Majoring in High School

January 04, 2017

Shattuck-St. Mary’s Upper School Director Matt Cavellier details the structure and benefits of SSM’s The Major Center of Excellence in the Winter 2017 edition of Independent School magazine.

The following article was published in the Winter 2017 issue of Independent School Magazine.

For decades now, Shattuck-St. Mary’s School has worked tirelessly to support students as they pursue their passions. In particular, our Centers of Excellence — nine programs in which students can dive deeply into areas of personal interest (see sidebar) — allow students to fulfill the traditionally rigorous preparatory school curriculum while simultaneously spending quality, focused time immersed in an experience tailored to their talents and interests.

Many of our Centers of Excellence are performance-based; whether that performance is on the stage (our Pre-Conservatory program for aspiring musicians, for example) or in a rink (our nationally renowned boys’ and girls’ Hockey programs), students involved in these centers are provided the time and experienced guidance necessary to hone their talents and reach their goals. Our other Centers of Excellence are more academic in nature — designed to prepare students for in-depth, independent research and expose them to a wide variety of experiences in their field of interest. For example, in addition to their work designing biomedical devices and exploring the world of healthcare and medicine, our BioScience students recently attended a talk sponsored by the University of Minnesota focused on the intersection of police violence and public health.

While most of our students take part in one of our Centers of Excellence, 18 percent do not. In an effort to help students in the latter group pursue their passions, we developed a program to help them find their “major” at Shattuck-St. Mary’s.

Three years ago, we interviewed all of these students in grades 10–12 to learn more about their school experience. We wanted to understand what they liked most about their education at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, whether they felt marginalized, and what, if anything, they felt they were missing out on because they were not enrolled in one of the Centers of Excellence. After nearly 30 small-group interviews — during which it was clear that students were generally very happy with their school experience — trends began to surface.

These students identified the following three aspects of the Shattuck-St. Mary’s experience that they wanted as part of their overall experience: 

  • the sense of belonging to a team,
  • opportunities for experiences outside the confines of the school, and
  • an opportunity to differentiate themselves from other students in the college application process.

They also had one other clear wish: a Center of Excellence that provided them with an opportunity to explore their individual passions.

After sharing the results of these interviews with our administrative team, we designed a new Center of Excellence that was rigorous enough to stand alongside our BioScience and Engineering centers, one that would help students develop their interests and foster their talents in a manner akin to our athletic and artistic centers. It would be broad enough to cover the myriad topics students wanted to explore. The result is The Major, a three-year program developed to enable students time for focused inquiry in a field of study that interests them. As Craig Peck, director of The Major, says, “My students are intrinsically motivated because they are a part of the program’s design as we go forward. Every day they help generate the content.”

In September 2015, five brave students joined The Major because they wanted to engage more critically and deeply with a topic they defined as a passion. For Karen Son ’18, it meant studying interior design; for Alexandra Gilbertson ’18, it meant researching the role that gender bias plays in a classroom setting. For all five of the students, The Major provided a framework with which to further their study and a team of peers ready to critique and review their work.

Students in their first term of The Major take a two-period seminar course focused on in-depth, critical research. These research assignments are collaboratively planned by Peck and the students, and most often, the assignments stem from a shared experience. For example, while only one student may be focused on art history, a trip to The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis provides fodder for research from multiple lenses. For Alexandra, this might mean researching why most of the museum’s works were made by men. For Amanda DeShane ’18, who is studying color theory and psychology, it might mean researching the artist’s desired effect of a work painted solely in shades of white. Such shared experiences not only provide a basis for group discussion and individual deep-dive research, they are also designed to be exploratory in nature. In other words, field trips, articles for review, and current events conversations are deliberately chosen so students can explore the interstices between their “area of expertise” and the topic at hand — as these are the areas where ideas for original research can be found.

As the year progresses, students continue to engage in these collaborative outings while they also hone in on their research topic. Concurrently, they work in conjunction with Peck to create the plan for their remaining course of study — a strand of what we call Student Initiated Experiences (SIEs): individualized, term-long experiences to guide their exploration over the following terms. These SIEs are broken down into six categories of which students must choose four: Entrepreneurial Endeavors, weCreate Products, Internships, Immersion Experiences, Service Learning, and Independent Research.

These experiences are tailored with the students’ goals in mind. So Alexandra, for instance, after a year researching scholarly articles on the effects of classroom bias, might conduct her own research, develop her own guidelines for minimizing classroom bias, and work with a group of teachers to gauge its efficacy. Along the way, students write critically and reflectively about their work, teach smaller groups and present to larger ones about their findings, and demonstrate proficiency with multimedia tools. Finally, the term before graduation culminates in a capstone presentation that captures not only the outcomes of the research but also reflects on the process of learning and specifically of designing their own learning path.

For Alexandra, the benefits are obvious: “Shattuck-St. Mary’s School doesn’t offer a course in gender studies, but with The Major, I was able to design my own. I set my deadlines and when I find something inside my project that I am extremely interested in, I can choose to follow that aspect as far as it will go. I’ve learned how to find reliable information as I research, and it feels good to know that I will be able to do the same in college.”

Now we have entered the second year of the program, and currently there are students whose topics are as varied as their backgrounds. Spanish cinema and culture, color theory and design, and altruism in the animal kingdom are just some of the areas of study, the breadth and depth of which will only continue to grow as students move through the program and truly craft their own high school majors.

- Upper School Director Matt Cavellier, Shattuck-St. Mary’s School