As part of the School of Public Policy’s experiential learning curriculum, undergraduate public policy majors complete a single semester capstone project, PLCY400. Student teams partner with external government or nonprofit organizations to develop a research report and offer recommendations relating to their research area.
We're spotlighting five capstone projects from the class of 2021. Learn more about their research areas and the skills they applied to their projects, as well as their advice to other undergraduate students.
Professor: Jennifer Littlefield
The goal of our capstone project was to research and analyze alternative funding formulas and programs the State of Maryland can implement to adequately fund its public school system and support an increase in per-pupil funding. Additionally, we had the goal to develop connections with the NAACP Education Committee clients and others to expand our networking opportunities.
Utilizing the Thornton and Kirwan Commission, the Team interpreted the usage of funding formulas and compared their process for these formulas to other states and countries to ensure educational equity. The historical and comparative perspectives annotated from interviews with Delegate Eric Luedtke and the founder and creator of the Thornton Commission, Dr. Alvin Thornton, were used to advance research on other states and school funding methods. Comparably, the NAACP Capstone Team researched funding programs exercised from other states to evaluate its means of success and potential feasibility for the state of Maryland.
Through our research and the work we completed over the course of the semester, the Team was able to recommend three alternative funding programs Maryland can implement to adequately fund their public schools. These recommendations are as followed (in order of ranking priority):
1. Sugary Drink Tax
2. Grocery Store Liquor Sale & Tax
3. Specialty License Plate Program
To avoid the challenge of groupthink, the Team took the time to divide the work mutually. Inherently, we are invested into different forms of work that provide information that challenges different perspectives. With this information, we produced a variety of high-quality work for effective policy making instead of coming up with rationalizations based on individual topics. Additionally, the Team took time to cross check each other's work, because although we worked individually at times, we were able to do a better job at understanding others’ sections and providing more insight by cross-checking. Setting up meetings with our NAACP client, Laura Johnson, helped us gain another perspective on what information or topics we may have been missing and to further explore “outside” (of the initial group) perspectives.
Another very noteworthy challenge the Team came across was the redirection of our project. Initially, we had a variety of directions the project could go in because we had the choice to choose what topic we wanted to focus on (i.e. alternative funding formulas, the impact of COVID-19 and how students would be accommodated when they returned tot in-person classes, etc.). With the help and guidance of our client, Laura Johnson, and our professor, Dr. Littlefield, we were able to navigate what topic we wanted to focus on, which came to be alternative funding formulas and programs the State of Maryland can implement to adequately fund its public school system and support an increase in per-pupil funding.
One piece of advice we have for other undergraduate students regarding the capstone project or process is to focus on communication. In this course, communication is key. Whether that be with your teammates, the professor and TAs, or most importantly, your client. Being open-minded about what direction your project will go in is valuable as well because it is possible for the focus of your project to change throughout the semester, as ours did. In this regard, patience is necessary throughout the process. When your focus changes, it can be frustrating at times; research doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes you may research a given topic and not find ample or adequate research to move forward. When this occurs, the Team may have to think of alternative ideas and communicate with their client and professor to get an outside perspective. Finally, ask for help! You and your Team are not in this alone. The professor, TAs, and your client just want you to create the best version of your project as possible, all while enjoying the process and furthering your education and skills in the process.
The most fun our Team had taking part in the Capstone course was team meetings. Each week we met during class time for 2.5 hours and additionally one-two more times a week as the project progressed. During this time, we were able to work productively, but also get to know each other. Getting to know your teammates and their backgrounds helps to understand where they are coming from and how their skills and personality can come into play in the process. For example, we were able to assign team roles for each team member based on their perspectives and personal skills. Additionally, the final project and presentation had to be the best time we had taking part in this course. Seeing all of our hard work come together in the form of a 40 page final report was exceptional, but actually presenting our information and recommendations that can be used to shape future policy in the State of Maryland to our NAACP clients was truly indescribable. We are extremely proud of the work we accomplished through this project and are lucky we could represent such an amazing organization as the NAACP.
