Stowe Middle School students spend their time thinking about finding life on other planets, creating code interfaces, and what to do about nuclear waste, among other things.
“I think the government should find a solution” to clean up nuclear waste, said Maria Schaffer, 14, who’s in the eighth grade.
Middle school students got to release some of their creativity at an annual Expo Night earlier this month, when parents, classmates and community members got to look at presentations, hear student research and ask questions.
Personalized learning projects are mandated by the Vermont Agency of Education, but each individual school irons out how students go about their projects. Paige Emory, Stowe Middle School’s sixth-grade math and English teacher, handles the projects for that grade, and says Stowe’s projects are as student-centered as possible.
Kids pick their own topics, and the project’s difficulty increases as they move through the middle school years.
Sixth-graders have to speak for about five minutes to a small group of their peers; seventh-graders must make a persuasive speech on a topic they think is controversial in front of their whole grade.
Eighth-grade students have to create a trifold display about their research, present it at an expo with an artifact, which can be something they’ve made using their research or, if their project is focused on history, something from that time period.
One student this year brought in a helmet from the Vietnam War.
Maria Schaffer’s project this year centered around depression and the impacts of mental illness on the brain and society.
“For a long time, I’ve really been interested in the brain, and I’ve always focused on the biological side of it. This year, I wanted to do something that was more personal, so I wanted to learn about a disease that has a lot of effect on people’s behavior and society,” Maria said.
“I learned about a few different kinds of depression, and I learned how it affects your brain and how it affects your body and how it affects society. … I think that the parents I talked to after I presented seemed pretty interested in what I had to say. I had some in-depth conversations with some parents afterward,” Maria said.
She’s considering becoming a therapist.
Her classmate, Thomas Cooney, 13, taught himself Python, a high-level programming language, and produced a program that selected a number at random and let users guess what it was.
If they got it right, the program would tell them how many tries it took, and congratulate them by name, Thomas said.
“I’ve done basic coding for websites, like Scratch, since I was 8, but this was my first ever experience with Python,” he said.
“I’ve always had an interest in computer science and coding. I’m a nerd, as you would say. Python was always on my radar because I’ve seen it as a good coding language, and for my personalized learning project (PLP), I decided to do it.”
It took him about a week and a half to become proficient enough to craft the program for his project. He plans to work in software development when he’s older.
“While you might not like researching PLPs, typically the topic you choose is very interesting, and you will never regret it. That’s my takeaway from PLPs every year. I don’t really like doing them but I always enjoy presenting it to people who seem to enjoy what I’m showing them,” Thomas said.
For Alex Mitchell, 11, and his sixth-grade classmates, it was their first time making a personalized learning project.
He was excited, and decided since he likes video games, he’d do a project to learn how to code like a game developer.
He taught himself some elements of programming language C++, and while he hasn’t finished making a game yet, he says it’ll be like Pong.
“I started doing research on video game coding, where the two main types are Java and C++,” he said, but knowing that colleges are more enthusiastic about students who know C++, he focused there.
“I just got interested in C++ coding, and I thought it would be cool if I could just make something, maybe a little game,” Alex said.
His research included a chat with a coding professor at Community College of Vermont.
His classmate, Grace Taylor, 12, explored her interest in deep space.
“I’m really interested in science, and we were talking about space in class and I really wanted to know about other planets that weren’t in our solar system, so I decided to study it. … I think it’s really cool that there could be other life out there, and that we could be able to discover it and there could be another planet that we could live on.”
Grace says there are more than 10,000 discovered exoplanets — planets outside our home solar system — in the universe, and one other solar system is very similar to our own, with eight planets, but it’s uninhabitable, because temperatures there can reach 800 degrees Celsius.
“I’m really glad I did it. I learned a lot from it, and I hope that someday I’ll be able to use it in my job when I’m older,” she said.
Lydia Matson, 12, used her personalized learning project to learn more about Title IX, the federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that banned discrimination on the basis of sex.
“I wanted to learn how I could make change,” she said. “I was kind of studying experiences with women,” including scholarship disparities to universities. “I learned what I can do to impact that and help out.”
Emory says the learning projects help kids take more independent control and ownership of their own education.
“The kids are all engaged based on their own interest,” she said. “They’re doing research, they’re doing writing, they are preparing an oral presentation, having artifacts, learning what to put up on a screen or what not to put up on a screen. It’s so much learning in this one combined unit that is so engaging and powerful and it’s a ton of work, but that expo night, that opportunity to finally share what they have been working on for so long, it empowers their own learning and the kids walk away from the experience so proud of themselves. To see that tangible piece and to hear the feedback from authentic audiences is amazing,” Emory said.