Capstones bring theory to real world

As a student in New York, Alyse Farris read about Portland as a model of sustainability. “I moved here partly to see if all that I read about it in journal articles was true,” she said.

As a community development major at Portland State University, Farris has studied models of urban growth and community outreach. As a capstone student, she’s gotten to put these to work in a capstone devoted to helping the Johnson Creek Watershed Council reach out to community members.

While some students complain that the capstone has little or nothing to do with their major, the program, which emphasizes “community-based learning” is much more relevant to community development students.

“For urban studies students the capstone is really useful, because we get to use techniques we learned in the classroom,” said Rachel Dickenson, one of Farris’ capstone partners.

The senior capstone is the culminating project for Portland State’s university studies curriculum, and is one of the highest rated programs in the country. Earlier this year, US News and World Report rated the capstone program eighth nationwide behind schools like Princeton, MIT and Michigan State.

“We’re definitely in good company,” said Seanna Kerrigan, capstone coordinator at PSU.

The capstone program came out of a redesigned university studies curriculum, said Judy Patton, director of university studies.

“In the ’80s, higher education was really challenged,” Patton said. At that time, skepticism of an ivory-tower mentality ran high, leading PSU to re-examine its general education requirements.

The result was the current university studies curriculum and the capstone, instituted in part “to make the boundaries of the university more permeable,” Patton said.

Crucial to the program are the university’s partners, businesses and public organizations that are willing to donate time and money to further student learning.

“At the beginning, we were worried we wouldn’t have enough community partners or issues to fill our needs,” Patton said. “Now we have many more than we need.”

Farris and Dickenson’s partner, the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, views outreach like that proposed by Farris and Dickenson to be integral to their mission.

“People will have no interest in investing in Johnson Creek if they have no direct experience with the creek,” said the council’s outreach coordinator, David Reid.

Farris has worked with special U.S. census data and geographic mapping software to determine the language and education level of residents near Johnson Creek.

“We must have done 50 maps,” Dickenson said.

Until the capstone class, neither of the two had any experience with geographic mapping software. Farris credits capstone professor Margrete Merrick for teaching her the necessary skills. “She’s been really helpful,” Farris said.

Farris also pointed to a class with University Studies professor Charles White as helping to shape her views toward community relations. “He really opened my outlook to see the possibilities of community outreach and neighborhood activism,” she said.

In the capstone process, Farris and Dickenson have built up considerable experience in their fields. “I’ve been working in a coffee shop for the last five years, but I’ve got tons of stuff in my portfolio to show an employer,” said Dickenson, who is considering graduate work at the University of Hawaii.

And they’ve seen the lessons of the classroom at work. “I’ve seen the power of organizing people for collective change,” Farris said.