The Class Project Grows Up

By the time they’re seniors, your kids are way past the simple art projects and science fair creations of elementary school. Senior projects often look more like postgraduate undertakings — but a lot more fun.
Mentor High School’s student center is buzzing with the excitement of hundreds of 18-year-olds just hours from completing their final graduation requirement. Dressed in skirts and ironed khakis, they navigate narrow aisles, setting up trifold display boards bearing photographs, bulleted summaries and mementos from their last three weeks’ work.

Get through this, and it’s good-bye high school, hello freedom.

This is Mentor High School’s Senior Project Fair, the culmination of almost a month spent shadowing a professional, volunteering for an organization or working in independent study with a goal of capping off more than a decade of classroom study and putting their skills to use in the real world.
Paul Smetona
University School

Senior Project |
Built a 9-foot, radio-controlled scale replica of a French Cap 232 airplane
College Plans | Aerospace engineering, Case Western Reserve University
By the Numbers | Paul’s plane has a 104-inch wingspan, weighs 40 pounds, runs on a 10.5 horsepower motor and reaches speeds of up to 100 mph.Paul Smetona worked on his airplane for two years, spending more than 700 hours and $4,500 to complete it.

“We have really kept them encapsulated for the last 12 years,” says Donna Pugh Blevins, Mentor’s former director of senior projects. She initiated the program for the district in 1991. “Senior projects give them a broader sense of what people really do out there.”

For some, it’s a chance to try out the career they intend to pursue. For others, it’s a reason to tackle a personal goal they may never again have the time or resources to attempt. But for all of them, it’s a nudge out of the nest.

“Throughout their education, students learn what they ‘should,’ or what is chosen for them by teachers, administrators or some other authority,” says Linda Wohlever, Hathaway Brown’s faculty director of the StrnadFellowship program, which provides grants for selected students’ senior projects. “For once, they get a chance to choose what they will learn. The process is very empowering.”

While the implementation of senior projects has become widespread in Northeast Ohio, the structure varies among schools and districts. Students may be excused from classes, and even final exams — Orange High School permits four weeks, while some Cleveland Metropolitan Schools provide two days — to allow time to shadow or volunteer with a chosen organization. The end product may include a paper, daily log of activities, billboard display or PowerPoint presentation.

But the common thread? “It’s bringing the real world to them,” says University School math and business teacher Greg Malkin, “which they want so badly anyway.”

To call Paul Smetona’s undertaking a senior project hardly seems adequate. He dreamed of the idea as a kid, began working on it two years ago, and spent nearly 700 hours and $4,500 to complete it.

For Paul, designing and building this 9-foot plane from scratch went way beyond fulfilling a graduation requirement. Obsessed by aircraft from the age of 3 and an avid remote-controlled-plane hobbyist since he was 8, Paul tackled the project as an all-consuming life objective with the simple reward of being able to say “I did it.”

“A senior project’s a unique opportunity, when everyone else is still in school and you can get support from your school,” he says. “You have to think,If there’s something I’ve always wanted to do, I’m not going to be able to do it unless I do it now.”

While classmates were shadowing doctors and writing papers, Paul was in his garage at 3 a.m. with a jigsaw, a drill, sandpaper, glue and a hobby knife, crafting an exact scale replica of a French Cap 232 without any preformed parts. The plane made 20 flights before being retired to hang in the University School library.

“A lot of high school students have big ideas, but don’t have the perseverance to follow them through,” says Greg Malkin, who was Paul’s adviser for the project. “For a kid his age to conceive of something like this, a project of this scope, is pretty unusual.”

Not surprisingly, a senior project of this magnitude provided innumerable lessons that Paul will take into his college career this fall.

“It literally changed my entire brain,” he says. “I now see myself almost every day thinking of things in advance to see if it will work and how it will affect other things.”

Ayla Cash & Carly Simms
Orange High School

Senior Project |
  Created youth voter rally for Cuyahoga County Democratic Party
College Plans | Both are headed to The Ohio State University, Ayla for biology and political science with a minor in women’s studies, Carly for political science and English.
Rubbing Elbows | The pair got to meet Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and a host of local Democratic leaders, including county commissioners, judges and state representatives.
The culminating event of Ayla Cash and Carly Simms’ senior project started with a crisis.

They’d booked Orange High School’s varsity gym for a slate of 10 speakers —all leaders in the local Democratic Party — and about 50 young adults for a get-out-the-vote youth rally, but arrived just hours before the event to find the electricity had gone out.

