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New London — As a little kid, Gregory Smith loved playing with Legos and seeing how all the tiny pieces fit together neatly. Eventually, he stopped using the directions and relied only on the picture on the box.
"Then I started playing around with toys that moved and I would take them apart and put them back together," Smith, a senior at the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, said.
On Wednesday, Smith demonstrated the current phase of his lifelong interest in moving parts by building part of a car transmission - and explaining how it works - in front of an audience.
Smith, who lives in Scotland and plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Connecticut, is one of the more than 70 seniors who will give their senior capstone project presentations this week.
The presentations, which began Tuesday and run from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Friday, are the culmination of a required yearlong class designed to get the students to think not just about what their career goals are, but also what steps they will need to take to achieve those goals.
"We get them to think about what they want to do and then make them plan it," magnet high school Director Louis E. Allen said.
The seniors start working on their capstone projects in September by preparing their own resume. After they select a career field to focus on, the students have to develop a five-year plan for themselves.
The students must research the history of the career, the typical job requirements and how the field could change in the future. They also have to identify the applications of STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - in the career.
"Everything ties into STEM," Allen said. "Even if they don't want to be a scientist or an engineer, they'll be using STEM in their careers."
Over the course of the year, the students are also expected to seek out advice from professionals in their field of interest to get a better sense of what the job is really like.
Jason Edwards, whose project focused on a career in criminal justice, had an internship with the Norwich Police Department and got to observe an active shooter training drill and accompany an officer on a patrol shift.
"It gives them a research aspect, a practical application, and then they have to pull it all together into a presentation," Allen said. "Not to mention that they have to present it in front of a room full of people."
Each student has 20 minutes to make a slideshow presentation outlining their research to their teachers, school administrators, their peers and a panel of six judges.
"We're trying to create a real-life situation for them," Allen said. "This could be a job interview, or it could be a presentation to a client. This experience will be invaluable to these kids."
The panel of judges changes each day but is typically made up of a guidance counselor, a recent high school graduate, and people who work in STEM-related fields. Each judge is chosen for a specific reason, Allen said.
"We try to get a diverse group of panel members to pose different questions from different perspectives," he said. "Once the presentation is over, you're not off the hook. You still have to be prepared to answer tough questions from people who have real world experience."
Allen said some students arrive at the school as early as 6 a.m. on the day they are to present to practice in front of the empty auditorium. And although some may be nervous about presenting, Allen said, they all get something valuable out of it.
"This is one of our gifts to our seniors," Allen said. "To do what they did today, to get that experience, that's money in the bank. These are life skills that can be applied to everything."