McDougle MS "Student Exploration Projects" Provide Choice for All
The topics for the 2020-2021 year long projects by McDougle Middle School (MMS) students might surprise you: "The Impact of Social Distancing on the Human Mind," "The Evolution of Barbie" and “Life Skills that aren’t Taught in School,” to name just a few of the dozens created this year. MMS Gifted Education Specialist, Catherine Sweat, introduced Student Exploration Projects, or SEP’s, last year, and this year, the number of students participating has doubled to 55.
Sweat is only in the second year of her current position, but she taught English Language Arts (ELA) for many years at MMS, so she knows the school community well. In designing and supervising the SEP initiative, she is joined by MMS Science Teacher, Christine Lippy and Social Studies Teacher, Jennifer West. “We wanted an outlet for students to be creative outside the classroom,” said Sweat.
Unlike Genius Hour programs at some CHCCS schools, which usually meet weekly, the SEP team meets with students every three weeks, after providing guidance on topic choices and sharing pacing timelines so students can gain a sense of what’s involved in year long project-based study. Some students worked in trios or pairs, others worked solo, and a few students produced two completely separate projects.
“We wanted an outlet for students to be creative outside the classroom,” said Sweat. “We let them know the sky’s the limit. We don’t want them to brush the surface but instead to look deeply.”
“In my role as gifted specialist, I really emphasize that these opportunities are open to all kids,” Sweat said. “Open to every single child, not just as a ‘gifted thing.’ And the kids will just surprise you. I love their topics!”
“SEP was an amazing experience for me!” said one participant last year. “It helped me learn more about the topic I researched. It was an AMAZING learning experience. I loved looking at others’ projects and learning about their topics.”
Another participant said, “SEP is a great opportunity to work with topics you love and make something you are proud of. Whether it’s a website, slideshow, video, document or something else entirely, you can be happy with what you did and inform others about topics you are passionate about.”
In their original vision, the SEP leaders planned to host an SEP Fair each spring, so students could share their actual projects live, answer questions and discuss their learning. Then the pandemic overturned that plan, as with so many others.
Instead, MMS social studies teachers will be sharing some of the projects in their classes in May, with an added recruitment aspect to enlist students to fill out interest forms for next year. “We want them to think about next year as they’re viewing this year’s projects,” said Sweat.
"It is so inspiring to see our students explore such diverse topics and be able to follow their own interests,” Lippy said. “Catherine has made SEP really meaningful for the kids and also worked in many lessons on how to research, write, present, etc. Being able to share the projects with their peers has given the SEP students a voice and feeling of accomplishment. We are really lucky our Social Studies teachers have arranged this time for the kids."
The format for creating the projects is wide open, and during the beginning of the school year, the SEP team demonstrates the many options for research and presentation. Many participants choose two or more ways to demonstrate their learning, from traditional essays to slide shows to videos and websites. Students created infographics, gathered data and designed and sent out surveys. One student is writing a novel called The Summer Quarantine. Some topics are very broad, like “Worldwide Problems,” and others are much more narrow, like “The History of US Coins through the Years” and “How Did Coronavirus Affect Soccer?”
The projects are not graded, so students learn the reinforcement of how self-directed learning can be its own reward.
Jennifer West said, “SEP is amazing because it gives students an opportunity to work on a project that is totally driven by their own interests and personal experiences. It's differentiation at it's finest because it allows students to choose the topic, the way they want to go about learning and, ultimately, the way they want to share what they have learned. Catherine Sweat has worked really hard to get this up and going and many kids have jumped right in...not even a worldwide pandemic could stop them. I have no doubt that this club will continue to grow in the future!”