The University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) requires a capstone experience, which, for the majority of students, will take the form of a master's project or thesis. Each of these options is described below. Most students pursue the master's project option to develop greater experience working with an interdisciplinary team on an external client's real-world sustainability challenge. The thesis option is appropriate for students interested in conducting academic research and requires the approval of a faculty member willing to serve as a thesis advisor. Be sure to consult with your faculty program advisor if you have questions about capstone options and which option is most appropriate for you. Master's project work spans roughly 15 months and thesis work is done throughout the entire program.
Master's Project: Two Pathways
The SEAS client-based master's project is an interdisciplinary problem-solving research endeavor conducted by a team of students and a faculty mentor. Projects prepare students to become leaders in sustainability by working with real-world clients on projects that make an impact locally, nationally, or around the globe. Master’s projects provide students with the kind of experiences that prepare them for similar situations in the workplace. For clients, projects provide useful products and solutions to complex environmental issues.
There are two pathways for students to receive master’s project credit. The overall objectives, requirements, and expectations of master’s projects in both project pathways are the same. Both pathways structure teams consisting of students across multiple SEAS specializations.
Pathway 1: The first pathway is to enroll in the traditional Master’s Project Planning course in the winter A semester with Avik Basu. This course matches students with a range of projects and builds general team and project management skills. Once matched, individual teams work independently with a project advisor and register for variable project credit over the next two semesters, depending on individual students’ work plans.
Pathway 2: The second pathway is to enroll in a Theme-Based Master’s Project course that also begins in the winter semester. In this full-semester course, each course consists of four teams working on projects with a related thematic focus. Instead of working independently as a single team, students work collaboratively with three other project teams and an instructor through a structured three-semester course series. The series begins with a three-credit winter course on theme-specific content and skills to develop project plans, followed by a two-credit fall course focusing on analysis and synthesis of the summer’s work, and finally a one-credit course during the second winter semester to guide completion of the project, reports and presentations. This pathway includes a separate application step as there are limited slots for teams, unlike the traditional pathway, which only requires enrollment, and has no such student slot limits.
Theme-based pathway courses will begin in winter semester of 2024 (finishing winter semester 2025). Themes and projects will be shared in fall 2023. Past themes have included: Water Resources and Communities, Climate and Energy, Conservation and Restoration, Circular Economy and Waste, and Food Systems.
NOTE: Incoming students are defaulted into the master’s project track and must petition to move to the thesis option with the approval of a faculty member willing to serve as a thesis advisor. All students still need to enroll in either EAS 701.888 for the traditional master's project pathway, or EAS 701.*** (course extensions assigned at later date by Registrar for the Theme courses) for the theme-based pathway.
A master's thesis consists of individual, independent research that generates new knowledge and is designed to contribute to scholarship. This option is often suitable for students considering pursuing a PhD, those interested in research-oriented careers, or individuals seeking an in-depth understanding of a particular topic. Theses usually include a literature review to delineate a problem or gap in knowledge, formulation of research questions and hypotheses, explanation of methods, collection and analysis of data, as well as reporting and discussion of results. Thesis findings should be publishable in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Students wishing to complete a thesis need to secure a committee of faculty members who agree to advise them on this project and are encouraged to consider enrolling in the EAS 501.013 course offered by Dr. Brian Weeks.
Students with extensive professional experience working in interdisciplinary teams to solve real-world problems may be able to waive the capstone experience by completing additional coursework instead. In addition, some students complete an alternate capstone experience such as a practicum, which involves working with an external partner individually or in pairs, or integrative seminar experience with select faculty. These options are relatively rare and require sufficient justification and advisor approval.