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Juniors Present Personal Interest Projects

This school year, juniors in Honors English have devoted part of their class time to developing a Personal Interest Project (PIP) — allowing them to delve deeply into a topic that they are passionate about or interested in, then design a final project to share the results of their yearlong study in a form of their choosing.

Over the past several weeks, students in Mr. Slack and Mr. Baillie’s classes have shared their projects — which included designing and building a model of Disney’s Wall-E robot, developing and publishing a cookbook for residents of domestic violence shelters, creating a blog that reimagines modest fashion by embracing African fabrics, and more.

Teacher Dan Slack first integrated a form of the PIP project into his classroom three years ago, inspired by “20% Time,” a Google policy that encouraged employees to spend 20 percent of their work week exploring projects they felt would most benefit the company. Famously, it’s how some of Google’s most popular products, including Gmail and Google Earth, were developed; decades earlier, a similar program at 3M resulted in the creation of Post-It Notes.

In the education world, 20% Time means giving students time to develop passion projects of their own. Research shows that girls learn best when they have the freedom to direct their own learning and connect it to their lives in an authentic way. The PIP project allows for this, while also giving girls an opportunity to hone their independent research skills, learn how to pace a project over an extended period of time, and reflect on their own learning styles, developing key skills for college and beyond.

Students explored a range of topics through their PIPs this year: environmental awareness and conservation, mental health and social media, identity and community, modern political and social issues, architecture design and city planning, among others.

Asiyah Ball used her PIP as an opportunity to reimagine modest fashion, inspired by traditional African fabrics and jewelry. “I’m very passionate about Islam and fashion, so I wanted to pick something that combined those two interests in a fun, creative way. But it’s not just Muslims who dress modestly — it’s a lifestyle choice,” she explained. Asiyah noted that “a common myth about modest fashion is that it’s dull, bland, and people mainly wear black” — so, to counter that misconception, she says, “I intentionally wear colorful outfits.” For her project, Asiyah staged a photoshoot featuring a range of modest outfits in colorful fabrics and jewelry — including pieces from Ghana, where her grandfather is from, as well as Maasai beads from her time in Tanzania — and created a blog to showcase her work.

Shreya Mathawan was familiar with mechanics from her time on the AIS Robotics team, but wanted to use her PIP to further hone those skills while creating something fun. She brainstormed several options for her project, ultimately deciding on a full-sized wooden model of Disney’s Wall-E robot — complete with adjustable arms, pivoting head, and the ability to be steered down the hallway. Translating her ideas into reality proved challenging, but she was undaunted by the task at hand. “I had this vision of what I wanted [but I] didn’t know how to execute it,” she recalled, sharing that she decided to draw on the expertise of teachers and Robotics Coach Tom Weissert. Shreya calculated life-sized dimensions, used computer-aided design for the first time, and learned how to build a circuit board. Despite being side-lined by an injury this spring, she adjusted her process and completed her project on time — even creating Wall-E’s famous boot, filled with candy for her fellow AIS students.

Ultimately, the personal interest project is not just about the final result, but also about the process: brainstorming, conceptualizing, iterating, reworking ideas, and reflecting on one’s own learning, as students consider the next steps in their academic journey.

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