What is the MSE capstone?

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A student reviews capstone project materials.

Many students who are in the process of earning their bachelor’s or master’s degrees decide or are required to complete final projects. The most common forms for this undertaking are the thesis (or dissertation) and the capstone.

With a thesis, a student will typically prepare a lengthy written paper containing original research on a topic of interest. If accepted by the relevant academic department, the thesis allows an undergraduate to graduate with honors; for a master’s degree or Ph.D. candidate, the thesis is the final hurdle before receiving the distinction in question.

The capstone project is similar in its purpose, namely to demonstrate the student’s mastery of the subject at hand. However, its structure is much more flexible. Whereas the thesis has a rigid academic format, the capstone project can be anything from a mini-thesis accompanying a new engineering invention to an overview of results related to a novel lab research method.

All students seeking a master’s-level online engineering degree from the University of California, Riverside (UCR) must complete a capstone project. Let’s explore what Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) candidates at UCR can expect from the program’s capstone requirements.

Capstone projects at a glance: Their purpose and structure

A capstone is true to its name — it represents the culmination of a student’s studies throughout an academic program. Unlike a thesis, it can be a multifaceted undertaking, which provides some additional flexibility.

For example, instead of needing to commit potentially multiple years to the research and writing of a graduate-level thesis on top of other academic and personal commitments, an MSE student pursuing a capstone can often complete the project within the normal timeline of a master’s degree, and without needing to compile possibly hundreds of pages of text plus citations as in a dissertation. This is possible due to the course-based structure of the capstone.

Within the UCR MSE, the capstone project is divided across four one-credit courses throughout the program. It slots in alongside a quartet of core requirements and set of specialization classes, which will vary depending on the student’s selected field of study.

For example, for a student who enrolled at UCR and chose data science as a concentration, the curriculum would look as follows:

Core courses:

  • Engineering in the Global Environment
  • Introduction to Systems Engineering
  • Principles of Engineering Management
  • Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers

These courses provide a blend of background in both technical engineering concepts and managerial principles. They form the foundation of the MSE as a degree that transforms students into cross-functional managers who are well-versed in the effects of globalization on the engineering profession and capable of directing diverse and increasingly dispersed teams.

Specialization courses (any four of these):

  • Advanced Computer Vision
  • Application of Visualization in Data Science
  • Data Mining Techniques
  • Data Visualization and Big Data Tools
  • Foundations of Applied Machine Learning
  • Information Retrieval and Web Search
  • Machine Learning
  • Statistical Computing
  • Statistical Mining Methods

This specialization selection helps hone the specific skills necessary for becoming an expert in data science, serving as a superstructure on top of the foundation laid by the core courses. UCR MSE candidates have many options for their specializations; in addition to data science, there are mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, environmental engineering, materials at the nanoscale, chemical engineering, and bioengineering.

The capstone courses come after completion of the core and the specialization track. Each capstone class is worth one credit, for a total of four requirements for completion.

What does a capstone project look like?

Capstone projects vary considerably in subject, length and structure. In engineering, the capstone might be a detailed report on how a series of system tests turned out, or an actual working device, depending on the specialization in question and the interests of the student.

For example, a capstone could be designed around a new lateral flow device. The creation of this device as well as testing it and documenting the results would all be covered in the capstone courses and then culminate in a research paper. While much shorter than a typical dissertation, the paper would still contain an abstract, discussion of relevant background and literature, charts and figures, and a conclusion.

This pairing of real-world engineering and academic writing, on a smaller scale than a thesis, is typical of capstones in the field. The capstone route within the UCR MSE strikes the right balance between rigor and flexibility – students benefit from the time and effort they invest in addressing a significant research question, while still being able to finish their degrees relatively quickly.

Why the capstone works so well in the online MSE program

Pursuing a master’s degree is a significant commitment and one that can be especially challenging for working professionals who have to carve out time each week for coursework. A fully online program makes life much easier by not requiring any residencies or lengthy commutes and by enabling asynchronous work. In other words, students can learn at their own pace, and from where it’s most convenient for them.

The capstone project provides additional flexibility missing from many traditional on-campus master’s degree programs, which might require a thesis on top of residency, for an enormous and inflexible time commitment every week. The capstone-oriented UCR MSE can be finished in as few as 13 months, allowing current and aspiring engineering professionals to prepare for their careers post-graduation.

Application requirements are straightforward, including a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field and demonstrable experience. To learn more, visit the main program page and select one of the specialization options from the pull-down menu to answer a few questions and receive a free copy of the program brochure.


Recommended Readings:

What is an Online Master’s Degree Like?

5 engineering career paths of the future-UC Riverside



Capstone Project