Re-inventing Senior Project

Senior Project, a capstone Friends’ Central Upper School experience, traditionally takes place during the five-week period after seniors have finished their academic classes in late April. It’s a time for seniors to get some hands-on experience – either testing the waters for a possible career choice or simply exploring a new area of interest outside the familiar bounds of school work – while also acquiring some independence and remaining engaged for the remainder of the school year leading up to Commencement.

The concept of Senior Project at FCS was devised over 50 years ago by a group of students from the Class of 1968 who were exploring ways to make the most of their senior year and transition into the more independent world of college. The students approached their teachers and suggested an internship program where they would take off one day a week and work in the “real world.” The faculty and administration loved the idea, and Senior Project was born. 

Although the format of Senior Project has changed somewhat since 1968, the idea remains essentially the same. Project choices are proposed by the students themselves and submitted for approval to the Senior Project Committee. The Senior Project Committee – headed by Upper School science teacher Dr. Phyllis Hanson with faculty members Deborah Skapik, Holly McCloskey, Linda Quinlan, Julie Plunkett, Kelley Graham, and Michele Zuckman – meets regularly throughout the school year, beginning in the fall, to help students through the process, assisting with a multitude of issues including project approval, deadlines, clearances needed, and even guidance on how to approach and interface with adults in the outside world. 

As Phyllis expressed, “It definitely takes a village to make this happen.” Along with the support of the Project Committee, the seniors are also assisted by a faculty advisor, selected by the students themselves. And that is also, explained Phyllis, a big job. ”It’s hours of cumulative effort.” The goal of all this hard work is that everything is in place by February 20 for seniors to embark on their projects in late spring.

The spring of 2020 has, of course, been anything but traditional. 

As the school year progressed, the Class of 2020, supported by the Senior Project Committee and faculty advisors, was ahead in their planning. By February, 80 percent of the seniors had projects lined up. There were projects in San Diego, Italy, and even at a Mount Everest base camp; internships and job shadows were set up in various disciplines. In early March, as COVID-19 infections increased in the US and abroad, projects started to get cancelled. Employers could no longer take students as interns or shadows, and travel was restricted. Steadily, the students were losing their opportunities. The process “fell apart with COVID-19,” said Phyllis.

As more and more projects were cancelled, Phyllis realized, “we need to rethink this,” and she met with Class of 2020 Dean Laurie Novo and the Upper School administrative team to discuss what would happen to this important tradition and how to provide the seniors with meaningful alternatives as their time at Friends’ Central came to a close. Phyllis proposed the idea of Senior Seminars, where teachers would be asked to generate unique project ideas and lead a group of students through the project.

She sent an email to Upper School teachers and staff asking if any would be willing to develop and hold a Senior Seminar, and if they had ideas for how that seminar might look in light of COVID-19 restrictions. Within 30 minutes, Phyllis explained, she had 20 people respond to her with various seminar ideas. Overnight, teachers came together, and Senior Project was saved! 

“When I received that incredible flood – and it was a flood – of responses,” said Phyllis, “I was overwhelmed with gratitude and admiration for the devotion our faculty has to the students. Everybody wanted to help the seniors.” “It truly was heartwarming to see how many teachers stepped up to offer seminar experiences,” agreed Laurie Novo. 

A small number of Senior Projects could proceed as originally proposed – projects including the Grade 9 and 10 Play (albeit virtual), art exhibits, podcasts, music, novel writing, and computer-based research. Many of the international students had returned home and were able to complete their projects as planned. The remaining students had the option of signing up for one of the Senior Seminars. 

By mid-March, the seminars were in place, but it was difficult for many of the seniors to switch gears and feel enthusiastic about the new plan. There was a noticeable sense of sadness within the students for a couple of weeks as they grappled with the cancellation of many of their projects – especially for a few who had been planning their Senior Project since they were in ninth grade. After the initial letdown, the seniors moved ahead, selecting a seminar and committing time and energy to their new projects. So many of the expectations they’d had for their senior spring had fallen apart, but they were resilient. “Once they got over the shock, they bounced back. They were appreciative of the new options; they adjusted as only teenagers can, and they showed us how to adjust. They weren’t happy, but they understood,” said Phyllis.

Everyone got their first seminar choice, and teachers stepped up and put the work in to prepare seminars. The seminars had to meet the criteria of an online course, keeping students engaged for several hours a day, and gathering as a seminar group via Zoom once a week. 

