"Senior projects start with the idea of independent learning," says Head of Upper School Jennifer Aitken. "The idea is to give our seniors a really in-depth, independent learning opportunity at the end of their senior year."
Taken under wing by Science Teacher Nancy Gelardi more than 20 years ago and now coordinated by History Teacher Rachel Donnelly, PCD's senior projects have flourished. "I worked hard over a 20-year period to build a solid, well-respected program and I think that can be seen in the number of excellent student placements, site supervisors offering our students summer employment opportunities, and the wonderful feedback I got from every placement," says Gelardi.
Now in its third decade, the program requires seniors to complete 70 hours of an internship at an off-campus location, report back to faculty mentors every week throughout the three-week assignment, write an exploration paper, and give a final presentation to the school community.
"The students use their senior projects really differently," says Aitken. "Some may use it as an opportunity to explore something that they started in high school and maybe haven't had the chance to experience at the depth they wanted. Others will use it as a stepping stone for career exploration. We give them a lot of freedom to determine what they want to do."
This freedom to explore individual passions and career goals is evident in the variety of projects chosen by the Class of 2021. Projects include Matthew Borden's chainsaw art, Kevin Godinez's real estate internship, Quincy Griffin's production of an album of beats, Matthew Howe's shadowing of an attorney, Olivia LeBeau's children's book, Emmett MacGregor's surfboard commercial, Jacob Rivet's school history research, Claire Shamgochian's video about rat body language, Evan Sucov's running shoe design, and Aidan Trendell's marine biology work.
The inspiration for these projects is equally diverse. The idea for LeBeau's children's book, for instance, came from her chiropractor. "The book is about a dachshund and how he gets adopted into his family," explains LeBeau. "I got the idea from my chiropractor when she was telling me about her family's dachshund, Zoom, and how there are never any books to read to her son about dachshunds."
For Shamgochian, her video about rat body language was appealing "because when I got my first two rats from Mainely Rat Rescue a month before my freshman year at PCD, I was absolutely clueless about them even though I had done hours of research. I feel like this project is me summarizing everything I have learned outside of the classroom over the last four years." Shamgochian is cutting together footage that she has shot of her own pets over the years, and enlisting the help of a Facebook rat group whose members have supplied her with photos and videos of any rat behaviors she's been unable to capture herself.
Sucov, who chose to research and design a shoe optimized for his running style, says, "It has actually been really fun researching something that I'm very passionate about." While the project can seem daunting at first, says Sucov, spacing out work and practicing time management is a big help.
Projects like these are "such a great opportunity for the students," says Aitken. "This is their opportunity to show us where their passions are."
While some students choose passion projects, others choose internships calibrated to help them gain experience and make informed decisions about possible careers. Godinez is one such student, choosing to intern with real estate agents from Residential Properties in Westport. "I've learned a lot about what it takes to be a real estate agent," says Godinez, "and I'm really enjoying it because it's something that I think I want to do in the future."
Trendell is using a similar approach to his project, electing to work with marine biologists at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Marine Fisheries. During his project, Trendell is assisting with the seasonal Coastal Trawl Survey and the placement of acoustic receivers.
"The Coastal Trawl Survey is used to take stock of the fish in Rhode Island Waters and possibly change regulations depending on the results of the survey," says Trendell. "I'm really enjoying it and it is a nice way to get an understanding of what it's like to have a career in marine biology. It's definitely allowing me to decide if I would like to study marine biology and work in this field."
As the years go by, it's apparent that the positive effects of the senior project program benefit not only the seniors, but the wider community as well. "Our students make such a great impact at the places they go that it's a nice way for us to spread out in the community," says Aitken. "It's an added bonus for us as a school."
The students see this too. "I actually went to a house closing yesterday and the woman buying the home mentioned that her daughters went to PCD as well," says Godinez. "It's cool to see how much PCD is connected to so many different kinds of people."