As an ENVS major, you will undertake a substantial, independent research project that demonstrates the development of depth of your environmental education and your ability to approach environmental issues from a systems-based, interdisciplinary perspective. 

The senior capstone project usually takes the form of a research paper, but may also take the form of substantial creative works for those whose area of curricular focus is in the arts. The choice of topic should reflect your area of curricular focus in consultation with, and with approval from, the directors and the faculty mentor. Capstone papers are written during the fall semester of the senior year and are due early in the spring semester.

Faculty Mentor

The faculty mentor may be a member of the environmental studies faculty or a faculty member with expertise in the student’s curricular focal area or research topic. The role of the faculty mentor is to help the student shape the research project, find literature in the field, review the student’s progress at milestones, and potentially to provide technical assistance with research methods. The faculty mentor is not a co-author and is not encouraged to read drafts or proofread for grammatical errors. While there is generally only one mentor, there may be several faculty members with useful experience, so students are encouraged to consult with any faculty member whose expertise supports their investigation.

Required Characteristics

In completing the capstone, you should focus on the following goals:

  1. Use primary literature to understand and develop ideas and arguments using an interdisciplinary, systems approach.

  2. Demonstrate your ability to identify important questions, understand complex issues, synthesize information and think critically.

  3. Demonstrate expertise in your curricular focal area and integrate material from your courses and focal areas into a cohesive whole. 

  4. Demonstrate excellent communication skills.


A research-based senior capstone will be around 5,000 – 6,000 words in length, not including references, figures, tables, headings, etc. That is approximately 20 – 25 pages in the required formatting but the word count is your defined goal. The actual page count can vary widely depending on margins, headings, fonts chosen, etc. Even different fonts of the same point size can vary significantly in characters per page. The final report should be formatted in a double-spaced, 12 point serif typeface (Times Roman, Garamond, Caslon, etc.) provided electronically in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format. Headings and figure/table titles may be formatted in a sans-serif font (Helvetica, Arial, Calibri, etc.) if desired.

A non-research based senior capstone may be approved for students whose curricular focal area is in the arts. Such projects must represent an exceptional scholarly or creative opportunity for the student. If approved, one of the co-directors will work with the student and faculty in the relevant discipline to design guidelines on an individual basis. Even where the main part of the senior capstone is creative, the student is still expected to provide written academic context for the work. 


The following timeline is designed to encourage environmental studies majors to complete the bulk of their senior capstone in the Fall semester, and to ensure there is time for the capstone to be evaluated with sufficient time remaining in the year for any necessary revisions to be completed without creating undue stress for students.

  • Sept. 6, 2024: Proposed topic due (1-2 pages)
  • Sept. 13, 2024: Faculty mentor chosen by student (if not already chosen)
  • Sept. 20, 2024: Initial meeting with faculty mentor by this date
  • Oct. 11, 2024: Annotated bibliography due to co-chairs and faculty mentor
  • Nov. 22, 2024: Detailed outline due to co-chairs and faculty mentor
  • Feb. 14, 2025: Final paper due to co-chairs and faculty mentor
  • March 28, 2025: Results provided to students (This is our goal. It sometimes varies.)
  • April 1, 2025: Experiential Community Exercise reflection due to Professor Alexander


Your capstone will be graded by two readers, one of whom is often the mentor. Each reader assigns a grade independently, with differences generally resolved through a negotiated consensus. If consensus cannot be reached, one of the co-directors will read the capstone and choose which grade prevails. The possible grades are: distinction, high pass, pass and no pass. In the case of no pass, the student must rewrite the capstone, addressing the problems identified by the readers. A grade of distinction represents exceptional work and is noted in a student’s transcript. 

Timeline Milestones

Meeting with Faculty Mentor

Early in the semester, you will meet with your faculty mentor to discuss your project and get feedback on the direction you are taking, get advice on promising literature that you might use, and help with any questions you may have about getting started. The goal is to ensure you are on the right track as you begin your capstone research.

