Spring 2012

What makes an effective skyscraper? What are the elements of H.P. Lovecraft’s works that make them significant? How has reggae music evolved in the past 40 years? What makes a dog treat both nutritious and pleasing to dogs? What puts home computer users’ privacy at risk? These are just a handful of the questions explored during Senior Project presentations in May, the culmination of a yearlong independent project completed by all seniors.
Senior Project is a capstone to students’ learning at Innovation Academy. “It offers students an opportunity to explore in depth a subject that they are passionate about while also offering them an opportunity to apply the skills they have developed throughout their high school careers in terms of research, writing, application, and presentation,” says Shannon Morocco, a high school history teacher and the coordinator for Senior Project.
Students begin their senior year by identifying a topic they are interested in learning more about and developing a central question that will guide their independent research. Students then need to find an expert to work with—someone who is knowledgeable about the topic they are studying and who can provide insight and feedback.
David Smith, who teaches both history and a Senior Project class at the high school, loves watching relationships and connections form between students and individuals outside of Innovation Academy. “The observations and comments of these outside professionals were glowing, and were a testament to the effort, independence, and maturity of our students. Many were compared to college level seniors in their poise, and ability to effectively communicate the scope and details of their projects with richness, humor, and coherence,” he says.
Throughout the year, students maintain blogs that they update with reflections on their progress. After completing extensive research, they develop an Applied Piece, or an authentic application of their research. At the end of the process, students present what they have learned and created in a 30-minute public presentation.
“Senior Project is a bridge. It asks students to become active in their own growth, and leads them outward from the compulsory structures of the school to the freedom and responsibility of society. If students believe that education is compulsory, and lacks connection to the real world, Senior Project gives them the freedom to wonder, ask, discover, and ultimately create something authentic and meaningful,” says Smith. Many seniors said that this was what they loved most about Senior Project—the opportunity to pursue something they are passionate about, to learn to ask questions and seek out resources, and to do something that mattered with what they had learned.
“At its best, Senior Project is an opportunity to find one’s path or calling in life. Marge Piercy’s poem ‘To Be of Use’ comes to mind: How can you use your talents and strengths to improve yourself, overcome challenges, solve problems, and make the world a better place?” Smith says.
As you will see in the student profiles that follow, Senior Project offered many seniors the opportunity to do just that.
Shannon Comer: What can sea glass that washes up on the oceans’ beaches tell us about the culture of the North Shore?
Since she was a young child, Shannon Comer has looked forward to visiting family members who live near the ocean in Gloucester, MA. Each time she visits, they take a trip to the beach, looking for sea glass and sea pottery. “I always knew that I loved collecting sea glass, but I never really understood the historical aspect behind it. It seemed like a perfect fit to base my project off of the historical significance of sea glass along the North Shore,” she says.
In order to find her expert, Comer contacted Richard LaMotte, the author of Pure Sea Glass: Discovering Nature’s Vanishing Gems. Even though he lives in Maryland, he agreed to work with her on the project. “It was such an honor to have him as an expert,” Comer says.
Comer always wondered why pieces of sea glass are cloudy and difficult to see through. As she studied the scientific aspects of sea glass, she discovered the answer. “Hydration is the process where the lime and soda in the glass is leached out by the constant contact with water, which leaves variable pitting on the surface of the glass and causes the surface to look a bit frosty,” she explains.
Comer also studied what sea glass can teach us about history. “I learned all about the culture of the North Shore through simple pieces of sea glass. Being able to identify each piece of sea glass in my collection was key to understanding what the North Shore was like 100+ years ago. Just from one small shard of glass, people can dive into their hometown’s culture without even knowing it!”
For her applied piece, Comer created a book about the historical, scientific, and aesthetic aspects of sea glass. “I am definitely most proud of my applied piece. I really got to see my hard work pay off and now I can bring my book with me wherever I go,” she says.
Comer continues to enjoy searching for sea glass, especially now that she knows what she’s looking at. “The calming effects of the ocean around you while you collect is such a great experience, and it actually enhances sea glass hunting for me. When it is a beautiful day outside, I automatically think of how great it would be if I could spend some time at the beach sea glass hunting.”
Sarah Landy: What is the best way for caregivers of loved ones with dementia to cope with the disability?
Through Innovation Academy’s internship program, Sarah Landy volunteered at D’Youville Senior Care in Lowell, MA this year. Her work with patients in the Dementia Care Unit inspired her Senior Project. She wanted to learn more about the disorder affecting the residents, and how it impacts their family members and caregivers.
