Capstone projects teach leadership, build up campus

Numerous useful and thoughtful projects have bubbled up across campus in the last five years -- "Principles of Community" banners along Morrill Road; a rejuvenation of the student food pantry SHOP; a course proposal, gear kit and best practices for University Library on collecting oral history; a website to honor students who die during their ISU years, for example.

The thread that connects about 20 seemingly disparate projects is the annual Emerging Leaders Academy (ELA), a nine-month leadership development program for faculty and professional and scientific staff organized by the provost's office. Five years ago, its organizers replaced a faculty mentor component with a capstone concept: team projects that make Iowa State a kinder, more accessible community in which to work or study.

The intent, according to ELA co-director Katharine Hensley, faculty success coordinator in the provost's office, is to provide an interactive experience that builds on learned skills, helps class members develop lasting connections across campus and compels teams to collaborate -- or at least consult -- with administrators and staff in units impacted by capstone plans.

Student volunteers stock shelves in food pantry

A fundraising blitz spearheaded last spring by an ELA capstone team raised $11,300 that helped with about $15,000 in improvements at the SHOP student pantry, including new floor, paint and counter; interior wall for a food storage area, iPads and food scales; and additional shelving. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

"The capstone might be the best way they learn about leadership, because they're doing leadership as a team," Hensley said.

Even when things go sideways -- as they inevitably do every year for one or more teams -- "They're gaining insight into what they'd do differently. The missteps are what you grow from the most," she said.

Hensley coordinates ELA with professor of veterinary clinical sciences Rod Bagley. Using a handful of variables, they assign four project teams from among a cohort's 24-30 members and recommend a few parameters as teams hone in on projects:

  • It aligns with the university's strategic plan and Principles of Community
  • It's sustainable without creating lots of work for someone else; it's not a one-and-done benefit
  • It can be completed in six months
  • Capstone team involves stakeholders in its planning

That third bullet often causes the most anxiety, Hensley said.

"We try to emphasize scope from the beginning. If they think too big, or if they don't clearly define their outcomes, often it doesn't turn out the way they anticipated," she said.

It's still working

Accurately assessing a real need also helps a capstone effort succeed. Three years ago, ELA member Sarah Wilson, now in student services in the Ivy College of Business, worked in the College of Human Sciences and watched her colleague, director of multicultural student success (DMSS) Carmen Flagge, struggle to keep afloat a gently used career clothing pop-up shop for students. Wilson's capstone team adopted the shop and did substantial "fact finding" to see if Iowa State could collaborate with an existing consignment store or student organization. Not finding a good match, ultimately, they approached student government and submitted a funding request on behalf of Flagge and other DMSSs behind the pop-up shop.

In spring 2019, student government approved a five-year commitment of nearly $23,000 each year to support the business attire pop-up shop, which collects donations year-round for two free distribution events a year.

It was a game-changer. Flagge said the annual support is used primarily for three needs: two student interns who promote the events on social media and set up the shop; climate-controlled storage off campus for the clothing items between pop-up shops; and industrial-grade supplies and equipment that help make the shop happen: hangers, mirrors, clothing racks, clothing collection bins and the like. From 71 students at the first pop-up shop in spring 2018, the event now serves 400-700 students from all seven colleges each semester.

"It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed immensely the work with my team," Wilson recalled this week. "You think you're in ELA to work on developing yourself, but there's also this really worthwhile project you want to make sure succeeds.

"All of those experiences helped us develop relationships around campus that I still have today," she said.

Nicely done, class of 2022

This year's four capstone teams shared their projects with classmates as part of their April 15 session. On May 9, they'll gather one more time for a graduation celebration. Here's a summary of their work and where you might find it:

  • Gather content for a website highlighting campus' "best kept secrets" -- 40 locations grouped among five categories -- to share Iowa State's history and traditions with multiple audiences, including prospective students, current ISU families, alumni and the Ames community. The site could be added to the existing Arts and Attractions page.
  • Organize ISU Serves, a month-long competition to complete and record volunteer service hours, by individual and campus unit. The intent behind gamifying volunteerism is to encourage it but also expand the scope of what it looks like in a community of skilled individuals. The pilot subsequently was added to the ISU WorkLife website. Congratulations to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which received the ISU Serves traveling trophy in its inaugural year.
  • To help address student mental health needs, develop proposals for suicide-prevention decals that will go in campus restrooms and student housing. The four designs feature a message -- "Give tomorrow a chance" or "Your life means everything to the people who love you," for example -- and QR code that links to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, not a local resource. College of Design students created the proposals, and ISU printing services will produce the selected design(s).
  • Secure keynote speakers for the 2022 ISCORE faculty/staff preconference that could address the topic of land-grant universities being funded through land expropriated by the federal government from indigenous tribes. The team's idea began as a one-day campus workshop to increase awareness of the land acquisition that made land-grant universities possible. The one-hour keynote is archived in University Library's digital press as part of the ISCORE archive.

At the conclusion of their presentations, Bagley congratulated class members for "projects that have impact," which is the goal every year for every project.

And then he added, "You've reached base camp. Your journey continues."