"Something I've Always Wanted to Do"

From Hindi to hip-hop, senior projects allow students to follow their passions or try something new.

The last day of school at Sidwell Friends isn’t just about saying goodbye to teachers and classmates—it’s also Senior Projects Day, a time when the entire Upper School comes together to hear about the vast array of educational journeys the soon-to-be graduates have been on for the last five weeks.

“Senior projects provide seniors with the opportunity to explore an area of interest beyond what they have learned in the classroom,” says Assistant Upper School Principal Min Kim. “Each year, faculty and students are delighted to learn about the various adventures our seniors embark on during the senior project period. It is a time to be creative, to explore, and to make important self-discoveries.”

Solomon Faison ’17, for example, used his experience in the robotics club to build a robot that could rake the baseball field—a daunting task, especially because Solomon was creating the robot by himself. The project entailed going to scrapyards for parts, visiting welders, and figuring out the coding. “I definitely gained a much better understanding of robotics,” he says. “When I went around doing college visits, I was confused about why they would put so many people to work on small robotics projects. But it turns out that you really need these people, because one person can’t perfect all those parts! You need the electrical engineers, you need the welders, you need all those different components.”

Meanwhile, Neelam Shaikh ’17 taught herself Hindi. She only had a slight command of the language when the project began. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “I decided to speak only in Hindi at my house, and I made my parents promise to correct me.” Ultimately, her immersion approach paid off. Neelam created her own Hindi language guide, filled with vocabulary, verb conjugations, and grammatical rules. “I’m not fluent yet, but I’m getting close,” she adds. “It made my grandparents so happy, because they primarily speak in Hindi, and now I can keep up an hour of conversation with them.”

Narayan Felix ’17, Abass Sallah ’17, and Jelani Williams ’17 did an in-depth study of hip-hop music, from the poetry in the lyrics to its role as a force for social change. “We looked at different factors for each artist and group—influence, longevity, popularity,” explains Narayan. “For influence, we looked at people like Tupac [Shakur]—he was a rapper, yes, but he was also involved in social justice and activism. Longevity was about how well your music actually aged—so if they came out in the ’80s, are people still listening to them? What’s their legacy like?”

The group interviewed and filmed Jelani’s uncles, who were fans during early hip-hop’s heyday, to gain a better understanding of the genre’s cultural effects. “I didn’t realize how much has changed until we had these conversations,” says Narayan. “We were talking about live shows; how important moving the crowd was; how important hip-hop was in the ’80s. A lot of that is lost now—the ability to keep your breath and recite verse after verse without letting the beat drop. There wasn’t social media or Rap Genius back then; you just had to go listen to the lyrics. You’d get out a pen and paper and write down all the words, and then you’d go back and make sure you got them all.”

Caroline Beckman ’17 used her project to expand on a paper she wrote during her junior year, about the way advertising mobilized women during World War II. She made research trips to the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the University of Maryland. “I was so excited when I got my registration card for one of the museums that I Snapchatted it to all my friends,” she says. “And being in the Library of Congress was the most incredible experience of my entire life. You could sit there forever and never run out of things to do.” In the end, she expanded her original research into a 25-page paper.

One of the most visually arresting projects was Ellie Zimmerman ’17’s pipe organ, which she spent three weeks building from PVC pipes and wood and two weeks learning to play. She demonstrated her skills at Meeting for Worship, to general awe and thunderous applause. Ellie says she doesn’t consider herself a “music person,” but knew that the senior project period would be a great chance to learn about music and construction at the same time.

“This is a special time to do something you really want,” she says. “If there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, this is your shot!”

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