Capstone Project
07 May 2020

Capstone Research Projects: Innovative Approaches to Student-centred Learning

The Capstone Research Projects are part of the Interdisciplinary Masters Programme,
which encompasses the Master in Development Studies and the Master in International Affairs.
Interview with Liliana Andonova, Professor of International Relations/Political Science,
and Gilles Carbonnier, Professor of International Economics.

Professor Andonova, as Head of the Interdisciplinary Programme, could you explain the value that the Capstone Projects add to these masters? 

The applied research Capstone Projects are a highly innovative aspect of the interdisciplinary curriculum. It gives students the opportunity to apply their analytical skills and deliver practical research projects with partners in International Geneva, including international organisations, the private sector and non-profits. 

These projects challenge students to link their studies with concrete professional experience and allow them to step out of the comfort zone of classroom instruction. Students take ownership of their research, with guidance from professors and partners. They learn to manage professional challenges related to working as a team, communicate with partners and adapt to expectations, while simultaneously delivering research of high academic depth and quality. 

This supports a rigorous postgraduate education intended to build transversal skills. The excellence of our students and their Capstone Projects has been recognised by both peers and partners. We have seen many projects earn prizes or feature in public spaces, such as RTS programmes, the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform or the UNFCCC’s Conference of Parties.

Professor Carbonnier, you are at the origin of the Capstones. Why did you create them? What was their intended purpose? 

Starting in 2007, we embarked on a reform of our Master in Development Studies. I collected the views of the major employers who typically recruit our master students after graduation. 

While employers were highly appreciative of students’ academic background and skills, they were more critical of the difficulty former students had in working effectively in teams and in being action- and practice-oriented. 

We thus decided to establish what was then called “Applied Research Seminars”, whereby teams of students would carry out research projects mandated by Geneva-based organisations to solve “real-world, practical issues”. 

From the outset, it was decided that a student’s ability to work effectively as part of a team would be included in the final grade, as well as their capability to manage relations with partner organisations (their “clients”). 

This aspect included the delivery of research outputs in a format deemed appropriate for a policy/practice-oriented organisation, while ensuring proper academic rigour when it came to methodology and analysis. 

What do students gain from their involvement in the Capstone Projects? 

Students gain hands-on experience conducting research dealing with real world issues for international organisations, NGOs, think-tanks, companies or governments (via their permanent mission in Geneva). 

They learn how to cooperate effectively within a group, drawing on the advantages that different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds, as well as linguistic and communication skills, bring to the fore. 

Students can also benefit from the networks they establish within International Geneva – not solely with their partner organisation, but also through interviews and research work. 

At times, master students have been hired directly by their partner organisation after graduation to continue working on their Capstones. 

What benefits do the Capstones bring to the Institute in general? 

Now generating around 50 research reports a year, Capstone Projects have grown in number and scope. They are categorised into five thematic tracks: Environment, Resources and Sustainability; Mobilities, Spaces and Cities; Power, Conflict and Development; Global Security; and Trade and International Finance. 

Topics are frequently cutting-edge, enabling students to apply critical thinking to areas they will likely encounter in their early careers. 

With a decade of experience in delivering this innovative approach to student-centred learning and with our network of highly valued professionals and partner organisations, Capstones have greatly helped to spread the Graduate Institute’s reputation of academic excellence and relevance. 

Students come out of the programme able to better navigate the complex research-policy-practice nexus. 

What do you see for the future of these projects? 

As the Capstones begin their second decade, a rich historical archive of student research has captured the policy, politics and practice of global affairs as they have unfolded in International Geneva through the years and across the organisations. 

Now, as the United Nations enters its 76th year, it has never been more important to ensure that the academic education and training of young professionals promote knowledge and skills that will ensure sustainable futures. 

In this, the Graduate Institute’s Capstone Projects are gaining an international reputation for excellence in applied research, unique experiential learning, and a rich hub for creative thinking and professionalism. 

These projects will consolidate their place at the heart of the Graduate Institute’s unique educational offering in international and development studies.

Pictured from left to right: Dr Assia Alexieva, WMO partner; Claire Somerville, Academic Supervisor from the Graduate Institute; and students Olga Bogdan, Seulgi Yoon and McPherlain C. Chungu. 

This article was originally published in Globe #25.