstone--a demanding one-semester course--really challenged her academically.

"Our capstone course in chemical engineering (allowed us to theoretically) build, price out, and design everything in a processing plant in a group--mine was four people," she said. "My group designed a plant for specialty soap, processing beef tallow, canola oil, citric acid, ground pumice and essential oils."

Sounds like just another step in the academic chain to graduation, right?

There's a lot more to it than that, she said.

"The capstone is probably one of the most applicable classes I took," Benz said. "It ties stuff together, and you get to work with the practical applications. I learned about actual plant construction, talking directly with vendors about pricing. UND is unique in that; a lot of schools, including some of the big names, don't do that. So I really think we get a lot of smaller, more hands-on courses here. In the capstone course, we spent all of our time in the engineering student lounge, 40 hours per week or more, with three to four meetings throughout the semester with our project faculty advisor. Nothing is ever always right; there are always things to 'fix'."

"Another valuable aspect of this is that you learn to take criticism and benefit from the value of the faculty experience," said Benz, who was, among other extracurricular activities, president of the UND student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. "Our final capstone course presentation is before a board of professors, each student presenting individually."

And yes, there is a bottom line.

"I've already got a job--I was hired by Cargill back in May--and I'm thrilled to be already employed," Benz said. "I start early January at Cargill's Blair, Neb., plant as a process or project engineer."

Another perspective Math major Lindsey Hiltner, another UND student whose academic experience is being enhanced by a capstone course, got into college with 21 dual credit classes she'd taken in high school.

"I completed those courses through Lake Region State College, and they were all accepted by UND," said Hiltner, who's from Devils Lake. "So I'll complete my degree in four years."

Hiltner will complete her capstone course at the end of the 2012 fall semester.

"The math capstone is great because it ties together all the math classes I've taken," said Hiltner, who plans to get a Ph.D. in mathematics. "You can see where the different areas of math overlap. A part of the capstone involves solving problems as teams. Working in groups is very helpful. We do it all the time here at UND."

There's also an individual project for the capstone course.

"As part of that, we're required to write a paper and present it to the class," Hiltner said. "My project was on extensions of the 'field of p-adic numbers' (p-adic numbers are used, for example, in the famous proof of Fermat's Last Theorem by Andrew Wiles). I did research this past summer related to the subject of my paper-- I found out about such summer research programs through the American Mathematical Society's Web site, and I got into a summer program in South Carolina."

"It is really interesting as part of the capstone course to see the crossover between different areas, because in previous courses we learned about these different areas in such a partitioned way," Hiltner says.

"So it was good to see everything brought together," says Hiltner, who credits her dad, a biologist, with encouraging her math and science skills. "He was always teaching me all sorts of random science facts; it kept my interest going."

The course instructor was Joel Iiams, chair of math."

She's done with her coursework this semester and student teaches math next semester at Central High School, Grand Forks. That classroom gig is part of the requirements for the education part of her degree.

Juan Miguel Pedraza

University Relations Writer/Editor

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