Ellis Senior Projects Explore Wellness, STEM Education, Sports, Art and More

Ellis seniors Sara Woodside and Sarina Pretter loved being in Amye Sledge’s Pre-K class. It’s where they learned to read, and where they acted out countless scenes of adventure from their imaginations.
In April, they got to make new memories with Ellis Lower School students when they returned to Ms. Sledge’s classroom, this time to read “Frida and the Missing Yarn,” a book they wrote and illustrated for their senior projects. It was a full-circle moment for the girls and their teacher; Ms. Sledge now teaches Kindergarten, but was also the Pre-K teacher for Sara and Sarina’s older sisters: Lowrie Woodside ’21, and Hannah Pretter ’23.

“Ms. Sledge has always kept in contact with all of us, and what’s special about Ellis is that I still see all my teachers from my whole Ellis career,” Sara said. “They remember specific things that you really loved at certain ages. At Ellis, you get to build such great connections with our teachers and feel so much kindness and encouragement. It was fun to go back.”

Sara, inspired by the picture books she enjoyed as a child, has wanted to write one of her own for a long time. The senior project gave her and Sarina—an artist and fellow Ellis Lifer—the chance to do one more project together before graduation. They began developing the story and drafting illustrations last summer, and they each worked with a local mentor in their respective industries throughout the year who helped guide them through the drafting and publishing process.

The end result is the adventurous tale of a cat named Frida, who loses her favorite ball of yarn and embarks on a journey filled with perseverance and imagination to find it. The seniors self-published the book through Barnes & Noble Press. Sara said they learned a lot from the experience, including how to keep the story line focused and relatable for children. And, she said, holding the book in her hands at the end of the process was extremely rewarding.

“I’d wanted to do this for a long time, and with the senior project we were able to have deadlines and criteria so it was easier to stay on track,” Sara said. “We were grateful to have the flexibility to do something that was both going to impact the community and would be fulfilling for us.”

Nadia Commodore
Promoting Mindfulness In Young Black Women Via Vinyasa Yoga
After her research showed a general lack of mental health support for young women of color, Nadia wanted to give back by providing a place for students to be able to release stress and learn about how to incorporate mindfulness into their lives. Working with Amazing Yoga Studio and mentor Karen Conley, and drawing on her own vinyasa yoga practice, she developed and taught yoga classes at both Amazing Yoga Studio and at Ellis for young black women.

Natalie Ficca
STEAM Education Through LEGO Pointillism Workshops
Drawing on her interest in the relationship between art, science, and engineering, Natalie created workshops to help children explore the painting technique known as pointillism by building art with LEGO bricks. She worked with mentors Nowell Webster and Hope Gillespie of Carnegie Science Center to lead workshops at the Science Center for children.

Rita Gianakas
Revamping the Field Hockey Summer Schedule Through An App
As an Ellis field hockey player, Rita knows the importance of being ready to play—even if it’s the off-season—so she built an app to help students stay on top of their game. Students can access week-by-week workout schedules, information about injury prevention, communicate with teammates, and chart their progress in the app. It has been used by Ellis field hockey players and she hopes it will be transferable to other Ellis sports teams. Her mentor was personal trainer Leah Wells.

Hannah Habershaw
Guarding the Glow: Enhancing Sun Protection for Ellis Athletes
Hannah channeled an interest in the field of dermatology into a project focused on sun protection for student athletes. She shadowed dermatologist Dr. Anthony Van Norman to learn more about the field, and is developing materials for awareness and best practices about sun protection for student athletes.

Jasmine Kaur
Helping the Heart of the Community: A Gurdwara Cleanup Project
Jasmine worked to give back to her religious community by offering her skills to facilitate the cleaning and reorganizing of several important community spaces in her gurdwara, a place of assembly and worship for Sikhs. Working with her language teacher, Ravinder Mehta, she cleaned and reorganized the kitchen, classrooms, and other community spaces within the gurdwara, making these spaces more efficient for education and community gatherings.

