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Independent Learning Program Growing by Leaps and Bounds

Durham Academy Upper School’s Independent Learning Program has exploded in popularity among students, going from not quite a handful of participants annually a couple of years ago to nearly 25 students signed up for independent study projects in 2022–2023. And the growth isn’t just in the numbers, but also in the commitment students are exhibiting for their self-designed courses. 

With a more robust proposal process and a solid structure of support along the way, Upper Schoolers are chasing their interests — ranging from healthcare discrimination and robotics automation to American Sign Language and biomedical engineering — with a dedication that excites Tina Bessias ’78, who has led the Upper School’s Independent Learning Program for the last three years.

“We’re sort of cultivating curiosity by asking more questions about what you want to learn, and we’re supporting it with a more systematic approach,” Bessias said of the proposal process. “Plenty of people have a fleeting thought of something they’re curious about, and maybe almost every student has fleeting thoughts about things they’d like to learn, and what we’re doing is enabling them to learn more about it.”

The Independent Learning Program is open to students in 10th grade and up, and projects can span the length of a summer (made possible by grants from the Jack Linger Explorer Fund), one semester, two semesters or an entire calendar year. Prior to an independent study project being approved, each student must secure a commitment from a faculty content advisor and create something of a syllabus in which they organize and prioritize resources and process steps. 

“It’s more flexible than a syllabus because I tell them, you are both the teacher and student in this course, and you can change it as you go along,” Bessias said. “But it’s better to have a plan and a sense of direction.”

Students are required to make regular posts to their individual independent study blogs, which serve as both an accountability measure and a way to broaden the project’s impact. 

“The blog enables conversation with people who are interested, whether it’s Uncle Fred in Montana or your friends on campus, or a teacher who has an interest or whoever it might be,” Bessias said. “And it makes the independent study less lonely.”

Read on for excerpts from a few of this year’s blogs. And explore all of the 2021–2022 projects via the Durham Academy Independent Learning Program website.

Building Advocacy: Supporting Students with Learning Differences

Allison Preble '23

Learning Differences Toolkit

Allison Preble ’23 focused her fall independent study project on advocacy and support for students with learning differences at Durham Academy. It’s a topic close to her heart, having been diagnosed with dyslexia as a first-grader, and she was driven by a desire to “help kids like me succeed in school.” Informed by interviews with students with learning differences, she collaborated with DA learning specialists to create content for a digital toolkit for teachers that contains access to resources and information to support neurodiverse students. She also presented her findings and shared her unique perspective with Upper School teachers at a faculty meeting.  

Oct. 22, 2021

“In a typical classroom setting, your teacher gives you a plan. Over the years, I’ve learned how to succeed in an environment where the teacher tells me what to do, and I do it. But with an independent study, I’m having to learn in a totally different way. Admittedly, I’ve spent time spinning my wheels, shaping and reshaping my ideas and plans. The ‘independent’ part of the study is an important and challenging component. I’ve spent a good bit of the first two months of the semester planning, researching and organizing. I’ve also focused on seeking out experts who can help me shape a final product. Just getting started and figuring out the best process to achieve a good outcome is challenging because I don’t know what I don’t know. …

Looking ahead and looking back I can see the solid framework that I have built, and the more creative and collaborative work I am beginning. I am building on the student survey and adding a video. I plan to interview several students with learning differences who will share their stories and experiences of navigating school while learning differently. For me, storytelling is a powerful learning tool. There’s so much more to a student than a diagnosis. I hope hearing student perspectives in their own words will bring more empathy and understanding of the strengths and struggles that come with learning differently.”

Humanure Toilets & Biogas Digesters: The Future of Sustainable Sanitation, Agriculture and Energy

Mirella Kades ’22

Product design and sustainable living practices have long been passions of Mirella Kades ’22, and Kades married those interests in their independent learning project, which began as a Jack Linger Explorer Grant project in summer 2021 and continued in the fall 2021 and spring 2022 semesters. The project aimed to answer two driving questions: How humanure toilets and biogas digesters can be used as a sustainable sanitation, agriculture and energy solution, and how the system can be generalized to achieve some of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. To answer these questions, Kades designed and built a composting toilet and biogas digester system, with the intention of allowing people to produce biogas for energy, compost and liquid fertilizer from what is collected in the toilet. 

