Exercising Voice & Choice in Senior Projects

There was an overwhelming theme to the Class of 2019’s senior projects; a theme that unbeknownst to the seniors, connected all of their disparate ideas and initiatives, and underlied their core commonality. The theme? Using the power of their own voice to affect positive change in their communities and beyond. From the Mayor’s Office to an all-girls school in Guatemala, the Class of 2019 looked outside of themselves and into the local and global community to raise awareness for causes they believe in, spark conversations that influence change, and give notice to issues of importance to them in their final assignment as Ellis girls.
The capstone to the Ellis experience, senior projects are intentionally designed to be interdisciplinary and offer students the opportunity to explore a wide range of possible interests and pursue known passions more deeply. Students must harness the design thinking, organizational, and research skills they’ve learned and deploy them to foster connections with mentors, partner with diverse clients, manage their time and processes, and present and communicate their ideas.

But unlike their previous assignments—students don’t follow a teacher-derived lesson plan or rubric for their projects. Instead, they create their own paths and identify and investigate topics of real interest and personal meaning to them. Armed with a sense of agency and fueled by the power of both choice and their own voice, students pursue their interests and investigate complicated issues, resulting in work that is as varied and diverse as the girls themselves. From exploring media bias in journalism to shadowing emergency room doctors and sewing dignity gowns for breast cancer patients, the Class of 2019’s senior projects represented a wide variety of topics that demonstrated the multifaceted nature of the Ellis curriculum, as well as Ellis students.

Eager to continue the social activism work she led as co-president of Ellis’ Student Diversity League, Leah Ewers interned at Welcoming Pittsburgh, an immigrant and Latino integration initiative led by Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, where she witnessed firsthand how government agencies can spearhead change. In her position, she created a guidebook for immigrant families about the city of Pittsburgh, researched displays of public inclusivity in cities across the globe, participated in cross-functional meetings with city leaders, and outlined an online forum for an all-encompassing website immigrant families can use to learn about resources within the city when they arrive.

For Emma Schell, her senior project allowed her to delve deeper into a passion that she plans to continue in college: chemistry. She partnered with Assemble, a STEAM organization in Garfield, to teach a chemistry class for grades 3 through 5 at their after-school program, and as a happy byproduct, got a crash course in educational pedagogy. She showed she could be flexible on the fly by writing and rewriting lesson plans on polarity, luminescence, and density when the needs of her students changed, and worked to build relationships with them to ensure their success.

Inspired by her little sister, Kai’ya Jones Gordon’s senior project explored the demonization and politicization of black hair. Avid about reframing the narrative and sending a message of self-love to young black girls, Kai’ya partnered with FroGang, an organization in Pittsburgh whose mission is to promote the importance of taking pride in natural hair, and delivered an uplifting presentation to Lower School girls on the beauty of natural hair. Determined to encourage girls to bring all aspects of their identity into our shared space, Kai’ya also led a mini-course called “Hair Story” where she related to Upper School students’ concerns about their hair and led discussions on taking care of your natural hair, loving it in its natural state, and feeling confident in outward appearance.

Perhaps the most magic happens at Ellis when girls are challenged, and expected, to own their voices––to speak up in class, to argue their positions, and to present their learning. Senior projects act as one especially powerful vehicle for student voices, offering them a real-world glimpse into what it takes to lead projects independently, collaborate with diverse groups of people, and communicate their ideas—something they will put into practice on a regular basis at college, in their careers, and beyond. Their resulting confidence is palpable.

2019 Senior Projects
  • Yumika Amemiya: Interned at Global Wordsmiths and translated works for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library from English to Japanese
  • Olivia Ball: Worked as an amateur conservator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History 
  • Sydne’ Ballengee: Created a ceramic installation for The Friendship Circle inspired by the resilience of the Squirrel Hill community and her experience working at the nonprofit
  • Amani Barnes: Created a photo essay and led a panel discussion on socioeconomic differences in the Ellis community 
  • Sierra Brandegee: Partnered with the Jewish Community Center to create an original mural inspired by the city and the children who use the space
  • Erica Davis: Worked with PublicSource to conduct interviews of Pittsburghers and change the narrative around fake news and media bias 
  • Leah Ewers: Interned with Welcoming Pittsburgh to understand what it’s like to influence change within a government agency
  • Katharine Ference: Shadowed an emergency room doctor at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and installed an original vinyl installation in the gastrointestinal unit there
  • Payton Ferris: Wrote and directed the mini-course play which was inspired by her trip to Guatemala working in an all-girls school
  • Louise Finnstrom: Explored how art develops confidence by working with children on art projects related to history 
  • Isabelle Hammer: Interned for a Pittsburgh gender lawyer where she explored the intersections between law and the #MeToo movement and led a mini-course on campus on #MeToo and women and the law
  • Abby Hong: Worked as a student associate for the Global Minds Initiative, a nonprofit that works with ESL students
  • Emmy Hsuing: Sewed handmade dignity gowns for breast cancer patients and donated them to Hillman Cancer Center
  • Zoey Hu: Worked to establish an animal protection mindset among young children by visiting kindergarten classes across the city to raise awareness of animal conservation
  • Kaia Iverson: Conceptualized and ran a kids’ softball tournament and donated proceeds to a local Pittsburgh charity focused on offering educational and athletic opportunities to Pittsburgh youths
  • Lauren Jasper: Interned at Ujamaa Collective where she helped create programming for black, female teens in the Hill District
  • Dory Johnson: Built and installed lending libraries at Ellis and her former elementary school to encourage literacy and a love of reading in children
  • Kai’ya Jones Gordon: Led an assembly on the beauty of black hair for Lower School girls and the mini-course “Hair Story”
  • Roxie Kim: Created a video documentary on the opioid epidemic to raise awareness of the dangers of drug abuse
  • Lillian Leibovich: Studied Arabic and taught the basics of the language to Ellis students in a mini-course
  • Bryn Luedde: Interned with Fair Districts PA to advocate for fairness and competency in state politics by lobbying for impartial redistricting efforts
  • Helen Luffy: Implemented a green initiative at Ellis by creating and installing a composting bin in the Lower School
  • Rebecca Moran-Scoratow: Interned at Global Wordsmiths and translated works from English to Spanish
  • Stephanie Ohori: Volunteered at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital as a friendly visitor on the Neurology floor
  • Renee Petersen: Created a video documentary on the Civil Rights Movement after traveling to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama
  • Amelia Rosenstock: Led community service projects with children at the Liberty Extended Day Program
  • Becca Rust: Created a photo essay on climate change and hosted an exhibition to raise awareness of the pollutants affecting the Pittsburgh community
  • Emma Schell: Ran and created lesson plans for a chemistry after-school program at Assemble and a mini-course at Ellis
  • Hannah Shanley: Created a photo essay centered on sexism and hosted an art exhibition to share her work with the Ellis community
  • Lucia Snyderman: Explored the impacts of environmental conservation by volunteering at the Wildlife Center and educating Ellis students on environmental issues
  • Olivia Strickland: Volunteered as a coach at a local figure skating program and created a video detailing her choreography work
  • Alison Taylor: Hosted a podcast where she interviewed influential women from diverse backgrounds and careers
  • Gussie Weiss: Interned at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and provided recommendations on diversity and inclusion at their summer camps
  • Olivia Wilson: Interned at the Humane Animal Rescue Society where she volunteered and helped run wildlife educational events