School buildings around the country are closed but juniors and seniors are still eager to progress to graduation. Many districts have figured out a continuity plan. But where schools are struggling to meet learner needs or where students are finding remote learning unfulfilling, a capstone project could be part of the answer.

A capstone project is typically a culminating activity that synthesizes work in several domains and adds a real work perspective. It’s a big interdisciplinary project of student interest– potentially related to their postsecondary plans.

Because it looks like most states are encouraging high schools to do what they can to keep students on track to graduate and offering flexibility, a capstone project could be just the ticket.

A capstone project could be used to fulfill English, social studies, math, and/or science credits. If a student is investigating the data behind a big social challenge, the capstone project could count for social studies and statistics credits, add a report, a bibliography and a virtual presentation and you’ve got an English credit.

OK, the time is short, your district doesn’t require a capstone, your school doesn’t have a history of team-taught units and project-based learning—there are lots of reasons this won’t work. But there are thousands of disconnected juniors and seniors out there struggling with worksheets and online quizzes or just not attending online— learners that might need a different and better option.

Maybe a few of them could do a big integrated project in the next five weeks that would allow them an interesting, valuable, authentic learning experience and a chance to earn a couple of credits and finish the year with a product they’ll remember twenty years from now. Make an opt-in option and commit to supporting the learners willing and interested in a capstone project.

Community Connected Projects

Crisis or not, every high school student should have at least a couple of deep dive opportunities to take on an issue important to them and their community

Big integrated projects build agency–the knowledge and confidence that you can contribute. It teaches project management, research, problem-solving, writing, and presentation skills. Team projects develop collaboration skills and learners will have the opportunity to gain experience in remote working and the use of modern tools.

The Global Goals offer a great framing of project topics. They include ending poverty, decent work, reducing inequality, clean water, and clean energy–all timely topics.

Valuable Capstones

Building on work by Hanover Research and guidelines for High-Quality Project-Based Learning (developed with PBLWorks with support from PMIEF), the attributes of good capstone projects include:

  • Engaging students as active participants in an authentic learning experience;
  • Intellectual challenge that promotes higher-order thinking and problem-solving;
  • Emphasizes making connections across disciplines and steps in project management;
  • Involves teachers as advisors, community members as mentors; and may involve other students as teammates; and
  • Involves a public product and final presentation before a panel that evaluates the project.

Roaring Fork Schools in Western Colorado (and many in the EL Education network) have a great tradition of capstone projects. They define it as a “culminating academic and intellectual experience that: encourages students to think critically, solve challenging problems, and develop skills such as communication, public speaking, research, media, teamwork, planning, self-sufficiency, or goal setting; helps prepare students for college, modern careers, and adult life; and develops character and life skills.”

To help teachers develop a picture of what good project work looks like, Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer at EL Education, worked with Steve Seidel at Harvard to develop Models of Excellence. It’s a collection of quality project artifacts and includes hundreds of exemplary works.

A few examples of California schools with great capstone project traditions include

  • Senior engineering projects at Design Tech High School, Redwood City.
  • Senior Legacy Experience projects at Minarets High School, north of Fresno.
  • All learners in iLEAD Schools, north of Santa Clarita, have a culminating capstone experience that concludes each year in the form of a Showcase Of Learning.

If it feels too late to get learners started on big integrated projects this year, add them to the agenda for next year. After months of remote learning with lots of voice and choice, students will be ready for authentic community connected learning–and they are the most valuable experiences we can help them create.

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This blog was originally published on Forbes.

Getting Smart has launched the Getting Through series to support educators, leaders, and families on the path forward during such an uncertain time. This series will provide resources and inspiration as we face long term school closures, new learning environments, and address equity and access from a new lens. Whether you are just getting started with distance or online learning, or you’ve had plans in place and have the opportunity to share your work and guidance with others, there is a place for your voice and an opportunity to learn.

We’re going to get through this together, and we invite you to join us. Please email Editor@GettingSmart.com with any questions or content you’d like considered for publication. We also invite you to join the conversation and on social media using #GettingThrough.

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