IHS seniors prepare for the real world with capstone projects

by Sara Hill

For much of her high school career, Raina Makhlouf knew she wanted to pursue a career in physical therapy. So when it came time to complete her senior capstone project, a requirement for graduation, the Class of 2022 Independence High School graduate naturally chose to shadow a family friend who worked in the field.

But instead of sealing her decision to pursue the major at Indiana State this fall, Makhlouf’s experience shadowing a physical therapist showed her it wasn’t the best fit.

“After my shadowing, I called the admissions office at Indiana State and changed my major to Pre-Med,” Makhlouf said, adding that she learned physical therapy was too repetitive and not as hands-on as she thought.

The senior capstone project at Independence High School is purposely designed to get graduating seniors like Makhlouf thinking about life beyond the four walls of high school. To complete the graduation requirement, seniors can either career shadow in their chosen field, enroll in and complete a rigorous Dale Carnegie leadership training course, perform community outreach/nonprofit work, or create their own experience that benefits their network community. At the conclusion of the academic year, just before commencement, seniors compile a report and present it before a panel of school leaders and community stakeholders.

“I hope that by doing the capstone project, students get a sense of this being very similar to what it’s like in the real world. There is no one holding your hand and taking you out on field trips; you figure your life out on your own and how you are going to spend your time,” said district Career Specialist Amanda Jaronowski, who implements and supervises senior capstone projects.

Graduating seniors did a variety of interesting create-your-own-experience projects, a recently added component brought about after the onset of the pandemic took away job-shadowing opportunities for seniors, Jaronowski explained. She spoke of American Sign Language students who signed each performance of a ballet for audience members at the Lorain Palace Theater; another who constructed Buddy Benches outside the high school as a reminder to check in with friends and make sure they know that they are cared for; seniors who cleaned out local hoarder houses and checked in with the homeowners to provide emotional support; and another who created a cookie recipe and delivered batches of her homemade cookies to every teacher she’d had at Independence, Jaronowski said.

Julia Sheppard, who will attend Ohio University and major in environmental studies, created her own project volunteering at MedWish, a nonprofit that sorts and redistributes unused medical supplies that would otherwise be thrown away. The materials are packaged and shipped to countries around the globe, with many going to Ukraine, she said.

“I created my own project because I felt with my major it was hard to find a single job that was representative of all the areas covered by a versatile major like environmental studies. I didn’t want to just shadow, I wanted to take action,” Sheppard said. “I sorted medical supplies and helped in many ways to facilitate their work, including organizing spreadsheets of supplies being sent for re-sterilization.”

She said her mother works at University Hospitals, where the MedWish founder practices as a doctor. After Sheppard’s family hosted an international group of students from Portugal as part of a service project, the company stood out in her mind.

“My capstone project reinforced in my mind that environmental studies is the major I want to pursue,” Sheppard said. “I worked with several people who had majored in the same field. To see these people working towards a tangible goal in a job they were passionate about was truly motivating.”

Class of 2022 graduate Alex Adams used her two-week capstone period to shadow a civil engineer at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and a mechanical engineer working for a firm. She will attend the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana and pursue mechanical engineering.

“I knew I wanted to go into engineering very early on, like middle school,” Adams said. “I’ve always loved math and science. I’ve done engineering camps and loved every second of it. … Engineers are critical thinkers and problem solvers, and my capstone project gave me a head start in seeing where I could go and gave me a foresight into what I’ll lean towards.”

IHS Principal Jamie Hogue said he is proud of the ideas graduating seniors come up with and execute for the capstone requirement, as project-based, hands-on learning is a tenet of the school district.

“Seeing these kids take on the world is by far the best part of the job,” he said. ∞