Senior Project 2.0

School News
February 6, 2018- Senior Project officially began at VMS in 1991, inspired in part by Senior Papers, a research and writing project undertaken by 12th graders to explore something of interest. This coming year, Senior Project will evolve once again into its next iteration. Among the biggest changes, it will become a graduation requirement for each senior and will take place over the course of a full semester where in previous years it was only a quarter. The hope is to create a capstone experience designed to engage students in rigorous, authentic learning over the course of their final semester at VMS.

“I have always been very interested in psychology, specifically how different each person’s reality can be,” wrote Sydney Sappenfield ‘17 in describing her Senior Project during May of last year. “I researched various sensory pathways which are used to create our realities, and looked into two mental disorders, schizophrenia and PTSD, which alter perceptions of reality. I created three art pieces (seen above) to represent individuals’ experiences of reality. My presentation will focus on the differences between people’s experiences and I hope that the audience will gain a greater respect for the experiences of those with mental disorders.”

And this is the essence of Senior Project—a spark from an interest or curiosity, a significant research component, a scholarly paper or creative work, a presentation to the community to share what one has learned, and ultimately a launchpad for one’s pursuits in college and life. Sydney, by the way, is currently a freshman at Johns Hopkins University majoring in neuroscience.

“We hope this will be a bridge for students between their education and their world,” notes Upper School Director, Maggie Pavlik who has been working with VMS faculty and outside experts to design the Senior Project curriculum. “We’re definitely raising the bar by placing a significant emphasis on making connections to the world outside the classroom so that the projects have relevance and meaning beyond the self and reflect real world standards.”

The core elements of Senior Project will stay the same. Students will delve deeply into a subject of their choosing. They will produce a scholarly, written reflection of their learning. They will create some form of project or product. And they will share their work with the community through public presentations at an all-day Academic Symposium in May. Students will also continue to work in collaboration with others, tapping the resources found in their peers and in the VMS faculty and staff, but the role of outside advisor will become much more significant.

“Through the VMS community, we are connected to a tremendous base of knowledge and expertise both locally and around the globe,” says Ms. Pavlik. “Our hope is that students will learn through authentic experience and engage with outside advisors as true mentors. Projects may include an internship, apprenticeship, shadow days, and in-depth interviews with experts.” Similarly, outside advisors will also help inform the standards by which the projects are graded to help ensure relevance and prepare students for their future in a way that traditional classes might not necessarily be able to.”

The emphasis on mentorship is partly a result of feedback from recent VMS graduates. Two years ago, VMS started a formal program of roundtable discussions with young alumni about their college experiences. When asked what skills have been the most valuable, many highlighted the importance of being able to guide one’s own education and cultivate relationships not only with teachers, but also experts outside the classroom. The key difference, most noted, is that at VMS, the teachers really make an effort to connect with the students and look out for them, but that in college, one must be more proactive and self-reliant.

“The heart of all this is project-based learning, which puts students in the driver's seat of their education and requires them to ask good questions.” notes Ms. Pavlik. For this reason, Senior Project will take the place of English and history classes during second semester. “The types of inquiry and expression, and the skills that they will use are the same—researching, filtering and validating information, thinking critically about a problem or question, and then synthesizing and expressing their own ideas about a subject of their choosing. In this way, we hope to create a true capstone experience that is an opportunity for practical application of everything they’ve learned in their time at VMS.”

Another enhancement to Senior Project is the creation of cohorts. Where in past years students worked more or less independently, next year, they will work in groups of 6-7 under the direction of a VMS Faculty member who will serve as cohort leader. Cohorts will meet much like a regular academic course, but the focus will be on process and building skills such as project management and collaboration, giving and receiving feedback, and problem solving strategies. Cohorts will be intentionally comprised of students engaged in different academic disciplines to help encourage interdisciplinary thinking. And similarly, teachers leading the groups will be a part of their own faculty cohorts that will provide a means to reflect on and refine curriculum, and to take part in professional development.

Preparation for next year’s Senior Project program is well underway and juniors are currently taking a Senior Project-focused ideation class with Ms. Pavlik as a part of the personal growth program. “We want to get the wheels turning now so that the students will be in a position to generate thoughtful and thorough proposals next year,” says Pavlik. Thus far, the students have been working to create personal interest inventories and discussing how to transform interest into inquiry. They’ve also been looking at a diverse range of proposals and projects from past years like the one seen above that was focused on fashion and included an internship in New York. The juniors will take a break from ideation during first semester of their senior year so that they can focus on college applications, but then they will hit the ground running during second semester of next year.

Over the past few months, Ms. Pavlik has been collaborating on program design with Dr. Amber Kim, an educational consultant and University of Colorado professor who has been working with the school on project based learning and differentiation. They’ve also been planning professional development for upper school faculty, which will be focused on project based learning in preparation for Senior Projects and will include opportunities for faculty to visit schools that are leaders in this area.

In addition to developing curriculum, they’ve also organized two pilot projects that are taking place this year with Owen Salamunovich and Michael Resnick. Owen, who has cultivated a passion for food working in a world-class kitchen, will take the lead and curate a multi-course culinary event. “I hope to learn about the various components—financial management, marketing techniques, and cooking—however, these are not what I hope to be my biggest takeaway,” says Salamunovich. “My main focus is to learn how to truly express myself through food. The upbringing I have had in the culinary industry has changed my notion of what food is. Food is not about perfectionism or the egotism of a single “chef,” but rather about nourishment, community, and fundamentally, love. I hope to provide a dinner with all of these through a single bite. That is the art of food.”

Michael, who is an accomplished competitive skier, is working with Vail’s adaptive program and training to get certification through PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America). His goals include gaining real-world teaching experience and producing a video to build awareness of adaptive skiing. “I want to give those who are disabled an opportunity to ski and bring them the same enjoyment I have experienced during my years of skiing,” notes Resnick. “I think this project will bring awareness to many about adaptive skiing, but will specifically help those who have a friend or family member with a disability.”

Through Senior Project and other authentic learning initiatives taking place at VMS, the ultimate goal is to help students make connections between their education, their interests, and their world. “I've heard so many students ask, ‘How will I ever use what I’m learning?’” says Pavlik. “I hope that this evolution of Senior Project and the project based learning scaffolding that we are creating in lower and middle school will help to answer that question.”