The Capstone Project

The MA in Environmental Resource Policy includes a capstone project during the final semester of the program. During the project, students engage in research and apply the multi-disciplinary knowledge they have acquired during their program of study to a real-world environmental or resource policy question. Students work in small teams on a project sponsored and mentored by an external client, such as a government agency or not-for-profit group. These projects result in a written report and a formal presentation of research results to both the external client and faculty.


  • Provide a real world problem identification and solution driven experience
  • Provide an opportunity to work collaboratively with other students and relevant members of the client agency
  • Integrate skills and knowledge gained from previous courses and experiences
  • Practice the full complement of communication skills, including written reports and oral presentations

Students' Role

The capstone team’s role is similar to that of an external consultant. Using specifications and guidance from an external agency or not-for-profit group, the team will clarify project goals and identify who on the team will be responsible for each assignment. The team will self-manage the project and the team members are free to choose a student manager or work as a group. The team will submit a final report to the client agency and to ENRP faculty by the end of the spring semester. All members of the team will be equally responsible for the success of the project. Each project will be graded and each team member will receive the same grade.

The Spring 2019 capstone course got underway in mid-January with three project teams, composed of four or five members each.

  • For the City of Alexandria, VA, students are studying ways that the city can better provide charging infrastructure for electric vehicles owned by both local residents and commuters who work in the city.  As a matter of policy, Alexandria would like to accommodate increasing number of EVs and is particularly interested in options for street-side charging and for charging infrastructure in multi-unit residential buildings.  The study will rely primarily on in-depth interviews with multiple stakeholders to identify impediments to expanding charging infrastructure. Student will then identify policy options for overcoming these impediments.
  • For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), students are investigating whether the yellow lance, a shellfish newly listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, has the potential to thrive in the Hawlings River in Maryland.  Doing so entails characterizing suitable yellow lance habitat and then assessing the degree to which portions of the Hawlings exhibit these characteristics.  The team will also characterize threats to the habitat posed by point-source pollutant discharges and by nonpoint sources as a function of land use and land cover in the watershed.  The study will entail two visits to the 10 km river to observe conditions and take water samples, as well as an economic and policy review.  The study’s results will be used by FWS in developing plans to protect the yellow lance.
  • For the United States National Arboretum, students are studying the impacts of an abandoned brick yard on water quality in Hickey Run, which flows north to south through the Arboretum before draining into the Anacostia River. Water quality and sediment data from up- and downstream locations will be studied, and potential contaminants at the site itself will be evaluated. The students will identify options for remediation which are expected to be complicated by the fact that the brickyard has been designated as an historic site under that National Historic Preservation Act. Given these constraints, the project will assess what options the Arboretum has to repurpose the brickyard so that it no longer poses a water quality hazard to Hickey Run.

In Spring 2018, there were four capstone projects completed, each composed of a three- or four-student team.

  • For the Environmental Defense Fund, students analyzed the uncertain climate impact of the rapidly increasing global trade in liquefied natural gas (LNG).  The project was motivated by several peer-reviewed studies indicating that methane emissions associated with the natural gas supply chain are a major cause for concern. The students studied the degree to which methane emissions from LNG exports from Australia, Qatar, and the U.S. undermine the climate commitments of Japan, China, and the E.U.  The team created a Monte Carlo simulation model to project potential methane and carbon dioxide emissions associated with the LNG life-cycle out to 2030 and concluded that LNG’s climate impact is likely lower than coal, but significantly higher than traditional natural gas.
  • For the Western Slope Conservation Center, students assessed land use policies for animal feeding operations (AFOs) in Western Colorado. Students conducted case studies of five Colorado counties to assess the degree to which AFOs might threaten surface water quality and developed options for addressing these potential water quality impacts with local land use policies.  Doing so also entailed a study of existing state and Federal regulations to manage environmental risks posed by AFOs. The students concluded their work with a series of recommendations for updates to the Master Plan for Delta County.
  • For the District of Columbia’s Department of Energy and Environment, students studied options for increasing participation in DC’s RiverSmart Rooftops Rebate Program, which is intended to improve building energy efficiency and reduce stormwater runoff.  The project combined interviews with roofing companies, property owners, developers, and other stakeholders to better understand impediments to and incentives for participation in the program. The study also used Geographical Information Systems (GIS) tools to identify candidates for program participation in locations with the highest potential to better protect DC’s waterways.  The students developed five specific recommendations to strength the program.
  • For the World Resources Institute, students investigated corporate transparency initiatives, environmental reporting, and civil society engagement in the context of mining in developing countries.  In particular, the project studied the degree to which corporate transparency initiatives undertaken by phosphate mining companies in Tunisia and Morocco and by gold mining companies in Mongolia had potentially enhanced citizen engagement around water pollution issues.  The project included a literature review and one-on-one interviews with stakeholders in each location.