We were partnered with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). NAPA has a list of "Grand Challenges" facing the public that they advocate for addressing through administrative changes. In pursuit of addressing one of their goals, NAPA requested that we give a summary of what the Biden administration has accomplished with regards to data security in response to the recent SolarWinds and Microsoft Exchange hacks, and provide recommendations for the administration to address similar potential acts in the future. My group completed a brief report on the accomplishments of the Biden administration in response to data threats, provided a series of actions the administration could take, and will soon be presenting our findings directly to the team we partnered with at NAPA.
Research skills learned in previous courses were instrumental in achieving the goals set out for us by NAPA. Personally, previous courses I had taken in international, homeland, and cybersecurity were very helpful in my research, as they provided me with the background necessary to understand what structures were already in place to address security issues, giving me a broad batch of places where I could start my research.
One of the greatest challenges we as a group faced when addressing the issue that NAPA set for us was the breadth and depth of data security as an issue. The goal NAPA originally set for us was incredibly broad, and we struggled as a group to whittle "an overview of data security" into something more manageable. After collecting our preliminary data surrounding the issue, we regrouped with the NAPA team to discuss, and they refocused our efforts on addressing what the Biden administration is doing specifically in response to data hacks such as the SolarWinds and Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities. It was more smooth sailing after we received that piece of guidance.
Don't be afraid of the capstone! The key to success in the course is constant communication between your group members, the professor, and the organization you're working with. There will be times where you'll need help or guidance, and the resources for that are built into the class.
NAPA Social Equity
Professor: Jennifer Littlefield
We were working with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) who wanted us to identify what the Biden administration has been doing in terms of social equity and to create policy recommendations to help the Biden Administration advance social equity. It was a broad topic and after discussing it we narrowed our focus to examining what the Biden Administration is doing to create racial equity within Housing and Education, specifically for the African American community in the United States.
We did this by conducting research on what metrics exist already to measure racial equity specifically by the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. We also wanted to see what programs, if any, used these metrics to advance racial equity. We learned that although some data does exist on these measures, it is not enough and that social and racial equity must be centralized in the creation of programming. We also found that cross-collaboration between departments would be helpful in advancing racial equity, along with accountability systems to ensure that equity is being thought of every step of the way when conducting or continuing programing meant to serve the community.
We utilized a culmination of the skills that we learned through our previous policy classes. This is probably one of the best groups I have ever worked with and that was largely because we all already knew what components went into a brief, how to analyze and create quality policy recommendations, how to write in a straightforward manner, and how to communicate with each other. Together we utilized these skills from our previous policy classes to create an end project that we are all really proud of.
One of the challenges that we faced while working on this project was researching current actions being taken by the Biden administration. Because we are only 5 months into a new administration it was a little bit difficult finding actions taken thus far that promote social equity. Research over the course of this semester was continuous and almost weekly we were finding new sources to add. Even after our final report was turned in, there were additional press releases from the white house regarding social equity that we had to add to our report and presentation afterwards.
The advice I would give to other undergrads about the capstone project and its process is to reach out to professors and other experts in the field that you are researching. Finding sources online makes up a great share of your findings but speaking to someone who has either worked in that field or is an expert in it will direct you through avenues you might not have thought about or dived into just yet.
NOAA Climate Adaptation
Professor: Rosina Bierbaum
The goal of our project is to assess how coastal communities are planning and executing adaptation to climate change. To reach that goal we combed through adaptation plans and other literature published online, and then interviewed adaptation professionals in government, academia, and non-profits to fill in gaps and provide insight. We did all this to make recommendations to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about how they can better support climate adaptation.
The main challenge we faced was setting the project’s scope and providing a really useful, in-depth report for NOAA in only one semester. We overcame that challenge with lots of teamwork and communication. We designed a project that was exciting and ambitious but achievable, and then got to work efficiently conducting research, analyzing data, and extracting findings. All that careful planning left us just enough time to draft our report and build a presentation to deliver our findings and recommendations to the client.