The choice of Senior Seminars was broad. Faculty put in a great deal of thought and work into their seminar proposals for students. Math teacher Brad Morris offered an analysis of COVID-19 – examining wide-ranging perspectives including scientific, statistical, psychological, sociological, economic, technological, international, social justice, and historic. Several students, guided by Head of School Craig N. Sellers, created a photo essay of the pandemic (click here to see a sample of photos by each student). Prima Lingua and Latin teacher Margaret Somerville ‘83 worked with tech-savvy students interested in language learning on the creation of a new platform for the Prima Lingua resources. History teacher Kelley Graham and English teacher Bill Kennedy both offered book discussion seminars. Coordinator of Equity and Justice Education Dwight Dunston ’06 and English teacher Monty Ogden led a seminar on developing an advocacy campaign around climate change. History teacher Joel Dankoff developed an architecture seminar, City Planning & Urbanism, with a focus on Philadelphia. Upper School science teacher John Gruber offered a seminar titled Field Notes in Science and Nature, with students heading outdoors, studying, taking notes, and practicing field note sketching from photos and museum specimens. English teachers Laurie Novo and Megan Schumacher worked with student writers interested in exploring this moment in history. And there were many other seminar offerings.

Caution Tape Across the Swing
Eva Bartholomew ’20

Asked if she had any useful takeaways from this year’s experience, Phyllis responded that, although developed out of a difficult and unprecedented situation, Senior Seminars were a net positive and had great future potential. Senior Seminars give students that are having trouble developing a project a way to have a valuable, hands-on educational experience. With this in mind, she would like to continue to see seminars offered as a Senior Project option. Phyllis also hopes to involve parents and alumni/ae more in the future, potentially having them generate and run some seminars. 

Some Senior Project Highlights

Despite being in his last months before retirement, math teacher Brad Morris applied his usual energy and enthusiasm to his statistics seminar on COVID-19, a well-attended and unanimously enjoyed option. 

Eva Bartholomew, Pierce Hayton, and Gordon Wilcox, who participated in Head of School Craig N. Sellers’ seminar group, created photo essays of the pandemic.

Drama teacher Terry Guerin, in her final weeks teaching at FCS, tirelessly guided students in the transition to a virtual format for the Grade 9 and 10 Play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Marielle Buxbaum ’20.

In the writing workshop, led by Laurie Novo and Megan Schumacher, participants created a collection of pieces they titled Pondering a Pandemic. Seniors not in the seminar were also invited to contribute any creative pieces done during this time, and a number of students submitted their work, including musicians, writers, podcasters, and students in the environmental activism seminar. Pondering a Pandemic is a wonderful showcase of the breadth and depth of student work and artistic expression during Senior Project. 

For his senior project, Evan Sweitzer composed six pieces of music – two he described as conventionally composed pieces in a suite for piano and violin and four improvised piano pieces. He shared two of the four piano pieces, which he transcribed into sheet music after playing them – Departure (listen to the piece here and see the sheet music here) and Thanks for the Ride (listen to the piece here and see the sheet music here).

For Sydney Bendesky’s project, she invited artists to share with her any work that they had created in quarantine. She also created her own piece, inspired by her reactions to this time period. She compiled the rich range of pieces into a map in a Prezi to “showcase the variety of feelings and interpretations of this unprecedented time.” See the Prezi here

Roxy Calder and Savannah Lopez, who participated in Bill Kennedy’s book seminar, created a podcast in which they discussed the connections between the two books they read in the seminar and the situation we’re living through at the time of their reading. The novels were A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. 

Click here to see the presentation “Coronavirus and the Environment” by Brynne Menen, Victoria Rosa, Hannah Rossio, Anna Volpp, and Rebecca Wusinich, who took the Senior Seminar about COVID-19 and its implications on the environment led by Dwight Dunston ’06 and Monty Ogden. 

For his senior project, Dabin Seomun worked on a powerful and creative graphic story

Mary Rose Gilliland produced a short documentary for her senior project, interviewing several peers about their thoughts on COVID-19.

Alexandra Wang created some beautiful animations based on several paintings on the FCS campus.

If an adult in the FCS community – current or past parent, grandparent, alum, past or present Board member – has the resources or ideas to support a senior in the future, Phyllis would love to hear from you. Doctors, activists, lawyers, teachers, nurses, artists – anyone with a broad idea for a project and an interest in supporting a student, please contact her at

Share this Article:

chevron-down closefacebookmailrsssearchtwittervimeoyoutube