Wheeler senior projects prepare students for the real world

Wheeler High School senior Wyatt McGowan, center, struggles to knot his necktie as he and classmates Austin Gray, left, and Christine Sehl chat before presenting their senior projects Friday, June 5, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Wheeler High School senior Wyatt McGowan, center, struggles to knot his necktie as he and classmates Austin Gray, left, and Christine Sehl chat before presenting their senior projects Friday, June 5, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

North Stonington — Spread among 15 different rooms Friday, seniors at Wheeler High School took one of their last steps toward graduation: presenting their senior projects.

The approximately 45 seniors covered topics from the physics of scuba diving to the challenges of training therapy dogs. Many were looking to see if the field they explored really is what they want to pursue after high school. Along the way, they wrote at least 20 journal pages, constructed research papers, compiled portfolios and prepared for Friday's presentations.

In room 121, senior Simon Lindsey explained to his audience the basics of a bill in the state legislature with the aid of a YouTube video, "I'm Just a Bill (Schoolhouse Rock!)."

Members of the audience — including staff, community and junior panelists as well as freshmen and sophomores — smiled before he continued talking about his experience with mentor and state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington.

He spent more than 25 hours with Urban, sometimes heading to Hartford to follow a bill on cadmium, a highly toxic heavy metal, in children's jewelry, other times learning about parts of her campaign process.

Lindsey said he follows politics regularly, but that "in real life and on the Internet it's a little different."

"Online, I could see someone yelling about something crazy," he said. "In reality, it's a bunch of people sitting in a room talking about cadmium. It changed my perspective."

He realized, too, that the campaign process is "more about being a member of the community" than showing off in flashy debates.

Lindsey, a member of the debate club who's played soccer and basketball and has run track, spontaneously decided to choose Urban as his mentor. He plans to study history at the University of Albany before going to law school.

Now, he said, he also can see himself as a lawmaker one day.

Claire Benedict, in her second year as an 11th-grade English teacher, said it's "wonderful" to see students' final products, especially because she helps get them started on their projects as juniors.

"A lot of these kids do some really incredible work, which is so cool to see — you don't necessarily see that always in your strict academic environment," Benedict said. "For them to show off their interests, their skills and something new they've learned and to see the excitement they have, it's very rewarding."

Jessica Cawley, who teaches UConn Early College Experience English and is senior project co-coordinator, said the benefits the students gain from the projects are endless.

Some of them use their portfolios to help them get college scholarships or jobs. Some use mentors and others they met along the way for job and college references. Some even get jobs following high school because of the connections they made.

And all of them who successfully complete the project, Cawley said, meet Wheeler High School's academic expectations: to read, write, problem-solve, critically think and speak effectively.

She said the senior projects, combined with Virtual High School courses Wheeler offers, "lend opportunity to something we never could offer here."

"We're a small school," Cawley said. "We figure out how to offer opportunities in other ways and then support those students as they go."

Another benefit is that the projects drive students to make their own phone calls, set up their own appointments and visit places solo, sometimes for the first time. Those experiences, she said, help prepare the seniors for what lies ahead of them.

Wheeler High School has been using this senior project model, which was inspired by one a North Providence high school used, for about nine years.

"I just think every school should be doing this," Cawley said. "I think this gives our seniors a leg up for the future, and it really teaches them how to make it out there in the world," she said.

l.boyle@theday.com

Twitter: @LindsayABoyle

Wheeler High School senior Madison Jones presents her senior project on running the 2014 Hartford Marathon to a panel of judges Friday, June 5, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Wheeler High School senior Madison Jones presents her senior project on running the 2014 Hartford Marathon to a panel of judges Friday, June 5, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The audience of staff, student and community panelists listen and evaluate as Wheeler High School senior James Sawyer, not pictured, presents his senior project on holistic medicine Friday, June 5, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The audience of staff, student and community panelists listen and evaluate as Wheeler High School senior James Sawyer, not pictured, presents his senior project on holistic medicine Friday, June 5, 2015. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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