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Feathers in Their Caps

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The AP Capstone program allows local students to complete college-worthy research projects before they graduate from high school

It’s not every day that you hear a high-school student describe a class as “inspiring,” “invaluable,” and “intriguing.” But those are the words recent Lake Mary High graduate Siobhan Cooney, 18, uses to describe her experience in the school’s Advanced Placement (AP) Capstone program.

Seminole County Public Schools introduced the College Board’s Capstone program in the fall of 2014 at just two schools, Lake Howell and Lyman. As of this spring, however, every high school in the county offers a Capstone diploma.

Students in the Capstone program complete two AP classes – Seminar and Research – in order to earn the enhanced diploma. The College Board developed the classes to hone the critical thinking, research, collaboration, time management, and presentation skills college-bound students will need.

At Lake Mary High, that ambitious goal formally begins when the students are juniors under the direction of teacher Ray Martin in the AP Seminar class. The students work in teams, learning how to narrow topics to a sharp focus as well as how to find credible sources for their research. Members of the teams take on a different perspective or angle of the same topic and then delve even further into it, creating their own individual papers and presentations. The students submit their projects to the AP program to be scored toward the end of the year.

This year’s AP Seminar students at Lake Mary High chose to tackle a broad variety of issues considered complex even for professionals in the fields – everything from the statute of limitations on sexual assault, to the impact of Islamic terrorism on military policy between the United States and Middle Eastern countries, to the often-fraught relationship between world religions and homosexuality.

Through their work in AP Seminar, the students said they learned how to work effectively in groups and how to manage their time along with the nuts and bolts of research. Some of them also found themselves thinking about their future careers because of their work in the class.
Junior Leticia Barbosa researched the economic, medical, and social ramifications of schizophrenia as her individual focus within her team’s project on criminal psychology.

“It made me really interested in the neuroscience behind mental illnesses and what causes them and why people aren’t addressing them to the extent that they should,” Leticia says.

After they complete AP Seminar, Capstone seniors at Lake Mary High take the AP Research class with teacher David Hiller. They pick their topics over the summer and start working on individual research projects when the school year begins.

Faced with choosing a topic to research and study for nine months, Siobhan turned to an activity that was already a huge part of her life: Irish step dancing.

After competing as an Irish step dancer for 13 years, “To say that I am passionate about it would be an understatement,” Siobhan says. “As I’ve learned from this class, it’s one thing to have a passion, but being able to channel it to make a difference in someone else’s life is truly humbling.”

Siobhan’s research sought to understand how the specific elements of Irish dance and music work together to improve mobility and quality of life for Parkinson’s disease patients.

“This was a game changer,” she says. “I felt like I truly owned my independent research.”

“I do believe they get a lot out of the class,” says David. “It is the first class during which they don’t just learn something new, but they even go as far as to learn something others have not known, and they present that information to others. I think it builds independence and professionalism and gives them a true experience in their chosen field or discipline.”

“Capstone has shaped my thinking and experiences to gear me towards the real world and success in college,” says JP Hilton, a rising senior who just completed the AP Seminar class. “Even though the work may be challenging, in the end I know the reward will be there.”

Though the students benefit so much from it, David knows his class is not easy. “I think it is tough at times, and I do know that students often find that it can be a struggle,” says David. “But I think there is something they get when they show their determination and figure out ways to overcome the problems that they can run into when doing their research.”

In the end, the work pays off, says Siobhan, who plans to use her new skills in the fall when she begins her studies in Rollins College’s Honors Program.

“I honestly believe that AP Capstone has made me a better student,” she says.

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