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The Capstone

University Archives digs into the history of the ultimate unifying experience for generations of Cal Poly undergrads: the senior project.

Students construct the infamous geodesic dome in Poly CanyonBy Laura Sorvetti, University Archives

The senior project, the culminating capstone project for Cal Poly undergraduates, originated as a 5,000-word “senior thesis” in the 1941-42 school year, the same year Cal Poly began to confer baccalaureate degrees. By 1953 the thesis was renamed “senior project” to better reflect the focus on the nature of the assignment, which was heavily influenced by Learn by Doing and the project-system philosophy that has guided the university since 1901.

Since then, the senior project has remained a requirement for all undergraduate students. Students typically spend two quarters exploring an idea through design or construction, an experiment, self-guided study or research, a presentation, or a portfolio display or performance. They work individually or in teams, and often build on the research of previous students’ senior projects. Faculty advisors lend support and advice through the process. At the end, students have a tangible representation of their undergraduate experience to take with them as they embark on their next steps after graduation.

A student inspects his senior project

In addition to providing students with a culminating Learn by Doing experience, senior projects can provide many other benefits. Past projects have established businesses, led to patents, and contributed to reshaping industries and fields of scholarship.

In many ways, senior projects have left a tangible legacy at Cal Poly. From the experimental structures in Poly Canyon to bridges and spaces around campus, students’ senior projects have changed and improved the university’s landscape. The College Ambassadors, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance project, the Cal Poly Cat Program, and the university’s original Rec Center came to life in part through senior projects.

The Kennedy Library is the campus repository for submitted senior projects. The library manages more than 85,000 senior projects in physical and digital form, which are searchable through the library catalog and are available for researchers in the library and beyond. Since 2009, students who submit them to the library can add their senior projects to the online institutional repository Digital Commons. The library preserves the projects and makes them accessible to researchers at no cost. Researchers around the world have downloaded Cal Poly senior projects more than 8,800,000 times via Digital Commons.


Curious what senior projects look like today? Watch videos on six distinct projects from students putting their knowledge into action.