The Power (and Passion) of the Senior Capstone Project  

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                           Photo by Ian Schneider

Overview

Last year I posted on the impact of connecting a school’s mission with the IB’s Extended Essay (see: Decade2020.com - The IB Diploma and a School’s Mission: How to Closely Join the Extended Essay to a School’s Priorities (While Building a Culture of Literacy). In it I argued that an extraordinary opportunity exists for IBD schools to provide students with options to choose topics that reflect a school’s mission, beliefs, and values, thus connecting the essay to a school’s pedagogical goals and ideological spirit.

Now I’d like to revisit that idea, but this time tying it to the Senior Capstone Project, a program that’s becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. and is beginning to pick up steam overseas. To my mind this project, when properly executed, connects to more than just a school’s vision. It also highlights the role of engagement and meaning in learning, exemplifying the power of passion to influence academic achievement.

Some Background

I’m now the founding Head of Secondary for a new school in Jeju, South Korea, St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju, that will follow the high school curriculum of its prestigious home school, St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont. https://www.stjacademy.org

St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont has an innovative Senior Capstone program that, although fundamentally different in execution than the Extended Essay, is similar in some key aspects: both include a rigorous research component, both have the ability to connect to a school’s mission, and both provide laser-like focus on learning.

Our goal is to adapt the Capstone to our new school. So I will actually have a chance to institute a program similar to the one I espoused in my post last year. In this essay I’d like to outline its advantages for student learning.

First, some information on the Senior Capstone and how it differs from the Extended Essay.

What is a Senior Capstone Project? The Glossary of Education Reform (http://edglossary.org/capstone-project/) describes it as:

…a culminating project, or senior exhibition, among many other terms, a capstone project is a multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating academic and intellectual experience for students, typically during their final year of high school or middle school, or at the end of an academic program or learning. For example, students may be asked to select a topic, profession, or social problem that interests them, conduct research on the subject, maintain a portfolio of findings or results, create a final product demonstrating their learning acquisition or conclusions (a paper, short film, or multimedia presentation, for example), and give an oral presentation on the project to a panel of teachers, experts, and community members who collectively evaluate its quality…. Capstone projects also tend to encourage students to connect their projects to community issues or problems.

Passion and Engagement

What’s powerful here is the transformation of a student’s passion into an action, research-based project that will potentially be of both individual and community value. This provides students with a unique opportunity to turn a topic that may have deep personal meaning into a practical application, a potent replication of the best that life offers us: a chance to change our world in ways that are personally meaningful.

In addition, and this is a somewhat different than the Extended Essay, students have the freedom and are actually encouraged to develop unique approaches in the presentation piece. This is a crucial part of the Capstone Project; using a variety of methods to demonstrate mastery, students are able to not only hone research skills, but also to show their abilities in different modes of rhetorical and visual presentation, showcasing what they’ve produced. For instance, a student putting together a project on fashion design might stage a mini fashion show, or a student interested in robotics might provide a demonstration of a robot he or she created.

The Senior Capstone and a School’s Vision

Aside from the personal aspect of the Capstone, like the Extended Essay it also provides an opportunity to infuse all learning from early years on up.

As I stated in my previous post:

So instead of delving into it in the 10th or 11th grade, middle school students will be introduced to the idea in the 6th grade offering required courses in research and writing, while elementary school teachers would be working to this end-point as well by integrating similar skills into their teaching and learning. It offers a palpable vision of where the school is heading. It gives a school a cogent, clear focus.

This culminating activity….includes the most essential set of skills for academic achievement as our students head off to university and eventually graduate school: the ability to research accurately, read deeply, write clearly, and present engagingly.

The point here is that by making this a requirement for all students, a school automatically becomes more focused on high-level academics. Teachers, for example, would be able to precisely articulate the specific goal and work backwards to develop programs and curriculum to support and achieve it. There would be no confusion as to where teaching and learning is heading. Parents will also be crystal clear on how a school wants to grow its students scholastically, and honestly, it would send a strong message to the outside community that a school wants to be even better academically.

Furthermore, this could be connected directly the mission and values with schools providing scholarships or other incentives for those students who propose innovative topics from these important domains. Thus, the final part of the plan is its association to a school’s priorities.

For example, at St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju, we’ll follow the mission of our home school, which is summed up in three words: “character, inquiry, community.” In this case the Capstone develops character through the choice of topic and its connection to altruistic ends. It embraces inquiry through its laser-like focus on skills like critical thinking and research, and it builds community through projects that connect students to local, national, and global issues and organizations.

Conclusion

The appeal of the Capstone is its facility to focus learning from an early point giving all educators and students a crystal-clear learning target. It also connects a school’s core values to practical, research based projects. But ultimately, its fundamental power is in its ability to engage students’ passion and encourage their personal quest for meaning.

 
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