The senior project portal

Posters of the projects parade across two long walls inside the Sonoma Valley High School Pavilion. There are 295 of them. They are called senior projects, but they are also senior dreams. At least some of them. Others may be senior nightmares. And some, clearly, are perfunctory assignments, completed with reluctance and resignation because they frame the portal through which graduating seniors have to pass to receive the coveted diploma.

This year’s poster subjects ranged from fitness and martial arts (at least 10), various car projects (10), firefighting (3), to hip hop dancing (1), teaching meditation to children (1), fly fishing (2) and teaching pottery to children in grief (1).

Working with a teacher advisor and an adult mentor, each student chooses a topic, researches it, prepares a paper, a poster and a portfolio containing 10 elements, including a log of the time invested. They then prepare, practice and deliver a 20-minute presentation to a panel of adult judges who rate their performance.

Students are supposed to study something they’re truly interested in, with career and/or educational value, and they have to invest at least 20 hours in the project. Some fail to hit that mark, many go way beyond it and most, undoubtedly, wander around in the wilderness for a while trying to find their bearings.

The range of senior project topics is always intriguing. In addition to those listed above, this year’s topics included the application of false fingernails, abalone diving, writing a novel, constructing a pizza oven and socializing feral cats.

The projects inspire a fair amount of student grief and not a little negative opinion, some of which percolated this year through the halls and beyond the confines of campus. Complaints were voiced about timing of the requisite essays, consequences of incomplete projects and, whether, in fact, the projects are worth the trouble, time and effort required to create them.

Similar discussions take place, no doubt, in high schools coast-to-coast because senior projects have become an established educational standard, an interdisciplinary experiment in self-directed learning and, it appears, an industry.

Seniorproject.net, a not-for-profit, heavily copyrighted program managed by the Partnership for Dynamic Learning (P4DL), offers a variety of services to help schools set up and manage senior project programs. P4DL is the outgrowth of a for-profit Oregon company that created trainings and support services for senior project programs nationwide. The University of North Carolina Greensboro then purchased the program and eventually licensed it to P4DL. There are now more than 1,000 high schools across the country utilizing P4DL senior projects, at a typical start-up cost of $5,350 for a school with 300 graduating seniors, and $3,600 each year thereafter. SVHS does not use the service, but no senior program is without significant cost.

Is it worth it?

We think so. Students learn practical skills they can’t always find in the classroom, including research, time management, public speaking, self-motivation and coherent writing. And the presentations we’ve witnessed were actually inspiring, reinforcing our faith that SVHS seniors are acquiring the skills they’ll need for successful futures.