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Riley Stephenson has enjoyed playing the marimba since his days at Evergreen Community Charter School. But he recently developed a deeper appreciation for his instrument when he built his own with the guidance of his graduation project mentor Steve Kemble. Over 52 hours, Stephenson built a two-octave marimba and then taught science lessons based on it to middle school students.

Meanwhile, Allen Bell, already an accomplished musician, chose to learn a new instrument, the guitar. Benjamin Warlick delved into the world of finance. Hannah Feinsilber explored food chemistry. And Ross Turman learned orchestration. All of this happened outside of the classroom, on the students’ own time.

All Buncombe County students are required complete a graduation project in their senior year. Fall graduation project presentations took place Monday, Dec. 19 at Owen High.

Graduation projects are encouraged but not required by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, which explains the purpose in its 2015 N.C. Graduation Project booklet as “a process facilitating high school students’ integration of research, writing and presentation skills with the knowledge they have obtained in high school to create a significant presentation before a community audience.”

The process involves a number of steps, overseen by 12th-grade English teachers, beginning with submitting a proposal within the first days of senior year. Each student must seek and then spend time with a qualified mentor, create a product and initiate a service learning component. They must compile a portfolio and formally present the project in front of a panel of judges. This uniquely self-initiated independent learning can provide critical preparation for college or work that follows graduation. Although teachers check on each step, students must complete them on their own, beginning with coming up with a subject that is completely new to them.

Equally meaningful, students engage with the community as individuals, having to seek out mentors and ask for instruction. Through service learning they become contributors to society. These experiences help them transition to a fulfilling adult role in the community.

Though the process is rigorous, most students report having a lot of fun learning something totally new and of their choosing.

“This graduation project allowed me to choose something that I am passionate about and go far beyond the perceptual stage of my high school curriculum in this area,” Stephenson said.

Current and past projects at Owen High have ranged from welding and cake decorating to photography, veterinary science and paranormal investigation. Last year, Emma Thomas converted the colors from paintings into RGB values and created songs, connecting art, music and math.

As for mentors? Scott Roy, a local mentor for two students, was impressed by the dedication they both showed throughout the project.

“When they have to focus on something for a whole semester, it set off light bulbs in a deeper way,” he said. Graduation projects take a lot of his time, but they’re worth it for the impressions they make on young adults who are about to launch into the world.

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