In Spring 2017, there were four capstone projects completed, each composed of a four-student team.

  • For the World Wildlife Fund, students helped to evaluate and extend WWF’s River Basin Report Cards.  These Report Cards are intended to engage local stakeholders in a comprehensive assessment of conditions that affect the health of river basins surrounding, for example, the Mekong River and the Orinoco River.  Students studied the use of report card methodologies in other environmental areas, as well as in other sectors, and recommended potential improvements in the WWF program.
  • For Oceana, students studied strategies for conserving shark populations around the world in order to inform shark conservation policies in the United States.  With detailed case studies of five countries, students identified a menu of potential approaches, and assessed the strengths and weaknesses of each.  They also considered country-specific economic and cultural factors that may foster or impede the success of shark conservation efforts.
  • For the District of Columbia’s Department of Energy & Environment, students helped the DC government maximize the sustainability and resiliency of its investments in transportation infrastructure.  In particular, students compared the costs and benefits of investing in “green” infrastructure to investing in “business-as-usual” infrastructure, as well as investigated whether existing standards can guide such investments.  Administrative feasibility and environmental justice considerations were also studied.
  • Focused on the City of Baltimore, students in this capstone project investigated how to expand urban agriculture – not in community gardens, but on multi-acre plots.  As the City’s population (and housing stock) has shrunk, more land has become available for farming.  The team focused on how variations in land tenure rules can affect the willingness of farmers to make long-term commitments to work certain plots.  The team investigated similar programs in other cities, in order to identify “lessons learned.”

In Spring 2016, the ENRP students worked on three different capstone projects:

  • Big Bend National Park; This park in Texas is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  ENRP students assessed how the Park might designate zones within the Park in ways that foster sustainable development while also achieving preservation, research, and education objectives.  The students spent spring break at Big Bend interviewing Park officials and local stakeholders, and used Geospatial Information System (GIS) tools to identify alternative options for zonation.
  • Natural Resources Defense Council; This group of ENRP students investigated the degree to which oil and gas development on National Conservation Lands may have an adverse effect on nearby National Parks.  Making extensive use of GIS tools, the group has identified which Parks may be affected, and prepared case studies of Mesa Verde and Black Canyon National Parks.
  • D.C. Department of Energy & Environment; This team of ENRP students created a framework for the development of community resilience hubs in disadvantaged neighborhoods and then used the framework to conduct a pilot evaluation in one such neighborhood.  These hubs are intended to serve communities during extreme weather events (such as high heat and flooding), with access to renewable energy and backup generation.

In Spring 2015, 10 students worked on three different capstone projects:

  • National Park Service; these four students assessed issues related to erosion control in Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC and provided site-specific recommendations.
  • Southeastern Wind Coalition; the group of three students examined various offshore wind development models across several Southeastern states to determine the ability of the models to encourage offshore wind development.
  • Conservation International; the group completed a climate vulnerability assessment for coastal areas in the Philippines and provided recommendations for the development of mangrove restoration and rehabilitation projects for climate change adaptation.



Students in the class of 2014 applied their skills and knowledge to two different capstone projects:

  • District Columbia Department of the Environment, Recommendations for the Design and Implementation of a Bottle Bill
    A top priority of the DDOE is cleaning up the Anacostia River in D.C.  One potential way to lessen trash in the river is with a bottle deposit bill.  Students researched bottle deposit bills throughout the U.S. to identify successful practices, as well as practices that may undermine success.  Students then evaluated this nation-wide experience in the specific context of conditions in the District.  Finally, students made recommendations for the design and implementation of a bottle deposit bill in D.C. 
  • Environmental Protection Agency, Greenhouse Gas Database: Implications for Policy
    A recent regulation requires facilities emitting more than 25,000 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalent to report their emissions to EPA.  For this project, students evaluated three years' worth of public data collected by this program. This project provided EPA policy makers with analyses of the regulated community, to include emission trends over time by industry and sub-industry, as well as socioeconomic characterization of the geographic areas in which emission occur.

