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Capstone Day: St. Johnsbury students present projects about an ice shanty, seaweed, parental addiction

A young woman stands at a podium giving a presentation.
Erica Heilman
/
For VPR
St. Johnsbury Academy senior Madison Wilson presents her Capstone project. She took her experience growing up in poverty in Vermont, and wrote fictional stories that reflected that experience.

Every year at St. Johnsbury Academy, all graduating seniors present Capstone projects to their classmates, their faculty and families and the community at large. Students choose topics of personal interest and develop research presentations on these subjects.

Independent producer Erica Heilman stopped in to see some of their work.

Here's St. Johnsbury Academy Headmaster, Dr. Sharon Howell.

Dr. Sharon Howell: "Let's salute each and every one of you for what you're about to do, because it is hard. And you're going to do it. And it's part of becoming an agent in your own life. And as much as we hope you'll learn from the process of creating and presenting a Capstone project, there's no question that what we will learn from you will blow us away."

For the last few years, while my son's been in high school here in St. Johnsbury, I've attended as many of these Capstone presentations as I can. They're a big deal. They involve months ,or even a full year, of research. And it's not just the kids who excel at academics, or kids who love to make presentations who are doing it. It's everyone.

Every last senior has to get up there and talk about something they care about, and worked hard on, and then answer questions from an audience of their peers, their teachers and their community.

After all the years of school, lab work, shop time, they're asked to use what they've learned to fix something. Find a problem, then do something about it.

Capstone Day is terrifying, and exhilarating. And maybe it sounds dramatic, but I always feel on Capstone Day that I'm witnessing kids stepping out of childhood and into whatever comes next. On the schedule, there were talks about stray animals in China, the importance of welding, impacts on children of parental addiction ... there was a talk called ‘Seaweed, our Savior’, which I can't believe I missed. So with my son's grudging permission, I walked around and talked with a few presenters.

"I was a little nervous, especially when you’re next in line, you’re kind of like ‘Man, here we go.’ But I felt confident. I was like, ‘I know what I'm doing. I’ve practiced this before.'"
Grafton Thompson, St. Johnsbury Academy

Erica: "So how do you feel?"

Grafton Thompson: "I feel good. I feel relieved you know? I finally got it over with. I was a little nervous, especially when you’re next in line, you’re kind of like ‘Man, here we go.’ But I felt confident. I was like, ‘I know what I'm doing. I’ve practiced this before.' I feel good."

Erica: "Tell me your name and the project."

Grafton Thompson: "My name is Grafton Thompson. My project was the bridge of Burlingame Field. It's down by the baseball and soccer field. The bridge does need to be replaced, just looking at it. You know, the first time I went across it, I looked at it and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I should be walking across that!’ So it actually started in my construction class. I asked my teacher, I was like, ‘You know, what can I do in construction for my Capstone? I'd love to do something to help the school.’ He brought up the bridge. And I was like, ‘That's wonderful! That's a great idea.’ Guys have done dugouts in the past, benches, bleachers, those types of small objects. Bridges? I've never even thought about that. You know, that's a great thing."

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This is Madison Flanagan.

Madison Flanagan: "I completed my research on this special kind of microscopic worm called C. elegans, and I investigated their response to pseudoephedrine, the stimulant drug that's active in cold medicines like Sudafed. So I just wanted to see their drug response, because it's often very similar to our own."

Erica: "How'd you arrive here?"

Madison Flanagan: "I've been interested in this kind of field of biology, particularly like cell biology for a very long time. And I really wanted to find out if research was the right field for me. So this Capstone in this experiment was really helpful in determining what I wanted to do in college and the rest of my life, really."

Erica: "Was it a yes or no?"

Madison Flanagan: "It's a yes! I really loved the research process."

"I love ice fishing, and my uncle had a shanty that was a little rough. So I fixed it up and we’re going to present it."
Christian Aldrich, St. Johnsbury Academy

I went down to the truck shop next. Someone was presenting his work on an old ‘77 British MG. Another kid was getting ready to talk about installing LED lights in his dad's tool store. And then there was Christian.

Christian Aldrich: "My name is Christian Aldrich, and my topic’s on ice fishing and an ice shanty display. It’s something I'm interested in. I love ice fishing, and my uncle had a shanty that was a little rough. So I fixed it up, and we’re going to present it."

Erica: "Where's it going to live? What lake or what body of water?"

Christian Aldrich: "Probably like Joe's Pond or Willoughby, somewhere close to here."

Erica: "And what did you use for materials?"

Christian Aldrich: "Just two-by-fours and stuff. We cut the two-by-fours in half to cut down on the weight. And we used an old truck bed cap for the roof."

Erica: "On the level of maybe one to 10, or maybe even one to 11, how nervous are you right now?"

Christian Aldrich: "Now I'm about a nine or a 10. I wasn't as prepared as I thought. But I mean, I just got to read from the slides and my script, and I should be fine."

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This is Madison Wilson. For her project, she took her experience growing up in poverty in Vermont, and wrote fictional stories that reflected that experience.

Madison Wilson: "I grew up low income in Vermont, and it's impacted me my entire life. There's never been a moment where I've been able to kind of detach from the title of having grown up within poverty in Vermont. And I do a summer camp called Upward Bound, which helps low-income college-bound high schoolers get into college without, you know, crushing student debt and everything.

"So growing up within poverty in Vermont has always been a big passion of mine, and helping to ease that struggle has always been something that I've wanted to do, but also I really enjoy writing. I've been writing my entire life. So I thought that this project would allow me to have like the best of both worlds and combine them.

"It was definitely difficult having to stand up there and say like, ‘Yes, I grew up low income’, because it definitely is something that is not talked about that much at all. Standing up in front of everybody and saying, ‘Yes, I am low-income, and I face these difficulties, and this is how it impacts me.’ I hope that it helps facilitate more conversations about growing up low income in Vermont and how that impacts you, and just the need for more opportunities and accessibility and to have these conversations in the first place."

"I grew up low-income in Vermont, and it's impacted me my entire life. There's never been a moment where I've been able to kind of detach from the title of having grown up within poverty in Vermont."
Madison Wilson, St. Johnsbury Academy

Brandon Liddick had also chosen to redesign that scary bridge down by the baseball field. I asked him what, in the end, he has learned from doing this Capstone project.

Brandon Liddick: "I think the biggest thing that I've taken away from it is just how important it is to connect with people that know more than you. There's a lot of professionals that are involved in the construction of a bridge. So being able, as a high school student, to contact individuals, and have them guide me, it's a really valuable experience to have to connect with a lot of different people and get multiple perspectives."

Erica: "Is there also a learning curve in reaching out to experts, to strangers, to grown-up strangers?"

Brandon Liddick: "Yes, absolutely. And I did four main interviews throughout the semester. And after each one, I learned something that I should ask the next person. I'm going to be going to school for electrical engineering. Even though it's different than this project, which is more civil engineering, it definitely exposed me to the engineering process and having to collaborate with multiple people."

By day’s end, we were all a little better informed about bridge construction, about weight training for baseball, and over-vaccination in pets. And of course, seaweed. Another senior class had mastered the Capstone challenge and was launched.

To all the high school seniors out there this spring, good luck and godspeed.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vprnet.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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