Graduation projects set some seniors on new paths

Margaret Hurt
Special to The Black Mountain News

Always good at math, Owen High senior Emma Thomas engaged in math research at the Governor’s School of North Carolina in Raleigh last summer. She loved doing the research, some of which prompted her to consider the relationship between math and music.

Back home in Black Mountain - and with the help of a mentor in Raleigh - she applied mathematical concepts to Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” Using calculus equations, she assigned musical notes to the colors in the famous painting. She presented the results of her work to a community review board recently in the form of a performance of the tune that sprang from the painting.

Thomas’ presentation of her graduation project was one of the many required of Owen High School’s 180 seniors, all of whom spend a semester this school year planning and completing their projects, as required of their English IV class.

Close by at the Community High School, 40 seniors will present their projects this year as well. Seniors at other Buncombe County high schools are involved in the same process with the same requirements, undertaken fall or spring semesters. At Owen High School, 80 students presented their oral projects Dec. 15 to review boards for the purposes of being graded.

For most students, the graduation project is the most comprehensive school assignment to date, often having benefits to the student beyond its completion. For some like Thomas, it teaches them to set and achieve long-term goals. Others gain a passion, skill or hobby. At the very least, the project teaches students the importance of accomplishing small steps that lead to realization of a larger goal.

Thomas, who hopes to work in math research during college and beyond, has already reaped the benefits of her project. “The left and right brain are working together, and I had wanted to separate them before,” she said.

The graduation project is meant to show that seniors have the skills, knowledge and conceptual thinking necessary to perform well when they leave high school. Students apply all the schooling they had to date - some 12 years at this point - to broaden their knowledge about self-selected topics. Topics must be complex and comprehensive enough to challenge them intellectually and creatively.

For their topics, Owen seniors Alden Gwyn and Sierra Gerringer chose what they view as a dying art - quilting. Using hand-stitching and a sewing machine, Gwyn learned to make a three- by three-foot quilt from her 87-year-old great-grandmother.

“I chose (her) as my mentor as a way to honor her and spend time with her, because she is so special to me,” Gwyn said. “She’s really proud that one of her grandchildren has taken an interest in quilting.”

Gwyn made several out-of-town trips to her great-grandmother’s house to learn and work on the quilt. The project taught her patience.

“I learned how important the process of preparing well is and (the importance of) not diving in without a good plan,” she said. She learned that she needed to be flexible when plans change unavoidably. She hopes to continue quilting and to sell the quilts.

Gerringer has always loved crafts. Visiting a quilt show at the WNC Agricultural Center, she realized the pride quilters take in their work. She wanted to learn the art in part to help preserve the tradition. She shadowed her mentor, Donna Fisher, a Ridgecrest resident.

Fisher taught her how to make a quilt step by step, from doing the math on a calculator to planning the project on paper to selecting fabric to using a sewing machine to complete it.

“I learned to be patient and to take my time and not rush it,” said Gerringer, who plans to continue quilting as a hobby. The service aspect of her project included making and donating blankets to the national Project Linus, a nonprofit organization that provides blankets to children in need.

The extensive graduation project has a service component. It also includes a research-based essay, a minimum of 15 hours with a project mentor/expert on the topic and a product (quilts in Gwyn and Gerringer’s cases), as well a portfolio and oral presentation before a review board.

The product can be anything that is an extension of the student’s research. It could be the performance of a skill, such as learning to play a musical instrument or designing and building a piece of furniture. It could be completing an internship to learn about a profession.

Oral presentations are eight to 10 minutes, followed by a brief question-and-answer session.

“Usually there is a lot of complaining and stress stemming from this requirement,” said Andi Stewart, a longtime English IV teacher at Owen. The teachers guide the students through the planning and implementation process and help them stay on track for various deadlines.

Stewart surveys her students at the end of the semester. “With the project behind them, almost 100 percent of students respond they are glad they pursued their topic,” Stewart said. “Many say it is the most meaningful part of their high school experience, even though it was very challenging.”

Stewart herself believes in the value of the graduation project. She likes seeing students learning to interact with adults during the completion of their work.

“I have watched students struggle with English literature, but when they get to take apart the mechanics of a car, they may find a true passion and become very engaged and excited about learning,” she said.

If you are interested in volunteering for the May presentations, contact Owen High at 686-3852.