Fall capstone presentations cross all disciplines

 13 12 10 capstone cereal
December 10, 2013

The crowning feature of McDaniel’s curriculum is a senior capstone project, an in-depth investigation of a topic in each student’s major or majors.

Capstones are often students’ first opportunity to express themselves as professionals. Music majors may create an original composition. Biology majors often contribute to a national research initiative in anything from genomics to cancer research.

Across all disciplines, students top off their educations with original work in their field – and use this experience as a passport to both career and graduate school.

Typically, seniors tackle their capstone project in their senior spring semester, but some immerse in their projects in the fall. Here is a sampling of capstones presented in December:

» Joe Wright, History and Environmental Studies double major from Westminster, Md., examined late-1800s American dietary experience through cereal barons C.W. Post and the Kellogg brothers.

» Max Sierra, a Sociology major from Pasadena, Calif., found some surprising results in his capstone research – unlike their peers nationwide, first-generation students do just as well at McDaniel as students whose parents have college degrees.

» Michelle Woshner, an English major from Monument, Colo., compared the final installment of "The Hunger Games" trilogy to “Brave New World” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” in an analysis of dystopian fiction.

» Phoebe McHale, a Political Science and International Studies and Environmental Studies double major from Collegeville, Pa., spent her penultimate semester on the Hill researching presidential scandals, but her results were not what she expected.  

There’s little doubt in Joe Wright’s (pictured top) mind that not many people would look at a cereal box and want to know about the cereal and why the cereal barons, Kellogg and Post, were successful.

But Wright isn’t most people. The History and Environmental Studies double major considers “why” vital to the study of both his majors, and exploring the 1890s success of C. W. Post in particular seemed a natural topic for his History capstone.

“I visited Topridge, Marjorie Meriweather Post’s home in the Adirondacks, which is  essentially a hand-built palace and wondered where all that money came from,” says Wright, a senior from Westminster, Md.

So began an historical excursion into primary data that would give Wright a first-person view of a 20-year period know as the Progressive Era. While both Kellogg and Post started businesses centered on “health foods” – grain-based cereal and imitation coffee – that would shift the American meat-heavy diet, it was Post who enjoyed phenomenal success. By 1900, Post charted profits of $1 million a year.

“Post’s success is largely attributed to his advertising style,” Wright says, explaining that Post invented many modern advertising techniques, such as testimonials, and disguised his ads as the more believable and credible newspaper stories. “His pieces speak to the mindset of the people at the time.”

Wright’s 30-page paper examines the American dietary experience and Post’s use of science, religion and gender in his ads and marketing – all in relation to the attitudes and lifestyles of the times. His studies will continue, he says, and most likely focus on turn-of-the-century consumer culture and the environment as he pursues his Ph.D. after graduating from McDaniel in May.

Fall capstone presentations cross all disciplines Max Sierra found some surprising results in his capstone research – unlike their peers nationwide, first-generation students do just as well at McDaniel as students whose parents have college degrees.

“There’s no correlation at McDaniel between generational status and GPA and employment,” said Sierra, a senior Sociology major from Pasadena, Calif. “In other words, generational status does not predict success here at McDaniel.

“Past research has shown that first-generation students tend to have a lower GPA and higher drop-out rate than traditional students. But that research has been done at a large university.”

In discussion, Sierra points to McDaniel’s size and support system as possible reasons for the difference, although determining why was beyond the scope of his project.

While his study showed that first-generation students were more likely to be employed while going to college, having a job did not affect their grades.

“Small liberal arts colleges seem to be better for first generation students,” he says. “Here at McDaniel we have faculty who are involved with their students, and that could be one of the reasons first-generation students succeed here.”

Sierra’s interest in the research stemmed from his own family experience. His mother, maternal grandfather and even maternal great-grandfather had college degrees. But Sierra’s father and uncle, an architect and physician respectively, were not only first-generation college students but also children of immigrants from Panama and Colombia. They had to work and earn scholarships to attend college and professional schools – which Sierra says made them determined to not only go to college but to succeed while there.

Fall capstone presentations cross all disciplines Michelle Woshner readily admits her obsession with “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins. She was determined to find a way to incorporate the series into her senior capstone, so she compared “Mockingjay,” the third installment, to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in an analysis of dystopian fiction.

Woshner, who thinks power dynamics are fascinating, argued in her 23-page paper that sex is the tool used by oppressive governments to prevent rebellion. Using Michel Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” as a lens, she discovered that dystopian governments objectify, commodify and subjugate citizens in order to control their sexual agency. Wearing a Mockingjay pin, Woshner gave several examples during her 20-minute presentation, such as the Capitol forcing the character Finnick Odair into prostitution as a means of subduing the power he holds as a symbol of hope from his status of Hunger Games victor. 

Senior seminar has been Wosher’s favorite class in the English major, because it allowed her to apply everything she has learned over the last four years to a topic entirely her own.

“Even if you have an idea that doesn’t seem academic, there might be something deep there,” said Woshner, of Monument, Colo. “The odds were in my favor.”

Fall capstone presentations cross all disciplines Phoebe McHale spent her penultimate semester on the Hill researching presidential scandals, but her results were not what she expected. Analyzing four iconic scandals – Teapot Dome, Iran-Contra, Watergate and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair – McHale expected to find a trend, pattern or even an evolution. Instead, the Political Science and International Studies major learned an important lesson about research.

“It was frustrating because I couldn’t find a pattern, but sometimes that happens in the social sciences, ” said McHale, of Collegeville, Pa., who says this experience will inform her approach to her capstone in her second major, Environmental Policy, in the spring.

Additionally, McHale learned about how the media handles such situations, and how print, radio, television and online news organizations had distinctive effects on the scandals at different times in history. For example, after television gained popularity, McHale found the public’s reaction to scandals of a sexual nature “less drastic” because of the visibility of sexuality on TV.

Perhaps more importantly, her capstone served its purpose as a culminating experience. McHale not only applied ideas and concepts learned in other classes, but entirely expanded upon them, finding that her writing grew stronger in the process of completing the 30-page research paper.

“(This project) gave me the opportunity to see how my writing has evolved as a Political Science major,” she said.