Livia Keelan
Connecting the Generations: Volunteering at Weinberg Terrace and Facilitating Arts and Crafts Workshops
Livia volunteered as a companion at Weinberg Terrace, a local aging care community, where she read to the residents, conducted activities such as bingo, and coordinated performances for residents. This work was tied to research she conducted about combating depression in residents of long term care facilities. She also coordinated the Ellis Lower School’s Kindness Crew, made up of PreK students, to create colorful seasonal crafts to decorate the Terrace.

Isabel Keenan
Curating Community: Creating A Zine from Collective Student Art Submissions 
Isabel showcased Pittsburgh’s student artists by creating a zine, or a handmade, self-published print magazine. She volunteered at Pittsburgh’s Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, and was mentored by IFCI Director Sheila Ali for her project. Isabel collected submissions from students at Ellis, Pittsburgh CAPA, and City of Bridges High School and is assembling the zine at Artists Image Resource in Pittsburgh.

Kalliope Kristian
Community Outreach Through Basketball
Basketball is important to Kalliope Kristian; she plays for Ellis, but also knows how special the game is for building community within her orthodox Catholic church. She participated in this program at her church growing up and, after the COVID-19 pandemic, wanted to rejuvenate the program. Her community outreach project is designed to help kids stay connected with their church community while enjoying basketball.

Francesca LaRoche
Worm it Up: An Educational Composting and Sustainability Journey
Franny worked to combat climate change by educating the Ellis community on something individuals can do to have an impact: composting. With guidance from her mentor, Laura Totin Codori, Founder and CEO of Worm Return, she developed educational programming for Ellis PreK students, helped form the Middle School branch of Ellis’ Environmental Club, and visited those classes to teach students about composting, food waste, sustainable fashion, and other environmental topics.

Liadan McElfresh
Encouraging Careers in STEM Through Early STEAM Education
Liaden’s project focused on the importance of STEAM education: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. With her mentor Tany Haynes, Afterschool Coordinator at Assemble, she developed workshops for kids to explore various science topics through building or creating something. Topics included why animals hibernate, and building model cars.

Rebekah Rapp
Inspiring Interest in Microbiology with the Next Generation of Ellis Students
Working with Dr. Thomas Hooven of the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Rebekah developed and taught a lab activity for Ellis Middle School students. Through the lab, she helped students learn how to use gram staining to identify bacteria in food samples. Related to her research in Dr. Hooven’s lab, Rebekah contributed as an author to the report A group B Streptococcus indexed transposon mutant library to accelerate genetic research on an important perinatal pathogen, which was published in a peer-reviewed journal from the American Society for Microbiology in November 2023.

Sophia Sellner
Giving Back to Those That Gave to Me; Working With the Pittsburgh Girls Choir
Sophia has long been a member of the Pittsburgh Girls Choir, and chose to give back to the organization by coordinating a fundraising effort to assist with the group’s travel and touring expenses. She worked with Kathryn Barnard, Artistic Director & Founder of PGC, to plan coordinate, and execute all aspects of the event. Sophia also volunteered as conductor for the younger children who sang during the event.

Evi Teter
Teaching Biology Concepts in Comic Form
Evi, a visual artist who also loves science, created a comic strip to help simplify difficult biology concepts. She worked with mentor Matt Teter and Ellis Upper School Biology Teacher Kassie Wadsworth to write, storyboard, and produce a full color comic strip exploring topics from Ellis’ junior year biology curriculum, like how cells and the immune system work. She is also developing related activities.

Ella Williamson
Colors of Connection: Navigating Emotions through Art Walk Therapy
Working with Dana Kirkpatrick, founder of Calm Pittsburgh, Ella combined her interests in neuroscience and art by creating a series of therapeutic walking tours based around public artwork in Lawrenceville. Designed to be taken solo, or with the company of a therapist, these five-, 10-, 20- and 60-minute walks are designed to reduce anxiety while providing opportunities to move. She also created a brochure for the tours.

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