Reimagining the final year project

Dr Sue Jones, Dr Dave Lewis and Michelle Payne discuss new alternatives to traditional final year bioscience projects, born out of necessity during the pandemic, can actually help improve student experience and employability

28th September 2020

Part I of this double feature on science education during a pandemic, looking at practical teaching, can be found here

The global pandemic and lockdown hit the UK towards the end of the academic year for most undergraduate students and just before the research project for master’s students. This caused severe disruption to the lab-based science and fieldwork of postgraduate research students, postdocs and academic staff.

One of the joys of teaching biology-based programmes is the power of practical classes and fieldwork to put theoretical knowledge into context for our students, culminating in their primary research experience in level 6[1,2]. So how on Earth can we deliver an authentic research experience in the post-COVID-19 environment? It is likely that some laboratories may still be closed at the start of the upcoming academic year or, if open, have social distancing requirements in place. This means that we urgently need to find alternatives to traditional laboratory or fieldwork projects.

A possible pedagogical silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we must move beyond just laboratory-based final year projects to a broader, US-style ‘capstone’ (or culminating) experience. Not because we have to, but because it is the right thing to do. Developing a broad portfolio of capstone opportunities – that includes new formats while retaining some traditional approaches – enhances the student learning experience by increasing ownership of their education and enabling them to decide what they want to achieve. It is clearly important to explain the benefits of different capstone experiences to students, aligning their choices with their skill sets and preferences for future employment or further study. Capstones can take many different formats and are both transformational and translational; they provide the opportunity for students to showcase their knowledge, understanding and skills to us as academics and potential employers.

Additional drivers for change are that employers increasingly require graduates with different knowledge and skill sets, while higher education providers, facing significant financial constraints, will need to provide high-quality education with decreased resources. This perfect storm provides a unique opportunity to collectively revamp our provision and move from a content-driven approach to a more personal and professional development-based one. In short, to better prepare our students for the 21st century workplace.

shutterstock sewage2Final year or capstone projects can be based around meta-analyses, surveys, data analysis, grant proposals, scientific outreach, and many other activities that don't require regular lab access.  

A broader approach

A research project remains a requirement of the QAA Benchmark Statements for Biosciences and Biomedical Sciences. Replacing these en masse with critical literature reviews is not acceptable to professional, statutory and regulatory bodies, nor would it be popular with students. By happy coincidence, both the RSB and the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS) have recently made substantial changes to their accreditation criteria, informed by the work of co-author Dave Lewis. Both the RSB[3] and IBMS[4] now allow broader formats of capstone, including those that are team-based – as long as the individual contribution can be distinguished. The capstone experience must also include opportunities for analysis, synthesis and critical evaluation of primary or secondary data, and a defined output.

Capstone experiences The capstone experiences approved by both the RSB and IBMS include virtual laboratory, bioinformatics/big data, computational modelling/simulations, systematic reviews with or without meta-analysis, surveys/focus groups, and educational development. Capstone experiences approved by the RSB only include virtual fieldwork, grant proposals, scientific writing, commercial/technical reports, and professional education and science in schools or public engagement. See references for more information. 

Building on Dave’s extensive experience of delivering a range of capstone projects that are highly valued compared with traditional research projects, we (the co-authors) designed interactive workshops to enable colleagues to embrace this new way of thinking. Our three online workshops in the summer of 2020 were supported by the Heads of University Biosciences and Heads of University Centres for Biomedical Science organisations.

We asked participants to put aside their preconceived ideas on research projects and work collaboratively to share ideas and create outputs. We engaged with more than 200 attendees to introduce different professional-body-approved formats of non-traditional projects/capstones. We suggested ideas to tackle issues and facilitate the introduction of multiple formats of projects/capstones into bioscience degree programmes (nationally and internationally). Key to the capstone experience is students applying their knowledge and skills gained in earlier years to an enquiry-based problem and creating an output as a solution to this problem. Non-traditional capstones, all of which are deliverable solely or predominantly remotely, are thus an ideal solution to our pandemic predicament.

The feedback on our events has been excellent and together we have increased knowledge and understanding of different formats of non-traditional projects/capstones. We have shared our co-created outputs and extensive resources (see resources list below for links) on appropriate learning outcomes, generic grading criteria, authentic assessments, suggestions for scaffolding required in levels 4 and 5, and support for colleagues, plus addressing student expectations.

Open-access resources

All of our outputs have been shared as open-access resources. We have also created ‘how-to’ guides for each type of capstone experience (see resources list below for links). These are publicly available and offer simple information on how to design and implement them. Take-up of these has been amazing, with over 2,000 downloads from more than 50 countries since late July.

A selection of open access datasets is also available to support the delivery of post-COVID-19 capstone experiences. Importantly, the subject-specific knowledge and transferable skills our graduates will achieve will not be compromised and may even be enhanced in this brave new world. We cannot return to our old ways – the worlds of work and education have changed forever. Why do we believe that we can support you in this new venture? Because not all superheroes wear capes – some wear labcoats.

Dr Sue Jones MRSB was named the RSB’s Higher Education Bioscience Teacher of the Year 2020 and is associate head of school for biosciences at York St John University.
Dr Dave Lewis is a senior lecturer in pharmacology and bioethics at the University of Leeds.
Michelle Payne is a senior lecturer in healthcare science at the University of Sunderland.

Further Reading & Resources

1) Lewis, D. Delivering a high-quality practical education remotely. Physiology News. 119 (2020).
2) Lewis, D. Post-COVID education: eLearning and the new world of education. Pharmacology Matters, August 2020.
3) RSB Accreditation Handbook 2019.                  
4) IBMS final year research/capstone projects.