extended essay

Challenge Yourself!

What are the experiences in life that yielded within you maximum growth or that you are most proud of? More than likely such affairs involved exiting your comfort zone and/or experiencing challenge or struggle.

In watching students pass through my classroom I have the opportunity to see how certain approaches yield the most significant results. And this is not about “getting the grade” or “getting that amazing IB score", it’s about personal growth and development. It’s about establishing patterns of hard work. It’s about the desire to learn as much as possible and to be the best that you can be.

This year I had the amazing opportunity of advising two students through extended essays (independent, self-directed research culminating in a 4000-word paper) in Science. I might be biased, but doing an extended essay in Science takes a bit of courage and a lot of work that some of the other disciplines don’t require. Not only do the science students have the same expectations regarding research and the written word, but they are also required to produce an original scientific experiment.

One student chose to research and work on a chemical on which there is hardly any literature available. As a result she had to research and make connections between similarly structured chemicals. Her idea required hours in the lab generating a calibration curve and troubleshooting how she would manipulate the independent variable, before even performing her ultimate experiment.  The final results were that the independent variable did not have an effect on what she was studying, a conclusion that initially came as a crushing blow. However, she picked herself up, learning that this is also part of Science and that such results are valuable. She pressed on to put together a thorough and coherent report despite feeling discouraged and ever so “done” with her project. She shared that she had truly learned the meaning and value of perseverance.

The other student built his own electrophoresis apparatus! He also passed hours in the lab just trying to get his protocol to work. He dedicated an entire week out of his summer coming in every day, all day, to work on his experiment. Then school started and he averaged about 10 hours a week through the first semester. I was getting ready to have the conversation with him that he might want to consider another topic. However, that very morning he was able to visualize genomic DNA in his gel. He announced this breakthrough in homeroom and every single student in the senior class cheered for him as they all knew how hard he’d been working. He went on to perform a most interesting, original, and very involved experiment with his set-up. He told me during the viva voce (the final interview with the advisor) that he “learned the importance of trial and error and to never give up.”

In another area of IB curriculum, a student at our school elected to take the Dutch Language B course of study.  Language B is designed for non-native speakers of a language with 2-3 years of background in the language. This student had one year of Dutch language before the IB DP years. She took a 2-week language course in Belgium to help herself prepare. This experience alone was agonizing as she was the only English speaker at the camp. All other students were native French speakers coming to the camp to learn either Dutch or English and she was compelled to rely exclusively on her “broken Dutch” to communicate. However, she returned with increased language skills and embarked on a committed journey to learn as much Dutch as she could. She ended up earning a “5” out of “7” on the IB exam and now claims that that score means more to her than any other as it represents how far she came.  She accomplished what many assert isn’t possible: to succeed on an IB Language B exam with so little initial exposure to the language. Additionally, she learned of the growth, personal development, sense of achievement, and empowerment that comes from exiting your comfort zone and tackling the impossible.

Another student has been exceedingly dedicated in all of her classes. However, she desperately wanted to bring her math skills up significantly. So, she focused with fervor on practicing her math. Hours and hours were spent on becoming a better math student. And, she demonstrated huge success on her mock exams this past December. She continues to heed the advice of each of her teachers as she prepares for the May exams, not slacking for even a minute. It hasn’t been easy but it’s clear she’s learned the value of sheer hard work.

What makes these examples special is that each student chose paths of challenge. Adversity wasn’t just thrust upon them. They knew they were taking a less traveled path and I think this element of choice makes their journey all the more enriching for them and inspiring to me.

It isn’t too late for the rest of us! We are faced on a regular basis to take an easier route or a more demanding enriching route. This year I took on three new curriculums! Both struggle and joy have enveloped me. I’ve learned and grown as a teacher and as a person as I dealt with very new issues in the classroom. And next year I will be teaching robotics and Computer Automated Design (CAD). I look forward to this experience and anticipate that it will be invigorating, mind stretching, and character building.

My question today is, what new challenge are you ready to embrace?

Viva Voce for the Extended Essay: A Great component of IB

“Are we being graded on this?” a student timidly queried as he entered the room with his lab report supported tenderly in his hands.  Apparently our response was reassuring and he and the other two sat down with relaxed smiles on their faces.

Today my colleague and I administered the viva voce for three seniors who completed an Extended Essay (EE) in Science.   We had a chemistry and two biology EEs.  They shared with each other the results of their experiments and then answered our questions.  They were very open and reflective about the EE process.  All of them felt proud of the work they had done. They commented on how this was the largest project they had ever participated in and how satisfying it was to have completed a research experiment that spanned nearly a year.  There was definite relief in the room as they carefully slid their hard work into the bright yellow cover sheets.  I told them the current 11th graders were selecting their advisors and topics this week.  What was their advice for these students?  Start early!  Get the data collected THIS YEAR (as opposed to in the fall of the new school year).  Keep track of sources from the beginning, maintaining a running bibliography throughout the process.  Good advice.

It was wise to combine the three students as it created a relaxed yet formal environment where they could sincerely share their experience in the presence peer support.  The conversation was much more natural and flowing as compared to the viva voce I had completed last year with a single student.  The meeting provided needed closure for both advisor and student.  This is a critical and valuable piece of the EE experience in the IB and I encourage all teachers to give appropriate time for this process.

It also confirmed a value of the IB program.  As I've posted about before, I am evaluating the IB experience from perspective of parent this year.  On February 22 I posted about the EE being a definite element of the IB that is worth it.  Today, it was clear to me that this EE experience provided growth and development for these students.  Additionally it was an opportunity to complete a long-term, in-depth project that left them with a huge feeling of accomplishment.  It is an experience I am glad that both of my teenagers are participating in. 

Extended Essay: An element of the IB that IS worth it!

This holiday, in addition to grading IAs, I also graded a couple of biology extended essays (EE) that students at our school are submitting for their IB diploma.  I took a similar approach to that approach of grading the IAs in carefully combing the assessment criteria for the EE.  I read through the examiner statements from last year and applied that guidance towards evaluating these essays.  I like the freedom of being able to provide more feedback on an EE, as compared to the IA. In some ways that makes the EE a more meaningful learning experience than the IA, at least in the Group IV Sciences.  I am happy to realize that even if these students make no changes to their EEs, they will “pass” this portion of their diploma.  However, I hope they take the suggestions to push themselves to submit excellent rather than good/mediocre work.

I sit again with the perspective of both parent and teacher as I read through the EEs.   My daughter is submitting an EE in English while my son is one of the two students submitting a biology EE.  As a teacher I am convinced of the “worthiness” of the EE endeavor.  The process of completing the EE does, indeed, as the IB suggests, “promote high-level research and writing skills, intellectual discovery and creativity” (IB Extended Essay Guide).  I am truly impressed by the creativity and intellectual discovery that both biology EEs generated.  As projects they were both outright interesting and engaging to guide and follow as the students progressed.  Reading the final products was truly enjoyable.  The students have something to be proud of. 

As a parent, I’m grateful that my own children are part of this experience.  Already, having had a vacation week for my children to catch up on the IB diploma obligations, things in our household have settled down a bit.  The stress levels are residing.  Additional crunch times lie ahead to I continue to withhold final judgment until the last exam in May has been written. 

Tonight, however, my yo-yo experience with the IB has swung up again and I am enjoying the great aspects that this program has to offer.  Namely, tonight I am appreciating the process of the extended essay.