Students Pursue Passions Through Capstone Projects

While most educators associate Capstone experiences with college-level coursework, USM students across all three divisions presented an impressive array of Tower Projects this spring based on their own passions and interests.

The idea, initiated by USM’s Strategic Plan and spurred by a 2015 visit to the Capstone Consortium at the Summer Summit, held at the Thacher School in Ojai, Calif. last summer, was to create and administer student-centered, teacher-mentored, and school-supported experiential learning opportunities inspired by the passion and creativity of participating USM students. As a result of a USM Think Big development grant, four teachers—Laura Blanchet from Lower School; Laurie Walczak from Middle School; and Kate Gay and Rebecca Schwartz from Upper School—attended the Summit and spearheaded the development of the program at USM, which is uniquely offered to students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grade.

“By the time we left the Summit, we knew exactly what we wanted to do,” Schwartz said. “Our team already had a plan in place for all three levels that we were psyched about by the time we arrived back on campus.”

The group outlined several key project components that were important to incorporate across all divisions. While the overall presentation approach varied slightly by division, the central elements of free choice, documented research, mentorship, reflection, and a final public exhibition allowed students from each grade level to engage in the Capstone experience.

Lower School students presented their Tower Projects during an exhibition evening on April 26, where they presented on their topics of interest to members of the USM community. The focus for 4th-grade students was to practice and develop key skills while pursuing topics of passion and excitement.

Students engaged with both on and off-campus mentors on their projects in subject areas that ranged from creating robots and other physical items, to websites, creative stories, and original artwork. Many students also incorporated service elements into their projects, opting to raise awareness and money for causes such as the Children’s Hospital, the Wisconsin Humane Society, and the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, among others.

Throughout the course of their projects, students honed their time management, problem-solving, communication, and presentation skills as they prepared for their exhibitions. By the end of their Capstone experiences, students displayed a breadth and scope of knowledge in their topic areas well beyond their years.

“Our students worked hard to be taken seriously as experts in their chosen fields,” Blanchet said. “From mentors to parents and administrators, many remarked that the poise and level of knowledge from presenting students was exceptional. The kids were bursting with pride after their exhibitions.”

More than 20 8th-grade students pursued extremely diverse Tower Projects as individuals, tandems, and groups of three, with their work culminating with presentations to the USM community on May 3.

Students worked on semester or year-long projects of their own design, connected to in-school and out-of-school mentors, shared research and conclusions, and presented their work at a mid-term EdCafe and a year-end roundtable assembly.

Modeled after Google’s “Genius Hour” projects that encouraged employees to set aside time each week to examine, develop, and pursue areas of particular interest, 8th-grade students completed projects that ranged from the creation of headphones, do-it-yourself furniture, drones, and apparel lines, to idea-based projects that included ways to support Milwaukee veterans, help Lower School students better transition to Middle School, and educate the community on vegan culture.

“We saw our students really shine and showcase skills that we might not have otherwise seen in the classroom,” Walczak said.

Upper School students followed similar parameters within their year-long Tower Projects, culminating with the delivery of a 30-minute “TED Talk” to an audience of USM community members on April 18.

Students executed college-level research work in collaboration with expert mentors in subject areas that explored complex topics and issues in the worlds of science, education, music, and culture.

“The beauty of this program is that each student is stretched and challenged,” Gay said. “Students are motivated to dig deep because they care about the subject matter.”

While a few minor tweaks may be in order for the 2016-2017 program, USM’s inaugural Capstone projects were a big hit across all three divisions thanks to the passion, dedication, and effort exemplified by all participating faculty and staff members, outside mentors, and especially the students.

“The perseverance, resilience, and flexibility of participating students amazed us all., Blanchet said. “The way that the Tower Projects allow each student to truly learn and pursue what is important to them while also building their abilities to collaborate, problem-solve, and communicate with others is a strength of the program.”

After having the opportunity to view this year’s projects, expectations and interest levels are on the rise as the program is poised to grow in 2016-2017.

“As word gets out on these projects, I think that more and more students will be motivated to participate,” Gay said. “It’s harder than a class, but it’s also far more rewarding because students truly care about their projects, they drive them, and it’s authentic.”

Strategic Plan Capstone Committee

Thanks to the hard work of the Strategic Plan Capstone Committee, USM’s Tower Projects evolved from an idea to reality across all three divisions. A special thanks to the following faculty, staff and USM community members: Judy Clegg, Francine Eppelsheimer, Kate Gay (co-chair), Robert Juranitch, Laura Klein, Robin Miller, Tom Mussoline, Hannah Reimer, Rebecca Schwartz, Bonnie Seidel, Mimi Singer, Greg Smith, Kelley Sovol,  Patrick Tevlin, Laurie Walczak (co-chair), and Ben Zarwell.

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