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Senior Projects Put the ‘Cap’ on High School Careers

Wednesday, May 11, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Certainly every independent school requires its seniors to fulfill academic or other goals: complete four years of English and math, serve the community, and perhaps even work as an intern at a local business. Some schools also require students to participate in a senior project or other culminating activity before bestowing a diploma upon them. These capstones often give students the opportunity to explore a passion while taking them on a path of self-discovery at a pivotal moment in their young lives.

At St. George’s Independent School in Collierville, TN, all seniors are required to complete a senior project in order to graduate. “We ask students to consider something they are passionate about,” said Upper School Director Tom Morris. “They create experiential learning around their project.”

Students have selected a wide variety of subjects to explore, such as medicine, theater, marine biology, and horticulture. For example, this year, two students decided to build an organic garden on campus to grow vegetables for the dining hall. The garden is a permanent fixture on campus, with two junior students taking over the project next year. Another student explored race relations in Memphis and interviewed civic, business, and education leaders of various races around the city, then wrote a report about what he learned. 

All students have regular check-ins with the program director, Upper School English teacher Jamie Roszel, throughout the school year. They also write a 10-page paper about their experience and present their findings toward the end of their senior year. There are deadlines to be met for drafts of their papers in the months leading up to the presentation. Students receive either a Pass or a Pass with Distinction, for which they are recognized with honors at graduation.

“It’s great to see someone explore their own passions, some thing or a cause they care about,” Roszel said. “Creating college students is not all we do, and this is about not just knowing, but doing.”

Some students end up focusing their college studies on something they learned during their project, or they may go a completely different direction. For example, one student thought she wanted to be a pediatric ER nurse but after shadowing nurses at a local hospital, she determined that was not the career for her. “Students can take healthy risks, and there is failure that you can learn from,” Roszel said.

Emerson Waldorf School in Chapel Hill, NC, also requires its seniors to complete a final project for graduation. In the latter part of their junior year, students submit three ideas of their own creation for the faculty to review. Ultimately, the faculty try to select a project that will take a student out of his or her comfort zone, said faculty member Jessie Onuf-Rabius, who oversees the senior projects. “The best thing about the project is that they are studying what they want to study,” she said. “It’s a big step into independence and it’s a great experience in pushing them out of the nest in a safe way.”

Students begin their work during the summer before their senior year, acquiring both a faculty mentor and a mentor from the professional community. They work on their projects throughout the year, completing a worksheet each month to help keep them on task. They consult with their mentors as needed. In early April, each student does a 20-minute presentation in front of the entire school community. Some students talk about their project while others show a Powerpoint or short film.

Past projects include conducting a student orchestra, 3D animation, publishing a book of poetry and art, and cooking. Projects are typically self-funded but there has not been any issue with costs or materials. The projects are not graded but students do receive feedback.

Passion is a key component of the Ensworth School (Nashville, TN) Capstone ProgramStudents in 11th grade may apply to the program with a proposal for an in-depth study of a particular academic field. Once approved, students perform independent research or participate in internships, workshops, or seminars. This year, nine of the 120 seniors at Ensworth were accepted as Capstone scholars. A team of five faculty members led by history teacher Tom Jackoboice reviewed all of the applications. 

Because of Ensworth’s proximity to and good relationship with Vanderbilt University, many students have been able to pursue research or internships there. Students’ fields of study have included chemistry, music production, visual arts, dance, fashion, theater, neurobiology, foreign language, and writing. “For a student to come up with something all in their own control is wonderful,” Jackoboice said.   

The school does not give funding to students, but they can use school equipment, such as a 3D printer, with approval. One question on the application form addresses finances for projects.

Students check in with their advisers every three weeks and receive a comment in their grades. They receive a quarter grade and a grade for the semester. Ten percent of their final semester grade comes from a 7-minute presentation they give at the Capstone Evening program, at which students present a slideshow. “They typically build off academic courses that they have had, but we also like to see students base their project on more than one class,” Jackoboice said. “They can really take their studies to the next level.”

At Episcopal High School of Baton Rouge, LA, the senior projects are several years in the making. During their sophomore year, students may apply for the Honors Diploma/Honors Thesis program. The process is fairly extensive, with students completing a self-evaluation and asking parents, teachers, and peers to write an evaluation as well.

“They discuss strengths and weaknesses in a very thoughtful way,” said Head of Upper School David Perkinson. Students also must obtain a recommendation from a faculty member and meet a B+ grade requirement. 

About 25 students participate in the program, which includes an honors seminar class in the junior year and an honors thesis class in the senior year. During that time, they delve into an area of passion, performing research and any hands-on work associated with their project. For example, one student tackled issues of body awareness and food insecurity, and led a day-long retreat for 6th and 7th grade girls that included professional speakers. Another student completed a documentary film project on faith.

Students write a thesis about their work, going through several drafts and ultimately defending it to their advisor, program director Katie Sutcliffe, teacher Scott Engholm, and one other teacher. After making revisions, students present their projects at the school’s LAUNCH Day, an event dedicated to seniors in the thesis program, robotics, and AP art. Thesis students receive a letter grade, an honors diploma at graduation, and perhaps the key to a new passion or even a career.

“This in-depth academic experience is powerful and formative for these kids,” Perkinson said. “It’s a great experience to find something you are passionate about and dig in. Many students build off their experience in college and beyond.”

The thesis program also provides an opportunity for students to work in their community; many have incorporated a service component in their project. “In recent years we have had a recharged emphasis on service learning on our campus,” Sutcliffe said. “In the seminar classes, students can do things for our community that change things for the better.”  

In addition to personal growth and exploration of a passion, senior capstone projects (required or not) give students a taste of college and professional life with in-depth research, writing, interactions with professionals in the community, and crafting of high-quality presentations. They provide long-term memories and perhaps even spark a passion that ultimately leads to a successful career. 

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