Lessons for a Lifetime

Tower Projects put students in the driver’s seat of their education, allowing them to study subject matter that appeals to them. In the process, they learn more about themselves than any textbook could teach.

On paper, Jillian Diamond ’22 and Greta Hinke’s ’22 Tower Hour capstone project—creating and selling bracelets and stickers to benefit the Wisconsin Humane Society—was relatively straightforward. In reality though, it proved to be quite complicated. “We didn’t even know how to turn the sticker machine on at first,” said Diamond. Learning how to use the machine was just the start. Finalizing the different sticker images, sizes, and even adhesives was difficult, and they ran into further hurdles with their order form. “We made a Google form for students to place their orders, but some forgot to list their last names or their grades, so we had no idea who ordered what,” said Hinke. “But it taught us resiliency because we couldn’t just sit there and do nothing when we had a problem. We had to figure out new ways to accomplish our goals.”

Tower Projects, which began in 2016, are student-centered, experiential learning opportunities in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. USM is one of the only schools in the nation to offer an experiential capstone course in all three divisions. The projects enable students to pursue their own interests and solve real-world issues through an interdisciplinary, community-based approach. Students work on developing, researching, and creating their projects for an entire academic year, and then present their work to the USM community at the culmination of the course. Projects run the gamut, and have included furniture, websites, electronics, original plays and novels, research findings, and more.

The types of roadblocks Diamond and Hinke experienced are what make Tower Projects such a unique and valuable way to learn. When students get stuck, they are encouraged to seek out help, whether asking other students or teachers, searching online forums, or even contacting outside experts for help. “I don’t see myself as a teacher in this course; I see myself as a coach,” said Dr. Laurie Walczak, 8th grade American studies, English, and Tower Project teacher and Middle School English Department chair. “Kids will come up to me and say, ‘How do I get this part to fit?’ or ‘How do I program this Raspberry Pi?’ And usually I’ll have no idea. They have to seek other resources for help, which facilitates that individual responsibility for learning.”

Not only do students get to choose projects that interest them, they can pursue the projects at their own pace, resulting in a course that is entirely customized. “The kids who want to branch out have the freedom to do that, whereas the students who need more support can get that too,” said Laura Blanchet, 4th grade teacher.

“It’s very rewarding to see that everybody is successful and proud of their work, no matter what their level. It’s a celebration for all of them.” Added Upper School English Teacher Kate Gay, “There are different definitions of excellence for different students, that’s what’s important. We’re not looking at an outside measurement of success like with Advanced Placement courses, we’re taking back that control. I’ve heard so many times from parents, ‘Wow, I didn’t know my child was capable of that kind of work.’”

USM faculty members Laura Blanchet, Kate Gay, and Dr. Laurie Walczak are members of the National Capstone Consortium, which is a group of educators from across the country who work to integrate capstone education in schools. To learn more about USM’s Tower Projects, visit www.usmtowerproject.org.

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