“I loved what we were learning, it’s something I felt passionate about. Having different inputs, and researching and discussing what everyone had found, really gave us a good base.”
Colin Witt ’23 was among the dozens of students this past semester who addressed societal challenges and concerns via Integrated Capstone (INCAP) projects, which demonstrate the many benefits of combining diverse majors, backgrounds, skills, and perspectives.
INCAPS are emblematic of Plymouth State’s Cluster Learning model, whose foundations include interdisciplinary learning, project-based work that extends beyond classroom walls, and open education through which students’ work connects with the wider world.
“Integrated Capstones are one of the two opportunities PSU provides for every student in Cluster Learning,” says Professor Cathie LeBlanc. “Students’ learning experiences as the drive their INCAP projects forward are as important as the final product. Students make decisions on how they impact the subject of their course.”
LeBlanc has been instrumental in shaping Cluster Learning and until recently headed the General Education program, now renamed the Habits of Mind Experience (HoME).
According to educator George Kuh and subsequent research, students who take part in high-impact practices (HIPS) excel in learning and engagement. Collaborative assignments and projects are among ten learning experiences Kuh identifies.
New students can also choose from several Tackling a Wicked Problem courses, which also qualify as HIPS.
“Students’ satisfaction with their education and their ability to be successful when they graduate increase when they engage in high-end practices,” notes LeBlanc. “Plymouth State provides students with at least two opportunities to do two high-end practices, which research says is the ‘magic number’.”
Recent Cluster Learning INCAP courses included Work-Life Balance, taught by Professor Kate Harrington, and The Importance of Play in Society by Professor Elisabeth Johnston. In addition, students in Professor Bryan Mascio’s INCAP, Media Representations and Fandom, examined the dearth of racial equality in Star Wars.
Harrington teaches courses in the language and culture of the French-speaking world and describes her INCAP as the study of “work-life balance in the no-vacation nation.” She initially thought the INCAP would center on America’s lack of a federal mandate for time off compared to other nations, but student interest redirected the focus to the four-day work week. By mid-semester, the class was leading the way.
“Some had a certain mindset and opinions but were swayed by classmates from different backgrounds and life experiences,” Harrington says. “As a professor, it was very rewarding because they were teaching each other as well.”
“By the end of February, the class was really student-led,” agrees Witt, a business administration major.
Student research uncovered political advocacy for the four-day work week, something the class might not have known had the course followed a traditional syllabus.
Witt and his group created “Students for Fair Work: A Social Media Campaign Promoting the Idea of Work/Life Balance” after discovering a TED Talk on four-day work weeks. “We did more research and found trials of four-day work weeks in various countries and the US, and they seemed to have more of a following than lack of paid time off,” Witt explains. His group’s unexpected findings included realizing the environmental benefits of four-day work weeks, which promote decreases in both carbon emissions and carbon footprints.
Both Harrington and Johnston initially provided a foundation for students to consider before the classes literally charted their own courses. Johnston, a professor of curriculum and instruction, began with students learning about play, which she defined as anything an individual wants to do and finds fun.
“Just before the halfway semester mark we spent time seeing what type of play initiatives there are in different spaces,” she recalls, “such as how organizations and universities are trying to advocate for play. We learned from each other and used those as a springboard for signature projects.”
By semester’s end, students’ projects included “Art for Self Care,” which combined art therapy with play therapy to better peers’ mental health; “Block of Ages,” about the importance of children playing with constructive blocks; and “Integrated Play Opportunities for College Students,” interactive play opportunities during the final weeks of the semester when stress levels often peak.
In all of its formulations, INCAPs exemplify Cluster Learning’s desired outcome of students gaining knowledge through collaboration.
“I think the timing of the INCAP—well into their disciplinary knowledge—helps students work well together and shine with classmates with different strengths,” Harrington says. “We had deep conversations and came up with interesting projects another class may not have. Everyone learned a lot from each other.”