High school seniors have another rite of passage their last year of school: the senior project.
Added as a statewide graduation requirement in Washington in 2008 – and in Idaho in 2013, although some districts have started them already – the culminating projects are designed to stretch a student’s abilities and make use of the knowledge they’ve gained during their K-12 education.
The subjects are as diverse as the students doing them: Dabbling in electrical engineering, hosting a tea party for underprivileged girls, donating art to help distraught children and exploring space travel are a sampling.
It’s a national trend, with some school districts having had the condition in place for more than two decades.
“It allows students to go deeper into some area of interest, then they use their skills in writing, research, thinking and presenting,” said Nancy Stowell, Spokane Public Schools’ superintendent.
The specifics vary, but generally a senior project consists of a research paper, time spent in the community with a mentor or job shadowing, a portfolio of how they went about completing the project, and a presentation. Some projects can take as long as a year to complete. Students work with a teacher or a counselor for guidance.
Some students faced deadlines for presenting their projects this month, although most schools offer multiple opportunities for those presentations.
“The project culminates everything the students have done through the years,” said Dan Parker, Rogers High School senior project coordinator. “It’s a way to put their education to use.”
It also helps students prepare for the future, whatever that may hold. “When they move on to college and careers, almost everything is project-based,” he said.
University High School art teacher Vicky Jensen, who advises a group of students, said knowing the students helps her guide them toward an area of interest or strength.
While some teens wait until the last minute to throw together an idea for the final assignment, others use it as a way to indulge in a hobby, test their abilities in a potential career, reach out to the community or demonstrate a life lesson learned.
“Oftentimes, they uncover something surprising about a field. Sometimes it’s awareness that it’s not a field they want to go into,” Jensen said. “Or they attach themselves a little more firmly to a field or a career.”
Helping students choose something that intrigues them makes the student feel they are not “jumping through hoops,” she added.
Parker and Jensen both think the senior projects are beneficial for students as they prepare for the future, but whether it will remain a graduation requirement is unknown.
“Obviously depending on the government and budgets, anything can change at any time,” Parker said. “But I see it sticking around.”
Rogers High School senior Kaysha Lybecker started planning her senior project last winter, but her motivation came from her childhood.
“I picked on one little girl,” the 17-year-old Spokane girl admitted. “This poor little girl, she didn’t know any better, and she sort of smelled bad.”
That same little girl showed up at Rogers during Lybecker’s junior year. “I actually got the opportunity to apologize to her,” Lybecker said. “She smiled and gave me a hug.”
So Lybecker decided to help other young girls avoid the attention of bullies with a tea party that featured an anti-bullying theme. Her plan came to fruition last month.
“I thought about doing something to teach them about hygiene, beauty, brushing their hair, brushing their teeth, washing their hands before dinner, etiquette – setting the tables, and they also learned about being a leader, not a follower, and being creative.”
About 70 elementary school girls from the Hillyard neighborhood attended the princess tea party in the Rogers High School commons, where each received a crown, and tutus were available to wear. The girls were treated to a limo ride and lunch and could also have their nails painted and their hair done.
“It was better than I thought it would be,” said Lybecker of the four-hour event. “Just to see all the little girls’ faces.”
Some students have no trouble coming up with a senior project topic.
High schools offer suggestions for those who may not have a project in mind, such as organize a multicultural dance performance, develop a portfolio of poems or short stories, choreograph and perform a dance, plan a wedding, write a novel, film and edit a documentary, landscape a yard or build an engine.
University High School senior Trevin Hiebert, of Spokane Valley, turned a Nintendo game system into an arcade game featuring Duck Hunt and Super Mario Brothers.
“I opened up the controller, and the circuitry seemed simple enough for me to hook it up to an arcade button,” Hiebert said. “I rewired the circuitry, built a casing or a big box (out of particle board) that would hold it all. I have the Nintendo inside it. An old TV we didn’t use anymore is the screen.”
The 17-year-old plans to go to school to become an electrical engineer.
“I have always fiddled with stuff, but this was pretty much my first electrical project,” he said. “I had a couple ideas for senior projects, and this one just seemed like it would be the most fun and most relative to a future career.”
Coeur d’Alene High School senior Nick Induni wants to major in physics in college; he’s interested in space travel.
For his senior project, he’s written a paper, “A Mission to Mars,” arguing for manned missions to the red planet. The 17-year-old is hoping to do a job shadow at the Center for Advanced Microelectronics and Biomolecular Research in Post Falls because it has a physics lab and makes parts for NASA.
Some of Induni’s arguments: A mission to Mars would create jobs as well as spillover technologies, including protecting people from radiation, because of the high amount of radiation on the planet. He also believes the United States has grown complacent about space travel.
Central Valley High School senior Josh Naasz used a hobby he’s had since he was 9 – snowboarding – for his project.
“I am going to bring in a snowboard and talk about its design, the bindings and what they do, and the boots. Then I am going to bring in a video of me and friends skiing and snowboarding. It will be, like, three minutes long,” he said.
He will also create a PowerPoint on the history of the sport.
“It started originally because basically it was surfers who wanted to surf on snow,” Naasz said. “The first board was called a Snurfer.”
North Central High School senior Kelsey Austin is doing artistic renderings of Winnie-the-Pooh to donate to Sally’s House, an emergency shelter for children who have been removed from dangerous homes and are awaiting foster care.
“I was going to donate my art in the first place, and I was talking to my pastor, and I thought that would be perfect because I knew people that worked down there,” Austin said. She’s using a different technique and color to draw each character. “The different techniques I’m doing, I’m not used to, and I am really challenging myself.”
Now that Washington is in its fourth year of the project requirement, Parker, at Rogers High School, says time has made a difference in the quality of submissions.
“When it started, there were some speed bumps,” he said. “This class, they’ve been thinking and hearing about it since their freshman year.”
Said Spokane Public Schools’ Stowell, “Kids have chosen amazing stuff.”