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North Hills Monthly

Senior Graduation Projects Give Students a Sense of Purpose while Learning New Skills

Dec 31, 2019 11:31AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Photo courtesy Shady Side Academy

A senior graduation project is a way to apply skills, or learn new skills, outside of a traditional classroom setting that will be useful upon graduation. While Pennsylvania law does not mandate that seniors engage in a project as criteria for graduation, some area school districts, such as Seneca Valley, nonetheless implement that requirement.

Natalie Green is one of the English teachers at Seneca Valley High School who oversees these projects. “The graduation project is really project-based learning. The students propose what they want to do; they have to establish the purpose of the work, they plan that process, they follow through, and they troubleshoot any issues that come up. They are really the driving force behind their own projects,” she explained.

“We find that the students who really dig into their projects and pick things that they have a true connection with take ownership of that work and create something that they can be proud of,” added Green.

J.P. McFeeley is another Seneca teacher who oversees projects, and explained that they must fall into one of five pathways: career exploration; creating something in the arts; community service and fundraising; an engineering certification program for students who are STEM-oriented; and a catch-all category that encompasses self-development and provides an opportunity for students to guide their own learning.

Green said that the students are required to spend 20 hours on their projects outside of the school day, though many go beyond the minimum and put in 30 to 50 hours per project.

“Ultimately we want them to have a sense of independence and take pride in their own learning. When they take ownership of it and see that they can accomplish great things if they choose to, it gives them a sense of stepping out of their comfort zone,” she said.

Many of the seniors choose to do job shadowing, and some have initiated fundraisers to donate to local and national charities.

“One student worked with the head of food services to find solutions to get recyclable silverware because he wanted to find a way to make the school more ecologically sustainable,” said Green.

Another student worked to rename the district’s middle school the Ryan Gloyer Middle School in honor of a former student who passed away while on active duty. Still another created a charity called Close to My Heart to raise funds for a science lab at a Sri Lankan school, as well as helped develop a science curriculum and obtain lab supplies.

At the end of the year, the students present their projects in front of a review committee.

Green said that overall, the projects have had a positive impact on students; some have even continued with their work after graduation or followed a career trajectory that directly reflected the work they did on their projects.

At Shady Side Academy, senior projects are optional. Still, said Jen Roupe, the school’s director of communications, 35 of the 125 members of the SSA class of 2019 completed senior projects. She said that the purpose of these projects is to give students the chance to pursue a serious learning experience outside the traditional setting of the classroom during the final three weeks of the senior year.

The projects are designed by the student and can be completed on or off campus. “Interested students must prepare a written proposal and present it to the Senior Project Committee. They are required to find both an on-campus faculty sponsor to help with planning and a project advisor to supervise their activities,” said Roupe. Once approved, students must actively engage in their senior projects for at least 25 hours a week for three weeks in May.

“Then, in the week leading up to commencement, seniors who completed senior projects present their experiences to the school community at an open-house style event,” said Roupe.

“Students are encouraged to think about how this project relates to the greater good, their role in society and how they can contribute to their local community,” said Tara O’Brien, an economics instructor with the school and the supervisor of the Senior Project program. “They are allowed the freedom to pursue a passion project, or to learn more about a possible career path, or an organization within the Pittsburgh community.”

Some students performed volunteer hours or worked in support of an organization to help improve the community; many others engaged in job shadowing.

Projects and topics can run a wide gamut from writing and performing a musical, to EMT/trauma training, to job shadowing within various career sectors such as medicine or business. Students have also participated in virtual reality game design; designing and engineering a motorbike; volunteering with Hello Neighbor; neuroscience research; creating a video game on ridesharing; and an internship with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

While many of the projects directly benefit the community, seniors who work on a project often find that they build independence and enhance organizational skills. “One student noted last year that even when the project was over, she kept thinking about the EMTs she had worked with, and that they were still out there helping the community,” said O’Brien.

“These projects help students to think in a broader sense about what passions they want to explore and can help them to crystallize future goals or a possible plan of study in college,” she added.