During her project, Landy was in contact with Deborah Zaitchik-Samet, a doctor from Massachusetts General Hospital. She also met with Maria Maskaluk, the program director at Community Family Inc., an adult day health center in Lowell. The requirement to work with an expert provided Landy with resources and information, and also pushed her to make connections with people she didn’t know. “I learned how to reach out to people outside of the community for help,” she says.
Landy credits Senior Project with helping her figure out what she wants to study in college. “I was not sure what I wanted to do after I graduated from high school, but now I know that I want to study human service work with people who have dementia.”
The most rewarding aspect of her Senior Project, says Landy, was getting to work with the people at D’Youville who had dementia. “I am very proud of the work I did at the internship. I am so grateful that I got to spend time with these people just to make their lives a little brighter. I got to comfort people who were scared. I never thought of myself as a very strong person, but when I was there I was forced to be. All of the residents I interacted with really gave me a lot of strength to take charge of what I want to do with my life” she says.
Gustav Peeterman: What does string theory mean?
Gustav Peeterman could talk to you for hours about String Theory. “In its most basic form, String Theory postulates that all of the base particles in the universe are made of strings and that the frequency that the string vibrates at decides the properties of the particle,” he explains.
As part of his project, Peeterman also learned about the theories of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. “Quantum Mechanics consists of a series of equations that are used to predict the movements of subatomic particles,” he shares. “General Relativity is used to describe the force of gravity. General Relativity is mostly used when calculating gravity for very large and heavy things.”
Peeterman says that String Theory’s crowning achievement is that it allows Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity to work together. Before it was developed, whenever Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity were used in conjunction they would produce infinite answers, which are meaningless.
“String theory fixes this problem by setting a finite size for the base particles instead of using the one-dimensional points that were used before. This fixes the problem by making the scale of the particles large enough to no longer be affected by quantum jitters,” he says.
While Peeterman went into Senior Project in the fall knowing almost nothing about String Theory, by the spring, he was able to teach it to his peers in a lesson plan that he developed and presented for his Applied Piece. He wanted to share what he learned with his classmates, even though it was a challenge: “Since String theory is purely theoretical and very complicated, it was challenging to think of a way to present it that would be effective,” he says. Peeterman was able to create a lesson that pushed his peers to engage with the material and enabled them to understand the basic principles.
Peeterman says that Senior Project helped him develop the skills to work independently on a long-term project, which was an invaluable experience. “I was also really proud of the fact that I was able to research and understand a topic such as String by myself,” he says.
Erika Taylor: How does learning the correct pronunciation of a foreign language allow singers to have good diction?
Erika Taylor is a classical singer who has been taking voice lessons at Indian Hill Music school for three years. When deciding on a Senior Project topic, she thought about her senior voice recital coming up in April. She was struggling to learn the correct pronunciation for her foreign language pieces in Italian, French, German, and Spanish. She thought that the opportunity to study techniques for learning correct pronunciation would help her with her recital music.
Taylor’s enthusiasm for her topic was essential. “It is the longest school project I’ve ever worked on and I found that it takes a lot of self-motivation and a strong passion for your topic.”

During her research, Taylor learned that diction for singers does not have the same definition as diction for speakers.“Hundreds of years ago the definition used to be the same, but today they have two separate meanings,” she explains. “Diction for singers today means that the wording was well thought out and effective. For a speaker, it means the words were pronounced carefully and were easy to understand.”
Taylor devoted a lot of time to learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a system of individual symbols that represent each individual sound of all languages. Using the IPA, she was able to notate the pieces for her recital so that she could correctly pronounce the words, even though she didn’t fluently speak the languages.
Taylor says she benefited immensely from the guidance and knowledge of her expert, Marcie Stapp, a professor of voice at San Francisco Conservatory and the author of the book The Singer’s Guide to Languages. “I was very lucky to work with a person who I found is really an expert at her topic” she says.
Taylor is proud of how much she learned this year, and how confident she felt in front of an audience at her Senior Project presentation. “I am most proud that I received praise about the confident poise I had when presenting. I used to be incredibly shy and terrified of presentations freshman year, and now as a senior, presentations are so natural for me.”
Her mother, Yoko Taylor, credits the school with pushing students’ presentation skills. “I think the process of learning is so unique at our school because of all of the continuous practice and gradual increase in intensity of the presentations. I believe that IACS has structured its goal of developing strong presentation and research skills in a gradual way within a supportive community. As a parent, it has been amazing to watch our daughter bloom into a confident public speaker. This communication skill has been very effective during her college auditions, whether performing or interviewing,” Yoko Taylor says.
In the fall, Erika Taylor is heading to Boston Conservatory where she will be a classical vocal performance major. She believes that the research she completed for Senior Project will help her as she studies Italian, French and German, and takes classes on the International Phonetic Alphabet.