Capstone projects prepare VUHS for new graduation requirements

VERGENNES — Astronauts on the 1970 Apollo 13 moon launch had to abort after 56 hours and barely returned to Earth with their lives.
Unlike them, Vergennes Union High School 8th-grader and space aficionado Alyse Beauchemin successfully completed her mission — a Capstone Challenge Project on that ill-fated NASA operation.
Beauchemin, like all VUHS 8th-graders this past school year, chose her own topic for the intensive Capstone research and presentation program, which school administrators created as a way for students to learn what it takes to succeed in high school and to cap off their middle school careers. (See related story.)
For Beauchemin, a Civil Air Patrol member who turned 14 last week, looking to the stars was an easy choice.
“I’ve always been a space fan,” she said.
The Vergennes resident’s focus narrowed to the Apollo 13 mission when her parents drove her family to Massachusetts to see a lecture given by David Reed, the flight dynamics officer on the Apollo 13 mission control team. Reed and the others in mission control ultimately helped the three astronauts to return safely to Earth after they uttered the oft-quoted words: “Houston, we have a problem.”
That trip to the lecture ended up creating a friendship between Beauchemin and Reed, who served as the outside expert that Capstone projects require and then traveled to Vergennes to watch her final presentation.
“I listened to him speak, and that was really cool, and afterward I talked to him a little bit and told him about my Capstone project, and he seemed really interested, so he offered to help me with it. So we’ve been emailing back and forth,” Beauchemin said.
Reed was not the only one who saw Beauchemin’s 30-minute video presentation, which she made after reading several books, visiting many websites, and watching a number of documentaries as well as the fictionalized movie version of the Apollo 13 mission starring Tom Hanks.
Beauchemin was one of a dozen VUHS 8th-graders who earned “proficient with distinction” recognition for their Capstone projects. And because her project could also be shown with the Tom Hanks movie and clearly demonstrated required Capstone elements, school officials chose her to present not only to her classmates on June 14, but also to the 7th-graders who will be doing Capstone projects during the next school year. About 200 people in all watched her presentation.
Middle school social studies teacher Deb White, who helped coordinate the Capstone projects in their first year, said Beauchemin’s project was the ideal model for the 7th grade — and that her presentation had an impact.
“We knew that Alyse had been in contact with the man from NASA, and they had to have an outside expert and they had to do research … We knew she had those components and was really excited about it,” White said. “(Her presentation) was meant to show this is what it looks like. And we already have 7th-graders talking about their Capstone for next year and what they want to do.”
VUHS Co-principal Peter Reynolds said Beauchemin offered just one example of how the Capstone program worked well. Although he noted like in any first-year program teachers and students alike learned as they went along how to make it better, the fact that all but four students completed Capstone projects with proficiency showed its potential. (Those four students are working with White this summer and are expected to finish.)
“The teachers do recognize … they need to spend some time mining the experience, but to my mind it was a resounding success,” Reynolds said, adding, “We had great papers. We had great topics … I think they rose to the occasion.”
Beauchemin — who, as a 7th-grader, “didn’t say three words in my class all year,” White said — explained what she got out of her project.
“I learned a lot of skills, public speaking, researching. I used a lot of sources,” she said. “It was a lot of hard work, but I think in the end it paid off.”
She believes her classmates also benefited.
“I know a bunch of friends, they did really awesome jobs on their projects. They did a bunch of models and stuff, so it was really cool,” she said. “They also learned what I did, research and public speaking skills.”
Other projects included research on the history of organized sports; police work and fundraising for a bulletproof vest for the Vergennes Police Department’s canine; lions, with the tangible product a papier-mâché model of a lion’s skull; falconry; and Amelia Earhart.
Reynolds said students could choose their own subjects and then had a template to follow to learn about those topics, and the program also offered a way for others to share their expertise.
“It’s giving them freedom to choose, and the framework,” he said. “It gave structure to adults outside of the school to come in and support individual kids.”
And Reynolds said the Capstone program appealed to all students, not just those with classroom skills.
“It’s exciting to watch any kid … learn to do something and think about it, and recognize they’re in a different spot at the end of that experience,” he said.
And the Capstone projects provided the students with an important first look at what they will need to do to graduate. VUHS is working toward requiring students to show mastery of what they have learned in order to earn diplomas, a system called “Performance Based Graduation Requirements,” or PBGRs. (See related article.)
The class that just completed 9th grade will be expected to meet some PBGRs, and Beauchemin and her 8th-grade peers will have even more PBGR requirements.
White and Reynolds said the skills required by the Capstone projects mirror the PBGRs — such as the tangible products, and the public speaking, presentation and research skills of which Beauchemin spoke.
White said while creating a “gateway” out of middle school, long a school-wide goal, teachers and administrators also introduced the PBGR elements to “lay a foundation” for the 8th-graders.
“We’ve done all the PBGR work,” she said. “And we said if we can have a passage, or a gateway out of 8th grade, let’s look at skills like the PBGRs do. You’re not looking at ‘You’ve passed Social Studies.’ We’re looking at, yes, you can do these things … They’re real-world skills, not content skills.”
Not every 8th-grader, like Beauchemin, presented in front of 200 people, or got a unique “Member of the Trench” certificate from Reed for her birthday naming her as an honorary NASA Mission Control colleague.
But Beauchemin believes many of them got new skills from their Capstone projects.
“Based on me and my friends, we were all impressed on how our projects turned out,” she said. “Because it was a lot of work. It was a three-months-long project. So, yeah, I think so.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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