With the clock ticking, Ayla and Carly managed to negotiate a new location elsewhere in the school, get the room set up and reroute attendees, successfully pulling off an event that included a meet-and-greet, political speeches and voter registration.

“Those types of things happen in the real world,” says Colleen Corrigan Day, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, which allowed Ayla and Carly to volunteer in its offices for four weeks. “Things fall through, but they stayed calm and were really thinking on their feet.”

For these lifelong Democratic loyalists (they both voted for Bill Clinton in their first-grade mock elections) the chance to work with the local Democratic leadership helped to clarify how politics might fit into their future careers.

“I learned that politics is really great, but it is really tough and really stressful,” says Ayla. “You have to watch everything you say, because there’s always a mic in front of you. It’s very hard to get things done, and I don’t know if that’s for me.”

That chance to try on a career for size is what makes senior projects so valuable, says Carly.

“There aren’t many other times when you can spend four weeks just focusing on something,” she says. “It’s a really good opportunity to rule out and decide what you want to study in college.”

Suzanne Mazhuvanchery
Hathaway Brown

Senior Project | Wrote a book tracing the cultural history and ancestry of her native Knanaya Catholic community in an attempt to link her heritage to the 10 lost tribes of Israel
College Plans | Biochemistry and molecular biology, Washington University, St. Louis
Senior Project Tip | “No one’s going to be behind you saying, ‘You need to do this,’ ” she says. “You develop the independence and motivation that you’ll need in college.”

On her 16th birthday, Suzanne Mazhuvanchery finally had the experience she’d been waiting for: the opportunity to dissect mouse hearts at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research

Institute. She’d been heading there weekly since she entered high school, assisting in preventive cardiology research. But there were age restrictions on certain work.

“I had to wait until I was 16 to do dissections in the lab, so that was my gift,” she says with a grin.

Suzanne has known since sixth grade that she wanted to be a cardiologist, but when it came time to choose a senior project, she opted for a topic a bit closer to her own heart.

The daughter of Indian immigrant parents, Bobby and Philomina Mazhuvanchery, Suzanne is part of the Knanaya Catholic community, a small sect of Judeo-Christians from Kerala, India, that number about 250,000 worldwide.

She undertook an ambitious project to document ancestral links between present-day Knanaya Catholics and the 10 lost tribes of Israel: a 1,600-year gap. She immersed herself in centuries-old documents and high-tech DNA databases, and interviewed the highest ranks of Knanaya clergy. Working in the archives of the Cleveland Public Library, Suzanne was even able to find books printed in the 1600s — “books so old that if I turned the page, they’d come out,” she says —that supported a link between Knanaya Catholics and the earliest Christians.

Her resulting 118-page book, The Justification of the Existence of the Knanaya Catholic Community, is part cultural and church history and part discourse on the need for youth to preserve heritage in a live-for-today American society.

“Growing up in the U.S., a lot of youth don’t carry on the traditions and don’t understand why they should,” she says. “They always hear adults saying how great it is and how they should cherish their culture. But I’m just like them, saying these things.”

At press time, Suzanne was in the process of having her book printed for distribution to the nearly 1,000 families who will attend the Knanaya Catholic Congress of North America in July.

“I show enthusiasm and concern for my community,” she says, “that [church elders] don’t often see from our youth.”

Nick Small &  Jake Goryance
Mentor High School

Senior Project | Shadowed acclaimed chef Rocco Whalen for three weeks at his Tremont restaurant, Fahrenheit
College Plans | Nick: Civil engineering and construction management technology, University of Toledo; Jake: Undeclared, Bowling Green State University
Life Lesson | “All I knew how to cook before was cereal,” says Nick. Now he and Jake know the secrets behind Fahrenheit’s Kobe beef sliders and wild mushroom ravioli.

Donning Rocco Whalen’s sizable white chef’s coat and hat in the Mentor High School cafeteria, 18-year-old Jake Goryance looks like a kid trying on his dad’s clothes.

Friends stroll by, poking fun at Jake’s getup, but he keeps a true chef’s focus on preparing the wild mushroom ravioli with goat cheese sauce he’s serving to visitors at Mentor’s Senior Project Fair.

Jake and classmate Nick Small spent three weeks setting tables, prepping food, busing tables, washing dishes and greeting customers at Whalen’s Tremont eatery, Fahrenheit, all to get some real-life experience in the restaurant business.

“It’s something completely different, you know?” says Nick. “You get away from your normal routine and get thrown into something completely new. You get into situations where you haven’t had instructions on what to do, so you have to go at it on your own.”

