A Q&A with capstone adviser Greg Varner discussing the changes to capstone due to COVID-19.
By Ben Rigney-Carroll, ’21.
Q: What is your role in the group of staff members managing the capstone project this year?
A: I am serving as Capstone Coordinator, which is a role that allows me to both teach the course and to work with the Capstone faculty as we deliver and develop the course to best serve students. I will be working with the high school faculty and our community to help develop the presentation protocols so that our students have the best possible opportunity to showcase their Capstone experiences.
Q: How long have you been involved with Capstone?
A: I taught “Senior Thesis” years ago as part of senior English classes. That program has evolved quite a bit over the past several years. I taught the official “Capstone” course last year (the first year it was required as a semester course for students) and am continuing with the current iteration of the course.
Q: Has COVID-19 had any effect on the way that students go about Capstone or the expectations of the project?
A: When we went to lockdown last semester, students had to develop new approaches to do devised, first-hand research while still addressing pandemic protocols. It was encouraging to watch the inventive way that many students shifted their approach. Fall Capstone students have the advantage of being able to enter the project with social distancing concerns in mind, so from the start, many of them will develop research plans that are viable and safe ways to move successfully through the project.
Q: How many staff members are working with students on capstone projects this year? Are there any teachers that are new to the team?
A: This year there are eight teachers working together with the counselors and Mrs. Mox to develop a broadly-supported delivery of the course as part of in-school instruction. There are some students who are pursuing the same Capstone course through the Online Academy. Two of these teachers are returning to Capstone this year. The others are enthusiastic about joining the team to support our seniors. The teachers on the Capstone faculty are committed to offering consistent content and expectations for the course, while encouraging students to be inventive in their content and in devising their own personal research paths. The expanded community will mean we have more input on what works well and, perhaps, areas that would benefit from further development.
Q: Do you foresee any difficulties with any parts of the capstone project due to COVID-19?
A: COVID-19 has an effect on the “how” of what we do (e.g. online delivery or virtual presentations), but the “what” of what Capstone invited students to do remains the same. In some ways, the early online delivery of the course has created greater freedom for students to spend extended time with their formal research, which is better than having to stop because the bell rang.
Q: How will presentations and field studies be conducted this semester with so many restrictions on student gathering and use of the Upper Arlington High School building?
A: We are currently working on this. Our goal is that we affirm the work the students have done with an authentic, public presentation. Initial plans would involve the presentation groups that once met in classrooms to meet in Zoom sessions. The benefit of this is that student mentors and family members can join the presentation from all over the country and Upper Arlington has a broader opportunity to showcase student learning.
Q: Are there any parts of capstone that will benefit from the changes that come from distanced/hybrid learning and the restrictions posed by COVID-19?
A: As suggested [before], there is a benefit to a freer context for research. It’s always frustrating for a student to be finding research but have to stop because it’s time to switch classes. The longer class sessions and bigger breaks between sessions seem to be supporting a more expedient research process.
Q: If a student is struggling with capstone for reasons related to COVID-19, or just in general, what is the best way for them to get help with the project and stay on track?
A: We have worked hard to develop a strong resource collection for the Capstone experience on Canvas. Students are able to return to their Capstone course for all prompts, rubrics and overview videos when they need clarification about the various components of the project. We have developed more academic lab time where students are working with a faculty member available to them. And Mrs. Deal has availed herself to directly meet with students for research support. Students who use the resources to maintain their focus are finding that a daunting project is really quite manageable.
Q: Are you nervous to see the products that come out of this semester from the capstone program? Do you feel that the projects done this semester will hold up to the accomplishments of students in the past?
A: Students have every opportunity to do authentic research about topics that they find personally relevant. I regularly share with students that the toughest thing about the project is “you have to think.” By design, the project is centered on the student, which can be intimidating. But the project is also carefully scaffolded so that each student who tracks with the process of the project, is well positioned to succeed. I’m not nervous at all. I do think that there is an important evolution happening that is challenging students to think more poignantly about what it is that they are researching. Some of the projects students have pursued before now have to be reimagined as students are challenged to articulate their research focus.
Q: Is there anything else about the project or this semester that you would like to add?
A: I have [had] enough time with the project to say without hesitation that this course magnifies student learning by developing fluency with essential research skills. Those who lean fully into the course will have a strong advantage moving into college level research work. But the course is about more than doing research. It very much is designed to give students the opportunity to see that their voices matter—that, as they join the conversation about their topic, they develop a sense of authority that should bolster their confidence while expanding the understanding of those who get to learn from them.