The Capstone Years program at Pickering College is reimagining what a school project can be
by Glen Herbert
by Glen Herbert
“She was the only person in the room who was a student,” says Julia Hunt. “Everyone else was either a principal or a PhD—people very senior in education, and here was our student presenting to them.”
The student was Celeste Castelino from Pickering College, and the room was the Canada International Conference on Education (CICE) at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where she had been invited to present a paper. Titled "Sustainable Education for the Twenty-First Century: Implementing Mandatory Experiential Learning into Ontario Public High Schools,” it was a high school project, perhaps, though one literally unlike any other. It was the product of Pickering’s Capstone Years program, two years of research and development that augments the Grade 11 and 12 program. The ideas she raised within her presentation were bold, timely, and informed by relevant research, essentially arguing that the Ontario degree requirement for volunteer service could be better spent with students engaging in an action-based project. At the conference and beyond, her thoughts gained the attention of some premier educators and policy makers from across Canada and around the world, received as a compelling and important piece of academic research, if from an atypical source.
Celeste Castelino on the day she presented a paper to the CICE conference
at the University of Toronto Mississauga
Castelino’s research and the resulting paper were undertaken in fulfillment of Pickering’s Global Leadership Diploma, a degree program unique to the school and, in some senses, the nation. “The program doesn’t stop at theory,” says Hunt. “We want the kids to do the deep academic research around issues that are important to them, but we also want them to take action … we’ve had a student building a water purifier out of an oil drum, we’ve had kids do things with solar panels … it’s really broad.” Hunt raises Castelino’s work as a particularly good example of what the Capstone projects were designed to provide, namely an opportunity for students to use their voices and to deploy their talents to affect change in the world.
“When we designed the Global Leadership Program (GLP),” says Kim Bartlett, director of teaching and learning, “the goal really was: What do we want our graduates to be able to do at the end? It was really about imagining the ideal graduate.” The curriculum was reverse engineered from that goal based on an understanding of the skills students would need to have to succeed in academic and professional settings, while also being cognizant of the attributes and experience that universities would be looking for.
It’s a substantial goal with a scope to match, beginning when the kids enter school and building from there. Beginning in kindergarten—the Foundation Years—students learn about who they are and how they fit into various communities. Those concepts are expanded through middle school—the Pillar Years—leading to “An Expression of Self,” a culminating project where students are asked to consider who they are and what they can do for others.
By the time students arrive in the Capstone Years, they’ve built the skills, aptitudes, and attitudes needed to take on larger, more intensive, more globally-minded projects. They start by writing a research proposal based on a global issue of their choosing, suggesting solutions and implementation, which they ultimately pitch in front of a judging panel. Then, with mentorship from faculty, they make the proposal a reality.
The issues that students choose to approach are as diverse as the students themselves. One created an art installation and outreach program to raise awareness and reduce wildlife collisions. Another developed hydroponic gardens to combat food insecurity in urban areas. Small hydroponic gardens were built and tested to demonstrate that greens could be grown in small apartments, leading to healthier food choices for those relying on food banks. Yet another looked at means of improving healthcare for diabetic-related eye diseases on First Nations reservations.
In that and more, the GLP has proven itself in some frankly astonishing ways, turning more than a few heads along the way. The first student to undertake a Capstone project designed climbing equipment for scaling walls and traversing ceilings. Bartlett notes that “he was sort of an early prototype … he was the first in that program, and to test some of the pieces.” It was, in every way, a very strong beginning, and ably proved the concept. After graduating from Pickering, he moved on to the engineering program at Northeastern University, where during his co-op placement he was part of a team designing fuselage for Elon Musk’s SpaceX program. The work that he did within the GLP gained the right kind of attention, though it also gave him the right kind of experience to be able to function effectively in high-powered, highly collaborative environments.
“What I want our students to believe,” says Head of School Peter Sturrup, “is that they have the capacity to look at a situation that they feel may not be just, may not be fair, may not be right, and … [feel they can] do something about it. To not just sit idly by and be frustrated that, well, there’s nothing I can do … We want to teach them to be creative, to come up with new and different approaches, and then to actually do something about it.” While still new, the Global Leadership Program is proving its ability to do exactly that. “This is the time to be ambitious and really show how far you’ve come as a person,” says Castelino. And she has.
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