The high school cheers during morning meeting as Micaela Bennett-Smith receives a Kindle Fire after placing first in the sophomore project presentations. (Photo by Kelsi Thomas)

The agony and the ecstasy: Sophomores present their annual research projects

Sophomore Caroline Mehta sat in the library at the start of lunch on April 16. Her shoulders were hunched, and her hands gripped the underside of her chair. Her torso rocked back and forth.

Mehta’s mind scrolled through facts and figures for her sophomore project top-10 presentation.

She was supposed to present second that day after Micaela Bennett-Smith. But there was a change of plans.

“Caroline,” Brooke Wells, projector coordinator, said, “would you mind presenting first? Micaela’s mom is running late, but she really wanted to see Micaela’s presentation.”

Mehta felt a surge of excitement. “You mean you want me to present right now?” she thought. She eagerly accepted.

“I was actually relieved,” she said. “I really just wanted to get the final presentation over with.”

Mehta—along with fellow sophomores Bennett-Smith, George Cvetich, Ethan Ham, Ryan Hoddick, Aishwarya Nadgauda, Maxwell Shukuya, Isabella Tochterman, Anna Wiley and Emma Williams—had a project chosen in the top 10.

The annual project asks sophomores to research a topic that interests them. From there, they must answer a question in an essay (about 15 pages in length)  and PowerPoint-aided oral presentation.

All sophomores presented  the week before Spring Break in front of several other students and faculty members. Project advisors Patricia Dias, Joanne Melinson, Wells and Tom Wroten then picked the 10 best, which went on to compete in a final round in front of a larger audience (10-30 people)  and a new panel of judges: teachers Jane Bauman, Glenn Mangold and Sue Nellis.

An Awaited Email

Students who made the top 10 were notified via email.

“I was surprised,” Mehta said.  “Then I felt honored but also annoyed that I had to present again.”

In fact, several students, such as Cvetich, did not want to present again.

“I already had my grade and I didn’t care about winning, but I felt pressure to do it—like I couldn’t get out of it,” Cvetich said.

But Wiley said she was “really excited” to find out she would present again because she wanted to win.

Bennett-Smith said she was also determined to win, adding that she was passionate about her topic (Rwandan Gacaca Courts), so she was happy to present it again.

Hoddick said he wanted to win, although it wasn’t his main focus.

“I’m not so much determined to win as I am determined to step up, do something I never do, and nail it,” he said.

Crunch Time

The lights were dim in the library, and it smelled like old books and deli meats. Students and faculty ate their lunches and talked amongst themselves while waiting for Wiley to present on day two of the top-10 presentations.

It was time.

Wiley opened the library door, followed by a flock of friends. The cool air hit her, and she drew a shaky breath and let out a sigh. Filling remaining chairs, friends gave their last words of support.

Wroten hooked her computer up to the projector.

“All right, Anna,” Wells said. “Ready when you are.”

Wiley looked over the audience. She drew in a long breath.

It was silent—except for someone munching on a chip in the corner.

“Hi, my name is Anna Wiley, and I will be talking about body image…”

A lower schooler opened the library door. The heavy metal door clanged as the kid let go of the handle. Realizing he was interrupting, he ran off.

Wiley paid no attention.

Sophomore Ryan Hoddick presents his sophomore project in front of judge Glenn Mangold. (Photo by Will Wright).
Sophomore Ryan Hoddick presents his sophomore project in front of judge Glenn Mangold. (Photo by Will Wright).

Omega-3’s and Wingdings

The sophomores agreed that the worst part of presenting was the time directly before the presentation. Once they had started, they said, they forgot their nerves and focused.

“Presenting was so nerve-wracking!” Williams said, “I was starting to wonder if I’d ever be able to get up and make it to the podium.”

Hoddick said he was okay until he began to watch the presentations before him.

“I felt like passing out,” he said, “Once I was up there, however, it seemed to melt away.”

To combat stress, Mehta took an omega-3 supplement.

“It made me feel a little more confident that I could think quickly and improvise if I needed to,” she said.

“Just the thought helped me calm down, even if it was just the placebo effect.”

Cvetich, who didn’t care whether or not he won, said he didn’t have to worry about nerves.

“I tried to have fun with it. I changed my Powerpoint fonts to Comic Sans because it’s not as serious.

“And my final slide, which said, ‘Questions’ I put that in Wingdings (a font comprised of symbols) for fun.”

Opting Out

The top-10 presentations have sparked controversy since the sophomore project’s creation five years ago, starting with the class of ‘11.

Because top-10 students find the additional presentation frightening, some want to opt out.

Wiley thinks students should be allowed to choose not to present a second time.

“I don’t think that just because someone did well the first time they should be forced into doing more work,” she said.

According to Wells, sophomore project coordinator, students can opt out; however, they are encouraged not to.

He said several have asked to opt out in the past, but all presented in the end.

Junior Sarah Wilks was one.

“I didn’t want to do the second presentation because the first one was so hard for me,” Wilks said.

However, Wilks said that her parents and teachers pushed her to do it.

“Looking back, I’m very glad I did it because I was able to push through.”

Hoddick doesn’t think people should be allowed to opt out.

“I think that (opting out) would only be utilized for laziness’s sake,” he said.

He added, though, that if a person was afraid of presenting, then they should be allowed to present to only the judges.

Bauman agreed that no student should be allowed to opt out.

“It needs to be a level playing field,” she said.

She thinks that if potential winners chose not to present, then others could win even if their presentations were not as good.

Kindles and Bragging RightsScreen shot 2013-05-28 at 2.26.23 PM

Although the top three were chosen by April 18, results were not announced until April 29.

In the past winners have been announced the Friday after presentations, but absences among the top-10 presenters and Nellis postponed the announcement.

“It was brutal,” Bennett-Smith said, “The suspense was killing me.”

But it was worth the wait for Bennett-Smith as she placed first, alongside Anna Wiley and Maxwell Shukuya, who placed second and third respectively.

Prizes included a $50 gift certificate of choice for third place, a Kindle for second and a Kindle Fire for first. All other top-10 presenters received $10 gift certificates of choice.

Bauman said that winners “explained their information in a comprehensive and well-researched way” and that their topics were particularly well-suited to their presentations.

And there are more awards ahead. For the first time, the two students with the best written essays will be given awards.

Wells said the change was “one step forward in recognizing another part of the project.”

The essay winners will be announced during the awards ceremony today.

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