Annotated Bibliography

As part of your capstone project, you will put together an annotated bibliography with 8-10 references: these will be primarily peer-reviewed journal articles, published reports, and perhaps books published on the subject. No more than one-third of your references should be review papers or books. As part of this assignment, you should identify at least three recent papers that describe core recent developments you intend to focus on in your work.  

In an annotated bibliography, the article citation is followed by a short description of the paper (see example below), highlighting the main points. In your annotation, you will also address why this paper will be useful as you write your capstone.

Note that, as your ideas develop about your capstone, you will undoubtedly cite additional papers, and some of those you included in the annotated bibliography may not ultimately be included in the final version. 


  1. Sarah R. Weiskopf, Madeleine A. Rubenstein, Lisa G. Crozier, Sarah Gaichas, Roger Griffis, Jessica E. Halofsky, Kimberly J.W. Hyde, Toni Lyn Morelli, Jeffrey T. Morisette, Roldan C. Muñoz, Andrew J. Pershing, David L. Peterson, Rajendra Poudel, Michelle D. Staudinger, Ariana E. Sutton-Grier, Laura Thompson, James Vose, Jake F. Weltzin, Kyle Powys Whyte. 2020. Climate change effects on biodiversity, ecosystems, ecosystem services, and natural resource management in the United States, Science of The Total Environment 733: 137782. 

This paper provides an assessment of the threat that climate change presents to biodiversity and ecosystems globally. The authors document changes seen in species (for example, changes in morphology, behavior, and range shifts) and in ecosystems (primary productivity, species interactions). This paper is relevant to my work because I am interested in reviewing the role of climate change on ecological systems, the species that make them up, and how this impacts the emergent properties of ecosystems. 

Detailed Outline

A detailed outline will show the scope of your capstone project by giving details on each section. The outline should indicate the major sections of the capstone and the flow of logic from one section to the next should be clear. Outlines are typically written in a hierarchical format designed to show your arguments, present some of the information you’ll use to support those arguments, and to track the relationships between ideas. They are typically about two or three pages in length. A one-page outline will not be detailed enough for this part of the assignment.

General Advice

  • As with most complex tasks, your capstone project is best tackled by dividing the work into smaller, more manageable parts. Plan accordingly! 

  • Develop the necessary expertise to critique the work. To write an effective research paper, you must read widely. Consult and cite relevant papers that flesh out the topic.

  • As you read the literature, think about both the strengths and weaknesses of each paper.

  • Be sure to clearly delineate each sub-section of your paper. Many students find subheadings to be useful (and readers definitely find them useful). Use informative headings wherever appropriate.

  • The effective use of language will be critical to your success. The 5000 - 6000 word limit means you must be concise. Organize the paper by preparing an effective outline; ideas and paragraphs should flow logically. Avoid wordiness and use care with sentence structure. Do not obscure your meaning with multiple clauses or overly complicated sentence structures.

  • Address several subdisciplines of environmental studies knowledge that are relevant to the topic of your paper. Make explicit links and connections with other areas.

  • We do not require everyone to use the same style (citations format). Citations must be in the format of a major journal in the discipline of your focal area. A standard journal paper citation includes authors, title, journal, volume, pages, and year, but other types of sources may require different or additional information. Once you identify a style commonly used in your focal area, you can use a style guide in Chalmers Library to guide your formatting. Consistency in citations formatting is critical.
  • Use a citation manager program, such as Zotero, to organize and format your citations. In addition, a citation manager program can help you to maintain notes about each article so you can search for key words and phrases across your source material. Here is a page from Chalmers Library providing more information about citation management tools, including some basic instructions for how to use Zotero. Don’t be afraid of the up-front time it will take you to learn a new program. You will save significantly more time using a citation manager than you will invest in learning it and entering citations.

  • Even after you have handed in your annotated bibliography, you should continue to annotate your source material. Once you have a few dozen articles to keep track of, it can be difficult to remember which one had the specific information or argument you needed. Searchable annotations in a citation management program help you to find that article again.

  • Your senior fall semester will get busy quickly, so it is important that you hit the ground running when you arrive back in the Fall. We recommend that you spend time over the summer choosing your topic and doing some initial investigation of the literature. Feel free to email members of the ENVS faculty for advice on choosing a topic.