Practical or data-based projects? Types of undergraduate capstone projects chosen by distance-learning biology and environmental science students at the Open University

Gauci, Hannah; Robson, Julie; Golding, Jon and Wallace, Janette (2022). Practical or data-based projects? Types of undergraduate capstone projects chosen by distance-learning biology and environmental science students at the Open University. In: Horizons in STEM Higher Education Conference Making Connections, Innovating and Sharing Pedagogy, 29-30 Jun 2022, London, p. 99.



The COVID-19 pandemic challenged universities to develop online undergraduate research project opportunities for students that could provide an authentic research experience. As a result, many universities have now broadened their capstone project offerings to include online, data projects and are deciding whether to return to their traditional model. Furthermore, heads of biosciences at several universities have been “reimagining” the capstone experience. Jones et al. (2020) suggested that by offering students a choice to allow them to select a project type that best fits their skills, experience, and aspirations their learning experience would be improved.

Until 2020, students studying biology and environmental science degrees by distance learning at the Open University completed primarily literature and field-based research projects respectively. Students commencing field-based projects in February 2020, supported by the module team, were required to make a quick switch to online data-based projects due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. This change met the accreditation requirements for the degree, meeting the same learning outcomes. Encouragingly, the achievement of this cohort was not negatively affected. Coincidentally, at the start of the pandemic, we were already working to move from literature-based to practical and data-based project options for biology students to better meet sector and accrediting body expectations. As a result, in February 2021 we decided to give students studying both biology and environmental science degrees the choice of completing data-based, field-based or home (e.g., potted plant) investigations. In addition, a small number of students completed work-based laboratory projects.

As part of a larger project, we are evaluating the impact of introducing these new project options on student achievement, and both student and tutor experience over two years (2021 and 2022 student cohorts) to help inform further development of our undergraduate science capstone project module.

Here we share initial findings from the 2021 cohort relating to the students’ project choice - which project types do students choose and why?

Project type (field-based, data-based, combined field and data or lab-based) was recorded for 98 biology and 143 environmental sciences students who completed their projects in 2021. Survey data collected from biology (n=24) and environmental science (n=16) students following completion of their projects provides insight into reasons for their project choice. As part of a larger survey (of 320 undergraduate science students, 16% response rate) other factors affecting their choice of project were assessed including their career aspirations, the development of their project idea and whether they felt completing their project had helped them progress towards their goals. In addition, student characteristics data such as ethnicity, disability and employment status were obtained to investigate any association with choice of project type.

An understanding of undergraduate students’ preferred project options will help to ensure we are providing options that are suitable and accessible for our students and will inform further development of undergraduate project modules at the Open University and at other institutions.

Jones S., Lewis D. and Payne M. (2020). Reimagining the final year project. The Biologist. Online. (accessed 11/2/22).

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