Most basically, we all chose Dr. Bierbaum’s capstone class about climate change because we care deeply about the environment, and the role public policy can play in protecting the planet and saving people from dangerous effects of climate change. Once the class began, we had a choice as to whether we wanted to work on climate adaption with NOAA, or mitigation through a different project. I think it became really clear over the semester that our team was drawn to NOAA because we saw it as a defender of coastal communities - protecting the people, the natural resources, and the vibrant economies that we appreciate so much. And we all really wanted to help out by pinpointing any injustices that need to be addressed, whether they’re caused by climate change itself or how people are responding to it. We really care to help NOAA preserve the beautifully diverse parts, and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
Our advice for other undergrads is just to brace themselves for a challenge! Capstone is difficult - research doesn’t always go according to plan, and that can get frustrating at times because you want everything to be just right for your client. We’ve arrived to a place where we understand that this is life, and that no matter what happens the most important thing is to put our best foot forward.
Rare EV/Solar Panels
Professor: Rosina Bierbaum
The goal of our project was to conduct research to understand why people choose not to buy electric vehicles or install solar panels onto their homes. These are two of the highest-impact behaviors that can reduce an individual's carbon footprint. We achieved this through 30 interviews with people who had considered purchasing one of these technologies at some point in the past. We conducted qualitative analysis to draw insights and conclusions based on connections between the interviewee's answers. The ultimate idea is that the organization we're preparing this research paper for, Rare, can use these insights to create interventions that improve adoption rates.
For electric vehicles, some of the things that we found are that up-front cost and range/availability of charging stations are big barriers for a lot of people. There are a lot of other concerns that individuals have (including things like aesthetics, environmental concerns about batteries, and waiting for technology to improve), but these two were the biggest that we saw across the board.
We also found a bunch of common barriers that interviewees faced when trying to acquire solar panels. These barriers included concerns about aesthetics, upfront cost and return on investment, physical location in relation to sun exposure/roof orientation and rules against panels, home buying/selling, desire for more technological advancements, confusion surrounding government incentives, and roof repairs among other things.
Some common barriers to both technologies were cost and confusing information—lots of people just had trouble figuring out all of the various pieces of information that you need to know to understand if these technologies are viable for you, because the answers are all over the place. Our final recommendation to Rare involves a tool that provides all of this information to you in one place, which would hopefully alleviate a lot of these smaller concerns.
The School of Public Policy prepared us for this project in multiple ways. In terms of specific coursework, PLCY306 taught us about research methods in policy and helped us a lot with conducting our initial literature review. PLCY304 also helped us understand how to conduct some quantitative analysis on our results.
All of our courses have also taught us collaboration, critical thinking, and researching unfamiliar topics. We definitely experienced all of this on a larger scale in this course, especially as we all very quickly had to become familiar with the context of greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable energy sources, and had to learn how to conduct qualitative research. Every class in the Public Policy major teaches us how to define and analyze a problem, research solutions, and recommend evidence-based ways to make positive change to alleviate the problem, and the capstone really embodied those goals. It was really rewarding to apply all of the theoretical practice throughout these courses to a real-world problem where we had the opportunity to help an organization make real change.
The biggest challenges we faced were the interviews and the qualitative analysis. The interviews were difficult because we didn't have a ton of time to complete them and we were having trouble finding people to interview in the first place. In addition, some people were not responsive when we reached out, so we had to look for more people to interview while we began working on the qualitative analysis. The qualitative analysis was also difficult because none of us had ever done any before, and we didn't have enough time to learn the standard qualitative analysis methods and then actually execute them, so we ended up devising our own method and doing more loose analysis based on the connections we had noticed when reviewing transcripts rather than a more rigorous analysis that would usually take months to complete.
Another challenge we encountered was balancing the expectations of the course—showcasing our skills learned throughout our degree—with the expectations of Rare, our client.
Working as a group of 6 people in an online-only environment also poses its own challenges. It took extra effort to make sure communications between the group were effective. It was certainly a learning curve, but we all are coming out of this project thinking the highest of each other!
I think the advice we can give students is that the capstone is really a lot more work than any other class we've taken and that makes it much more stressful, especially if you have other classes or other things going on outside of school. It's hard to do an entire research project in less than 3 months, so making sure to plan it out carefully up front and spending a lot of time on the timeline your team creates at the start—and doing your best to stick to it—is a good way to make sure that you give all of the different parts enough time. Figuring out the balance between the course expectations and the client’s expectations early on is also really helpful in getting a clear understanding of the project’s purpose so you can plan out that timeline as best as possible.