A deep dive into a long-time graduation requirement at UAHS.
BY IRIS MARK ’23, MATTHEW DORON ’23 AND JAMES UNDERWOOD ’23
The Senior Capstone project has been a part of the UAHS curriculum for more than 25 years. To some students, it is an opportunity to explore their interests before applying them in the world of academia, but to most, it is merely one more hurdle to get over before they reach graduation.
Formerly called “Senior Thesis” and a component of senior English classes, Capstone was designed to serve as a student’s first introduction to scholarly writing.
“Probably about fifteen years ago we had some teachers interested in expanding [Senior Thesis] into what we currently call the Capstone project,” Sean Martin, an English and Capstone teacher at UAHS, said. “Partly because the students had already pushed us in that direction. A lot of students were doing their research paper, but they were also doing these community service projects or personal explorations in the arts,”
At this point, the new version of senior thesis was still a part of senior English classes, but as it developed into a larger project, it became harder to actually teach English curriculum content.
“Several years ago […] the senior English teachers went to Mr. Theado, and asked ‘Can we kick this out of senior English?’” Martin said. “At that time I was a senior English teacher and I didn’t want to see the project go away, so I agreed to take it on as another [course], and [for a] couple years I was the only one teaching Capstone.”
Each year, the Capstone project changes slightly in response to student feedback, but the goal remains the same: to provide an opportunity for students to explore their interests before college and introduce them to the kind of writing they will do in a college setting.
A large component of this is research.
“Capstone is sort of a research training course: learning how to use research to complement personal interest,” Capstone Coordinator Greg Varner said.
The Capstone contains three major steps for students. First, they complete a literature review, finding existing research on their topic. They do this based on an essential question and six subquestions they devise during and prior to research.
Next, students complete their own research on their topic. This culminates in the devised research report, wherein students report what they researched and what they found.
Finally, students prepare and deliver a TED-style speech before Capstone teachers and sometimes student spectators.
Only when all three of these steps are completed has a student completed their Capstone. Additionally, the extent to which they follow this process itself is included in whether they pass Capstone.
The structure of Capstone has raised concerns that it no longer provides adequate support or relevance to all students, as not all students are interested in pursuing the higher education that Capstone is meant to prepare them for.
“The current iteration is really research-heavy and diminishes the focus on the exploration piece a little bit, which is not something I’m all that comfortable with because some kids are much more interested in the applied research than the research paper,” Martin said. “I think our current iteration of Capstone is very challenging for [some] students and I think we’re asking them to do something that doesn’t apply to the life skills they’re going to need. So I would say that maybe there’s a mismatch between the current program and what we need for every student.”
Current seniors may remember Community School, but the majority of students are not familiar with what used to be another option to the traditional, college-preparatory learning that UAHS promotes.
Started by a team of teachers who wanted to provide an alternate pathway for students, Community School grew to be a center for engaged learning, emphasizing democratic decision making and holistic learning taught by English teacher Melissa Hasebrook and social studies teacher Rob Soccorsi.
“We saw kids who were really, really bright but they weren’t performing as well as they could, they weren’t engaged as deeply as they could be,” Hasebrook, one of the founders of Community School, said in describing the impetus for creating the program.
Designed to be interdisciplinary, Community School was also a place where small cohorts thrived inside the larger student body. At times, students would be able to vote on which topics to cover for a given quarter.
In its prime, Community School members were still required to complete a final senior project, known as Odyssey, but it differed greatly from Capstone, emphasizing hands-on experience rather than academic writing.
“[Odyssey] required a lot of responsibility but basically what we did was for the final nine weeks of a senior’s year, we canceled their classes. They were excused from all Community School classes, which gave them at least half a day, and if kids were smart and worked ahead, then they were excused from all classes, which most of our kids were. [Then] they would go pursue internships, [trying] to figure out ‘Is this what I want to do when I get to college next year?’” Hasebrook said.
Hasebrook said that during the course of Odyssey, students were connected and met periodically with a mentor who was familiar with the student’s field of interest.
“I had one student who wanted to learn more about fashion design and sewing. […] She knew she wasn’t going to do anything with clothing [in college], so she wanted to play around with it while she had that nine week chunk of time. She connected with a mentor who was teaching her how to sew, and she began to sew and picked up thrift store things to rework and turn them into high fashion pieces,” Hasebrook said.