Back when Whalen was a student at Mentor High School (he’s a 1995 grad), he did his own senior project at the Willowick restaurant The Cabin, and he says he sees a bit of himself in Nick and Jake.

“I was completely like the two of them, scared shitless,” Whalen says. “High school is like la-la land, so any real-life experience we can give them, interacting with people, with customers, it’s good for kids.”

So have three grueling weeks working in one of Cleveland’s most hopping restaurants changed these guys’ minds about the business?

“You know, it’s a lot harder than I thought it was,” says Jake with a hedging smile. “The hours are intense, the kitchen’s really hot, it’s really chaotic ... but I still think this might be something I’d want to do.”


Kristen Hinson
John Marshall High School

Senior Project | Shadowed visiting delegation of five international political leaders as part of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs’ International Visitor Program
College Plans | International relations, Baldwin-Wallace College and Cuyahoga Community College Dual Admission Program
In 10 Years ... | “I’d love to be working at the United Nations in New York as a Russian translator and maybe have spent some time in the Peace Corps.”

Kristen Hinson has a flag fixation.

Driving around their West Side Cleveland neighborhood, her friends point out flags on bumpers and rear-view mirrors, quizzing her knowledge of their origins. Her own collection of flags numbers nearly two dozen, from countries including Bosnia, El Salvador and Germany.

But Kristen’s self-described “knack for flags” speaks to a deeper interest in world cultures, one she cultivates by reading about life in foreign countries and religiously attending Cleveland’s many cultural festivals.

“When I worked at the library, my favorite section was 900, the history section,” she says. “Whenever I had to go there to put books back, it never got done very fast.”

So when senior project time rolled around, Kristen jumped at the chance to shadow staff from the Cleveland Council of World Affairs, where she was matched up with the International Visitor Program, which welcomes groups from throughout the world who visit Cleveland. She tagged along with political leaders from Germany, Hong Kong, Peru, Serbia and Uganda as they learned about the U.S. system of voting at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, visited Shaw High School to hear about its Youth Voices for Justice program and discussed the dilemma of “brain drain” with Eric Fingerhut, chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents.

“[Having students there] adds a whole new perspective,” says Margarita Shulman, director of the Cleveland Council of World Affairs International Visitor Program. “Our international guests get to see the real America through their conversations with these students.”

But Kristen says she learned just as much about her own community as she did other cultures.

“I learned about how [the city] is trying to get people to come to Cleveland because of our diversity and the good things we have here,” she says. “A lot of the things they were saying [about brain drain] were true, and I didn’t realize they knew it.”

Michael Budinger
Rocky River High School

Senior Project |
A cancer survivor himself, Michael spent three weeks as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society.
College Plans | Nursing or biomedical engineering — something in the medical field — University of Akron
Cancer Combatant | Michael’s been participating in Relay for Life since he was 11; he volunteers regularly at Fairview Hospital and is on the Children’s Advisory Board at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.
Irene Budinger knew something was wrong when her 3-month-old son Michael’s soft spot became hard. Her training as a nurse and maternal instincts were right on — little Michael had fluid building in his brain, which required four surgeries and a shunt to drain and manage future blockages.

Ten years later, Michael developed an astrocytoma in his brain, a tumor that surrounded his brain stem and optic nerve, requiring another emergency surgery.

“I could have lost my ability to walk, to see, or I could have died,” says Michael. “But I wasn’t really nervous at all, it was just something I had to do and I did it.”

Today, Michael is cancer free — but he hasn’t forgotten about the organizations that help kids like him beat cancer. That’s why doing his senior project with the American Cancer Society was an easy decision. “I feel like I owe it to them because they helped me, so I might as well give back,” he says.

Michael spent nearly 100 hours over three weeks helping to organize three area Relay for Life events, designing posters and programs, working with sponsors and talking to other survivors.

“When he asked me if he could shadow me for three weeks, I was honored,” says Gretchen Zimmerman, an ACS income development specialist who organizes local Relay for Life events. “He had a real appreciation for what we do because he’s been on the receiving end.”

While his initial motivation for doing a senior project was, “Hey, that’s awesome, I get out of high school three weeks early,” he says it was an amazing experience. “I thought I’d be doing logistics and paperwork, but it was an awesome surprise that I got to use my creative side and my interpersonal skills in talking with people.”

Michael plans to pursue a career in radiation therapy or biomedical engineering, with a goal of designing medical products, and hopes his experience with the ACS will give him a leg up.

“I got to see [an organization] that would basically be signing my paycheck,” he says.
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