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Synthesis Project

Writing on whiteboard

Photo by Michael Kahan, Gentrification Whiteboard

A synthesis project allows you to put it all together

What is a Synthesis Project?

Urban Studies majors have the option to complete the capstone requirement with a traditional research paper, or with a “senior synthesis” project.  A senior synthesis project is one that:

  • Ties together the elements of your undergraduate education in a sophisticated, interdisciplinary, and sometimes unexpected way;
  • Leverages the mentorship of the Stanford faculty you’ve met throughout your undergraduate career;
  • Results in a final reflection that shares your intellectual experiences and insights with the rest of the Stanford community.

A synthesis project must demonstrate rigor, depth, and scope similar to a traditional project.

One important feature that may distinguish a synthesis project in Urban Studies from more traditional research is the audience. While traditional research projects address an academic readership, synthesis projects may be addressed to policy makers, a nonprofit agency, or a broader public.


  • It must demonstrate knowledge of existing work in the field in which the synthesis project is undertaken, and show that the project makes a distinctive contribution. Unlike a traditional research project, however, a synthesis need not focus on reviewing academic research in peer-reviewed journals.  It might, for instance, examine best practices among urban designers, or curricula currently in use in urban school districts.
  • It must include some aspect of original research or data collection, and analysis of that research.  Again, this might be identical to traditional academic research – conducting surveys, carrying out interviews, reading archival documents, or making field notes as an ethnographic participant-observer.  However, it might be more unconventional: it might include taking photographs or film footage, for instance, or making personal observations of some aspect of urban life.
  • It must result in a final product that includes a substantial written report or reflection. If the written report is the sole product, it should be approximately 20 to 30 pages for a project completed fall of senior year (longer if completed in spring). If the written report is accompanied by another product, such as a website, a film, or a set of plans, the written component might be somewhat shorter, with the length determined in consultation with the adviser.
  • It must be carried out under the direction of an adviser. In some cases, two advisers may be appropriate. At least one adviser must be Stanford faculty or academic staff.

There are no special classes for students completing a synthesis project. Like other capstone projects in Urban Studies, synthesis projects typically begin with a proposal that is formulated in Urban Studies 202A during the junior winter, and are completed during Urban Studies 203 in the senior fall.

A synthesis project may qualify for honors, provided the student meets the GPA minimums and other qualifications.  In these cases, a student typically writes a full research paper in Urban Studies 203 during the Fall Quarter, and spends winter and spring working on the less traditional components of the project under the guidance of an adviser.  A student whose synthesis project includes an artistic component may qualify for honors in the arts.


Research grants are available from Undergraduate Advising and Research to support synthesis projects. More information here

  • A student with an interest in urban planning and transportation visits existing light rail systems, interviews their senior staff, and studies local population projections and economic analyses. The student develops a proposal for a streetcar system in Oakland, including maps of the proposed routes and the projected economic impact of the line on the city’s finances.(View as pdf)
  • A student with an interest in architecture and historic preservation studies current theory and practice in the reuse of historic structures, then produces a report and a set of plans for the repurposing of a train station in Florence.
  • A student with an interest in urban and suburban aesthetics writes a paper reviewing the history of signage and its regulation on El Camino Real, and works closely with a professor of photography to create large-format photographic images of El Camino’s signs by night.
  • A student with an interest in environmental education reviews curricula in this field, and works with a mentor in the School of Education to create an original environmental education curriculum.