Capstone Projects Crown a Year of Exploration

By graduation day, members of the Grosse Pointe Academy eighth grade class have formed many lasting memories. Field trips, Science Fair projects, musical and dramatic performances, awards for excellence, and the Baccalaureate service are among recollections students share and treasure.

While there are many special events and “lasts” for graduates, one new area of study at the Academy was created to make an especially profound and lasting personal impression on each graduate.

The Capstone Project is a year-long academic research program created and conducted by each student in eighth grade. Students choose their own topic of study, design the formal research program, conduct their own investigations, and report the results of their work. In addition, just before their graduation, the students share the results of their studies in a public forum with their peers, fellow Academy students, teachers and parents.

Students participating in the Capstone Project said the program helped strengthen their abilities to focus on one problem while developing a deeper understanding of their projects’ underlying questions. They also reported the process helped them form highly personal impressions that reflect their own unique interests.

An Original Idea

In past years, eighth graders were required to write a research project to prepare them for high school. Mrs. Bridgette Murray wanted to take it further.

“I knew if I could tap into their passions, we could learn and do so much more,” Mrs. Murray said. “With a bigger topic and a broader assignment, we want to make the point that the world is a bigger place, but they can have role in making it better.”

Mrs. Murray decided to formally explore ways of engaging young students in their own in-depth research projects. Thus, she conceived and coordinated the Capstone Project and applied and received a grant to research then institute the program at the Academy. She started in the fall of 2017 with an overview of several global issues to get everyone thinking.

Mrs. Murray designed a full year of activities to take a deep dive into a subject of the students’ choosing. The Capstone Project fit into their schedules and was in rotation every six days. Many students sought direction and feedback on their projects outside these times and Mrs. Murray was thrilled to help. While Murray served as coordinator, other teachers were available as experts and mentors through the process.

Capstone Project Components

  • Research Topic
  • Conduct Expert Interview
  • Create an Action Plan
  • Develop a Service Plan
  • Write a Research Paper

Soliciting Input from Others

While Capstone is an individual project, input was solicited and taken from other students as well. Once a subject was selected, each student presented it to class in a 2-minute “Shark Tank Forum” where each student answered questions and received feedback from their peers about their project.  Once the project was completed students did a dry run presentation for seventh graders before Capstone Night at the end of May for all parents.

Research from many sources

Research went beyond the library and internet as each student had to conduct an interview with an expert in the field. Students learned how to craft a professional email in order to set up the interviews, something Dr. Devorah Heitner, the school’s 2018 William Charles McMillan III lecturer, cited as a life skill lacked by many teenagers today in her book “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.” Each student then conducted the research interviews via email, phone or in person.

“What do I care about? And how can I make others care, too?”

As part of the pillar of GPA’s Doing Good for Others, Mrs. Murray added an action plan as a component.

“It’s not enough to find out there is a problem without asking them to do something about it,” Mrs. Murray said.

In order to raise awareness students could create websites, pamphlets and/or teach an in-school course about it. Topics selected by students and some the action steps and outreach included:

  • How to best accommodate the needs of students with disabilities at school where a student actually spent time in classroom for students with special needs.
  • Ocean Pollution study resulted in a student organizing a beach clean up in Puerto Rico over break.
  • A student looking to prevent mass euthanasia of stray dogs ended with a school-wide fundraiser for Detroit Dog Rescue.
  • Another student created special hen houses in order to preserve and increase a duck population.

The research often leads to areas beyond where one might expect at first. One Academy student wanted to understand the effects of gun violence on children and society in response to the murder of 17 students and teachers at a Florida high school. The result was the Middle School  “17 Acts of Kindness” service.

Through participation in the Capstone Project, students discovered and nurtured their natural inclination to learn about the issues and problems facing them and their friends, the community and nation, and their interconnected world in depth. The program also helped them discover how to apply their intellectual abilities, good works, and what they learn in school to help solve problems and accomplish their personal goals.

Academy educators also hoped students participating in the Capstone Project discovered the real joy that comes from gaining knowledge for its own sake. For all who care about students, that special memory is intended to last a lifetime.