During the COVID lockdown, and subsequent transition between buildings, Community School fell to the wayside, and brought Odyssey with it.
“When we first started planning the building, there was actually a part of the building that was slated to be for Community School, one of the common spaces,” Hasebrook said. “And then there were some issues.”
Community School has to date not made a return.
“We just lost it. It was just gone. [Because] it really [needed] more support than it got,” Hasebrook said.
Marie Fowler, a current Capstone student, is researching how circadian rhythms affect one’s daily functioning.
“I’m trying to find the scientific explanation as to why some people have different sleep cycles than others,” Fowler said. “Some people stay up really late and they still function fine the next day [because] they sleep in, [or] even some people will stay up and not sleep as long and still function completely fine, from what I’ve found. I think it’s really interesting to see the individual differences.”
Fowler said that the regimented Capstone process has helped guide her research.
“I like the templates we’ve been given and the reminders that we have in class. We even have a ‘forecast,’” she said.
This forecast gives guidance on what students should be doing in and out of class for every day in the Capstone semester.
“I think that it benefits people who are already an organized person, like myself.” Fowler said. that there are guidelines for sources them. Fowler further said that while she feels the structure of Capstone is open and encourages student creativity, the predetermined page count of the literature review and devised research paper may restrict students’ research.
“We were told that the literature review and the devised research paper together are going to be around 20 pages,” she said. “I think that having a page count in the back of your head when you think about what you’re researching makes you think, ‘I have to research a certain way.’”
Senior Meredith Hanosek, who completed her Capstone last semester on the psychology of serial killers, said that this major research aspect would help her in the future.
“It forced you to learn how to write long papers and use multiple sources and cite correctly, and cite interviews, which is something I’ve never done before,” she said.
Hanosek said that students should be given more one-on-one feedback and individualized support to navigate the Capstone process.
“I personally never got any feedback that I could see,” she said. “I just received a grade and had to ask why I got it.”
Fowler said she thinks an option to Capstone focusing on service projects would benefit many students, but she emphasizes that the decision should be a choice left to students.
“Personally, I like Capstone because it’s solely research-based and I think service projects are really beneficial for one’s learning,” she said. “I think people can learn a lot from doing service in their community, because they feel like they’re contributing to something, but I personally like the research aspect of it because I want to go into a career that involves a lot of research so I think that it really depends on the person.”
Fowler said that she views Capstone as a graduation requirement as “interesting” because “it’s some huge project that you do, just in senior year and it’s like if you don’t pass it, then you have to redo it…so I think it’s interesting that it’s a graduation requirement because not everyone wants to do that sort of class; not everyone wants to perform that sort of research and do a presentation that’s formed around a TED Talk.”
She also said that she thinks the Pass/Fail aspect of the course is unique.
“I [think] it’s interesting that it’s a Pass/Fail course, considering that it’s a graduation requirement, because you only need like a two out of four to pass the class, so I think that is interesting. [It] alters maybe how people do in the class, because you know, some people feel less motivated to actually do decent research and have a good presentation,” Fowler said.
The future of Capstone, while seemingly crucial to the UAHS curriculum, is open to change. The state of Ohio is considering graduation seals as an alternate pathway for students who are more interested in directly pursuing a career instead of attending college.
There is no timeline in place as to when graduation seals will be officially implemented and made available to students. However, Martin is confident that the Capstone project will continue to evolve in a way that is more applicable to all students.
“I think the state is trying to support [these] alternative pathways, [and] the seals students can gain from doing career exploration,” he said. “[I’d] like to see the Capstone project evolve in that way, and I think it will. We’ve had discussions about students who are not necessarily academically oriented [who] can still have the rich and valuable Capstone experience.”
Another possibility for future development in how Capstone works is finding community connections to help students in their Capstones.
“I would like to find more liaisons in the community,” Varner said, such that a student interested in a certain topic might have a go-to contact to help them complete research or at least get started.
Ultimately, this kind of hands-on learning is what makes Capstone special, Varner said, alongside cultivating passion for studying a topic among students.
“There’s a strange shift that happens in a school when kids move away from doing an assignment, and move into studying something, really wanting to learn it,” Varner said. “And Capstone provides that opportunity.”