Feb. 6, 2022

“The most challenging, I would not say frustrating, part so far has been figuring out how to build a churning mechanism that is located in the center of the solid waste container. The mechanism is used to churn the solid waste and coat it in peat moss, sawdust, coconut coir, etc. This mechanism is challenging to design because the crank used to churn the waste needs to be detachable, and the crank needs to function from the top of the toilet, not the side. Designing this system in a way that it won’t interfere with the user and stows in the housing for the toilet has been an exciting challenge. The churning mechanism also has to be easy to clean. … 

I am continuing to learn about learning from others. I had a great conversation with Tate Staples ’22 that led me to brainstorm how to apply my project to larger infrastructure. Ella Simmons ’23 and Dave Chandler taught me how to use a lathe to round the bottom of the hex shaft that I plan on using for the main post of the churning mechanism. I have always been interested in learning how to use a lathe, but it was very cool to be taught by a friend who has a lot of experience.”

The Art of Conducting: An Exploration of the Challenging Role of a Conductor

Avery Davidson ’22

Avery Davidson ’22 began his two-semester independent learning project in August 2021 as an aspiring conductor eager to explore the mechanics of conducting and what makes a great conductor successful. By May 2022, he was a conductor in his own right, having conducted musical ensembles both within and outside Durham Academy’s walls. In the months between, he spent countless hours observing DA music teacher Michael Meyer and Duke Symphony Orchestra conductor Harry Davidson (who happens to be his father), as well as annotating symphonies by Mozart and Beethoven and arranging a composition.

May 1, 2022

“I had three conducting concerts last week (something I never thought I’d say at this age). Two of them were with the [Durham Academy Upper School] instrumental ensemble and one of them was the Jordan High School Musical, Bright Star. The instrumental ensemble got better and better as the days went on. We had two dress rehearsals: one of them I couldn’t make, but the other I was there for. I conducted them in my own arrangement of the march called Spirit of ’44, and they practiced it so well that all we needed to do was polish up some things. This means that we focused on the connectivity of the lines, making sure the specific articulation and dynamics I wanted worked, and definitely keeping track of tempo. … 

The first concert was in front of the whole school, which I was happy about; I got to finally show my fellow classmates what my passion is by example. Sharing what I learned through actually showing what I want to do was a great treat. Both the concerts with the instrumental ensemble were great because we were all in it together. And then, the big test was Bright Star. … [The performance] went so well that the orchestra was nominated for TRS (Triangle Rising Stars) for Best Orchestra (the judges just so happened to show up the night I was conducting!). Therefore, I think this independent study has been a great success, and an even better one than I intended. Technically speaking, I was nominated for being part of leading that orchestra. This independent study gave me so much.”

Linear Algebra

Taylor Winstead ’24

Linear Algebra

It’s often said that the best way to learn is to teach, and that’s the approach Taylor Winstead ’24 took in her spring 2022 independent learning project focused on linear algebra. Working with Durham Academy Upper School math teacher Dr. Andrew Prudhom as her advisor, she posted a weekly video in which she explains what she has been learning by sharing practice problems and how she has worked through confusion or frustration in solving them.

April 4, 2022

“One of the biggest [lessons from the Independent Learning experience], that I didn’t really even realize until being asked about it, is how rewarding it can be to explore something completely because of a passion, and (mostly), unconnected to college, and the future. Yes, I won’t lie, colleges often responding to independent studies did go into my decision, however, several people asked why I chose linear algebra, and I said the truth: that I am much more of a humanities focused person; I have my career in history or law planned out, this summer I will spend a week finishing my novel at a summer program, and three weeks taking several humanities college courses through another program. I do congressional debate, my sixth class is a second language … by any standard possible, I am a more humanities focused person. And yet … I chose this. 

So the answer that I gave, is that I chose this because it is sort of my last opportunity to really spend a lot of time exploring something that I just love, rather than an AP that makes sense for a certain college that I want to go to, or soon after that, a class that I have to take for my major. I have always loved math, and this was a way to tap into that passion, even though it’s not my end goal. Before this week’s presentation I had not realized that so much of my motivation for this specific study was to capitalize on the last remaining time I have to learn just for the sake of learning.”