Students in the class of 2013 participated in four different capstone projects:

  • Environment America, CAFOs and the Clean Water Act
    Researching the effects of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on water quality in seven different states. The study surveyed attitudes of different agricultural stakeholders around the country to gain perspectives on how CAFOs affect water quality.
  • Environment America, Quantifying the Value of the National Park System
    Engaging in a comprehensive valuation of the US National Park Service system, focusing on economic, environmental, educational, and recreational/tourism value. The project includes trips to national parks and ultimately shows that the parks return much more value than the resources required to maintain them.
  • Department of Energy, Uranium Contamination on the Wind River Reservation
    Auditing DOE's remediation and communications plan on a former uranium tailings pile on the Wind River Reservation in Riverton, WY. They traveled to the site and met with members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes to discuss comprehensive communications strategies and necessary environmental improvements for the site and the community.
  • Environmental Protection Agency, Toxic Release Inventory
    Identifying potential roadblocks for combining global data on toxic chemicals released into the environment. This project gauges the difficulty of tracking two major pollutants—mercury and benzene—through the world's six largest pollutant release and transfer registries.

Durango, Colorado

This capstone project took students to Durango, Colorado to inspect, research, and provide policy suggestions for managing 120 acres of land once used for uranium milling in the Bodo Canyon area. Working closely with the Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management and the town of Durango, students recommended a plan to install a photovoltaic energy system. After visiting Durango and meeting with town officials, ENRP students collaborated on a long report with DOE to lay out a plan for generating enough solar electricity to power 1,000 homes (~4.5 megawatts). DOE reached an agreement with a solar provider, American Capital Energy, in the fall of 2012 and plans to have the system up and running within the next 3 years.

EPA Toxic Release Inventory University Challenge

The two student groups that participated in EPA's TRI Challenge focused on:
  • Developing recommendations to make TRI data more meaningful and easier for communities to use and
  • Analyzing global TRI systems and identifying areas for cooperation.
Recommendations included identifying chemical classes and industry sectors to compare across countries with existing programs similar to TRI, as well as standard guidelines for countries to develop their own toxic programs.

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Students Describe their Capstone Projects

Nathan Cogswell, Class of 2015

"The capstone project is the crown jewel of the ENRP student experience. By allowing students to work with a client to tailor a compatible project, the capstone allows students to explore a significant environmental problem and forces them to incorporate all aspects of the ENRP curriculum - science, policy, law, economics - in a single research project. The capstone project piqued my interest and my passion for the issues around which I hope to build my career. "

   -Nathan Cogswell, ENRP Class of 2015

Ben Walsh, Class of 2012

“Our team was able to meet with the community and business leaders in Durango, CO, research the issue from our perspective, and then present those findings directly to the DOE. They then used the information we provided to inform their decisions. It was gratifying to see that the work we did mattered not only because this project will positively affect the residents of Durango, but because it is also a first of its kind project.”

   -Ben Walsh, ENRP Class of 2012

Jason Fraley, Class of 2010

“The capstone project was a great opportunity to work on a legitimate project that the Department of Energy really needed done. Although it did have its rough patches and sometimes the task seemed daunting, I feel I got an experience that shines on my resume and helped me grow academically and professionally.”

- Jason Fraley, ENRP Class of 2010

Jennifer Lynette, Class of 2010

“The capstone course was a fast-paced and rewarding adventure. I gained unique insights into the inner workings of different government agencies and was exposed to issues of serious environmental consequence. Our team traveled to the Navajo Nation for a meeting with leaders of the environmental justice movement. This learning experience was priceless and will help propel my professional career in future years.”

- Jennifer Lynette, ENRP Class of 2010

Seth Menter, Class of 2014

"The capstone delivered a unique real-world experience that carefully cultivated my skillset, allowing me to take the next step in my career. Having first-hand experience with the EPA provided an excellent transition into the environmental policy world."

-Seth Menter, ENRP Class of 2014

Anthony Cefali, Class of 2013

"The capstone provided a practical, professional forum for applying environmental knowledge. It also allowed us room for creativity and independence, invaluable skills for the work force."

-Anthony Cefali, ENRP Class of 2013