Sophomore Sydney Turner presents “The Importance of Community in Sacramento” to judges in the front row and the audience of students, parents and teachers behind them. This is the second year students had to choose a topic centered around Sacramento. (Photo by Jacqueline Chao)

THE HISTORY BEHIND SOPHOMORE PROJECT: From free-for-all to Sac-centric, topics shift since its creation

After months of research and likely some procrastination, students have completed their sophomore project presentations. Now, sophomores might wonder: Who developed this evil scheme for students to do so much research?

The sophomore project has undergone many changes in its 11-year history. 

According to librarian and sophomore project co-founder Joanne Melinson, the assignment was created in the 2008-09 school year to familiarize students with writing research papers. 

“Our kids did a lot of critical thinking and were very good at expressing their own opinions about things, but they didn’t have any big research projects in high school,” Melinson said, adding that her daughter, Sarah Kelly, ’06, hadn’t done large research projects in high school. 

“She did research in high school, but not as big (as) what she did in seventh grade, where she had to write a 15-page research paper, which is a little odd,” Melinson said. “We are a college-prep school, and doing research will definitely help in college.”

Head of high school Brooke Wells agreed.

“There were a couple of classes that (assigned) research papers, but not every student knew how to write one,” Wells said. 

The project consists of a 10-minute oral presentation, in which students define their research question and explain their topic using visual aids, and an essay, in which students explain their findings in a research paper. The paper was originally limited to 10-15 pages but reduced to five or six pages because a student wrote 35 pages. 

The first winning project was about the rise of Russia as a world power. 

During the first six years of the sophomore project, students were allowed to research any topic. This led to some unusual subjects, such as living underwater in the case of an apocalypse, the effects of climate change on the Maine lobster industry and the community system of justice in Rwanda, according to Melinson. 

This soon became an issue.

“The topics were too broad, and it was hard for everyone to pick anything they wanted,” Wells said. “We weren’t getting topic choices that were appropriate and useful — it was just too wide open.” 

Thus, in the 2014-15 school year, former history teacher Bruce Baird gave students a list of American biographies from which they would pick a person to research.

The next year, students were once again allowed to research anything. But in the following year, 2016-17, former English teacher Patricia Fels reined it in, changing the project to focus on religions and languages. 

Fels said she chose the topics because of a similar research project she had implemented earlier. 

“Long before the sophomore project, I required the sophomores in my class to do a religion report,” Fels said. “They researched the history and customs of the religion, but they also had to do ‘hands-on’ research, including attending a service, interviewing a leader of the religion and interviewing a teenage member of the religion. The requirements included footnotes, a bibliography and a brief in-class presentation.” 

Fels decided to use the same theme for the sophomore project, but she said to “avoid controversy,” she gave students the option to research a language instead.

And unlike past projects that sent students to libraries and databases, this project was experiential in that it required students to visit local sites to interview practitioners, priests or people who spoke the target language.

“These additions made the papers instantly more readable,” Melinson said. “All of a sudden, they were based on (students’) own experiences, so their descriptions were so much better.” 

Although the new requirements remained in later years, the research topic didn’t. According to Melinson, since the 2017-18 school year, the topic has been expanded to anything related to Sacramento. 

Melinson said teachers liked having students be able to write about anything they like, as it makes the project interesting for both the student and the reader.

“We really like the Sacramento angle; it adds so much to the paper,” Melinson said. “It’s more interesting to read, and it’s probably more interesting to write too, just because you’re learning about the area around you.”

History teacher Bill Crabb added a service-learning project as a requirement for the sophomore project this year. Because of this, Melinson said she contacted people in the community — including Zoey Jennings from the Sacramento History Museum; volunteer engagement specialist Mary Lynn Perry; and Robin Altman a former Country Day chemistry teacher now at California State University, Sacramento — to open up more volunteering opportunities.

Through the years of sophomore project, students have improved their research skills — especially finding reliable sources, according to Melinson.

“The first year of the sophomore project, a bunch of students used Wikipedia as a source,” Melinson said. “It’s pretty rare for a student to do that now.”

