Senior projects help prepare students for life after high school

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin

Published: January 09. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – The second half of senior year is a time some students use to relax.

But Rebecca Bates, a senior at Crook County High School, plans to spend the next few months on an intensive project tracking a blue shark in the Pacific Ocean.

“I want to be a marine biologist, and so I figured learning about how they tag things and how far something goes in a certain amount of time will help my career a little,” she said. “I was tracking a (great) white shark, but it died, so at the moment I’m tracking a blue shark.”

The work is for her senior project, which has been a graduation requirement for Crook County High School students for several years. Now, administrators at the school have tweaked the senior projects to allow them to fulfill new statewide requirements that students start planning for life after graduation while they are still in high school.

Linda Pepper, a social studies and math teacher who oversees the senior project program, said the state now requires “evidence that they have explored life past high school.”

“How did they take what they learned in high school, the things they learned in their classes, how did they take it a step further?” Pepper asked.

In order to earn a high school diploma, the state added four career-related goals for the 2006-07 school year, said Leslie Waetjen, the School to Work coordinator. The Oregon Department of Education now requires that students “develop an education plan and build an education profile,” “demonstrate extended application through a collection of evidence,” “demonstrate career-related knowledge and skills” and “participate in career-related learning experiences.”

“A lot of high schools are scrambling and trying to figure out how they’re going to meet these goals,” Pepper said. “We’ve crossed off almost all four of those goals with the senior projects.”

Purpose-driven projects

Crook County has required seniors to produce a cumulative, independent project for about 13 years, Pepper said. But the new statewide requirements make it necessary for students to focus on a specifically career-related project, rather than an area of interest outside normal course work.

That is where Rebecca’s sharks come in to the picture. Her mother, Christine Field, said Rebecca loves “dolphins and critters of the ocean.” She hopes one day to attend Oregon State University to study marine biology.

Rebecca, 18, has been working with Sim Ogle, Crook County’s Web manager, to track the shark online using a resource called the Tagging of Pacific Pelagics project. Ogle also contacted people in charge of that project at Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, who donated some used equipment to help Rebecca with her final presentation in the spring.

“This is a tag for a tuna that we got from Stanford,” Rebecca said, holding up a long, thin bundle of wires in a clear plastic tube. “Some tags can tell the temperature of the water and how far they are down, or when they are ready to mate.”

Another senior, Rebekah Murphy, is using her project to explore a career as a lawyer. She will be meeting with Crook County District Attorney Gary Williams and helping to prepare court documents for an upcoming DUII case.

“I get to put in my word and what I think the charges should be,” Rebekah said. “I’ve wanted to be a lawyer for a long time.”

Williams said he has met with Rebekah three times already and has a fourth meeting scheduled for this week.

“It’s fun, she’s a very nice young lady and she seems to be bright and she seems to be motivated to learn about the prosecution of a criminal case, and so it’s fun to meet with her and discuss the law as it applies to this case,” Williams said.

Originally, Rebekah, 17, hoped to work with law enforcement officials on a criminal investigation to prepare for a future career as a prosecutor. When she turned in her proposal paper, the first step in the senior project process for every student, the teachers reviewing it had concerns about her safety. She then revised her project to work on a trial rather than an investigation.

Rebecca Bates also had some trouble with her proposal paper, which students submit in October. She said it took a while for teachers to “get” what exactly she wanted to do.

Lengthy process

After a student’s proposal is reviewed and accepted, he or she has to hand in an “Inquiry Essay” that studies an aspect of the project in February. For example, a student studying physical therapy wrote her inquiry paper on the effect of heavy backpacks. Finally, students write a reflection paper, due in late April, and give their final presentation in May.

If a student doesn’t pass the final presentation, he or she must meet with the principal for review. Waetjen said there are usually only four or five students out of a class of 160 that do not pass the first time.

Each student works with a community member outside the school as a mentor, as well as an academic adviser they meet with every day during a class called “Student Connections.” The final presentations are also judged by community members, not teachers.

“They’re not in this by themselves; they’ve got the advisory teacher, the mentor and their parents as part of this,” Pepper said.

Not all of the students, or their parents, are fans of the senior projects, Pepper said. But she added that the “vast majority” of students seem to take them seriously.

“I would say 60 or 70 percent really are trying to do the right thing,” she said. “Then there’s the group that they’re going to procrastinate until the last minute, and they’re going to make it harder than it needs to be.”

Opposing viewpoints

Kaylina Sangston, 18, who is working on a project about sports therapy and dance injuries, said she thinks the senior projects are “a good idea” if they help students learn about future careers. She added that most of her friends don’t take the requirement seriously.

“I don’t like it that it’s the senior year, and they just expect so much of us for the senior year, and I just think adding a senior project on is really hard,” Kaylina said.

Williams, the district attorney, said his two daughters both graduated from Crook County High School and completed senior projects in the last few years, and his wife often judges the final presentations. The projects help students gain skills like time management and individual responsibility that are important in the “adult world,” he said.

“My daughters were not vocally disagreeable with the concept, but they expressed some question as to the benefits of the project as time went along,” Williams said. “They made those kind of comments, but they never said, ‘This is a totally bad idea,’ or ‘I ain’t doing it,’ or anything like that. They knew that their mother and I strongly supported the concept of the projects.”

Waetjen said students also tell her that other schools don’t require the projects.

“I say, ‘Maybe it’s not called a senior project, but they have to fulfill these requirements,'” Waetjen said.

The biggest complaint from parents, Pepper said, is that they did not have to do senior projects, so they don’t think their children should.

Even if a student decides not to pursue a career in the same field as his or her project, Pepper said she thinks the work is worthwhile.

“Many of them will say, ‘That was one of the neatest things I’ve ever done,'” she said. “The point of this is investigating things you could do after college – it’s OK to find out you don’t want to do this.”

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