Melinson added that students’ improvement in their research is related to the revamped middle school curriculum implemented in 2007. 

“Starting in sixth grade, we start talking about evaluating sources,” Melinson said. ”In seventh grade, they talk about corroborating sources. Therefore, students are able to learn all the skills needed for the sophomore project ahead of time.”

Wells agreed. 

“(The projects have) gotten better and better based on having more time and having the focus be on Sacramento,” he said. “This year’s projects were the strongest I’ve seen.”

According to Wells, further changes to the sophomore project are possible.

Wells said the project may be tweaked so students can submit their reports to the National History Day competition. 

“Some students do that already, and it would be nice if all the students can submit their projects without changing (them) too much,” Wells said.

Students who have completed the sophomore project expressed mixed opinions about it. 

While junior Larkin Barnard-Bahn, who researched bee culture in Sacramento and won first place,  liked the sophomore project, the required notecards — which are done online through Noodletools — were not ideal, she said. 

“I did a lot of research on stuff that I never ended up using while trying to find the focus of my topic,” Barnard-Bahn said. “Also, with time constraints, there’s some stuff that I didn’t talk about.”

However, Barnard-Bahn said the unused notecards weren’t useless.

“When you are doing a project like this, you’ll take a lot of notes on stuff that you aren’t going to end up using,” she said. “It sounds like a waste of time, but you don’t usually find what to focus on unless you take a bunch of notes.”

Junior Jackson Margolis, who won second place with his report on climate change, said he was a fan of the project because of the competitive aspect of the presentations.

“I had friends where we would be like, ‘I think I’ll beat you; I think I’m going to make top 10,’” Margolis said. “It wasn’t anything negative; it only made us work harder. 

“What’s really great is the presentation, because it’s the perfect blend of skills. People who are artistic can make great slides, people who are great writers have amazing outlines, people like me — I consider myself a good public speaker — really sink their point in. Depending on what kind of person you are, you have room to be great.” 

Last year’s third-place winner, junior Spencer Scott researched the rise of nativism in Sacramento during prohibition. He said he liked the concept of the sophomore project but not the way it was organized.

“For all the stuff the (teachers) made us do throughout the year, we only had to write a five-to-six-page paper,” Scott said. “I could’ve written 10 to 15 pages with all the materials I had to gather.”

Scott found the notecards less useful than Barnard-Bahn did. 

“When I started off the project, I made a bunch of notecards,” Scott said. “Out of the 50 notecards I turned in, I only used one of them on the paper because my research took me in a different direction.”

Annya Dahmani, ’18, who researched music copyright law, said she liked being able to choose any topic.

“I think (SCDS) should revert back to making the project open ended and (to be able to) choose whatever instead of having a prompt where (students are) constrained,” Dahmani said. “It’ll make kids actually find out what they’re interested in.” 

She said the project helped her discover her interest in music and laws associated with it. Because of this, she is in the music industry club at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Furthermore, the class of 2018 did not have an essay as a requirement.

“I wish we (had done) a research paper,” Dahmani said. “Because then we would have had experience with actually writing a research paper before college.” 

Senior Chardonnay Needler, who did her project on alphabetization of the Chinese language, disagreed with Dahmani on making the project completely open-ended. 

“I think you can get a lot of appreciation for (Sacramento) if you are doing a project where you have to focus on that city,” Needler said. “That way, you can’t do a project that isn’t going to directly affect us. 

For sophomore Elijah Azar, whose topic was on phage therapy and the superbug crisis, the project “went well.”

“At first, I was against making a presentation before writing the research paper since that’s what I’m used to,” Azar said. “But I think what they are going for is having the presentation as the ‘skeleton’ of the essay and having  the essay as a ‘fleshed out’ version of the presentation, which I think is a good idea.”

Azar said the moratorium lessons were helpful, though he wished it was a full work day. 

“For students who had never done a year-long project, (the lessons) are incredibly helpful,” he said. “But for those who had (experience), it’s a different story.”

—By Ming Zhu

Originally published in the April 23 edition of the Octagon.

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