In Your Own Way: Tenth Graders Convey Resilience in Personal Project Products

By Communications

How many of us have spent an entire school year taking on a dream project? Each year, tenth graders at Keystone Academy come up with brilliant pieces of work inspired by their interests, challenges, or even childhood crazes.

This undertaking, known as the Personal Project (PP), is a crucial component of both the IB’s and Keystone's Middle Years Programme (MYP). The process, which takes an entire academic year to complete, starts just before students move from Grade 9 to Grade 10. During this transitional time, ninth graders begin conceptualizing their own pieces by viewing the Personal Project presentations of tenth graders. After being paired with a supervisor, students complete tasks and reports according to a well-defined set of protocols.  They then create a final product for the annual exhibition.

This year's tenth graders showcased over 125 projects, all exhibited together in a glorious display, covering a wide array of personal interests, research fields, and global viewpoints. These works were linked by the theme of resilience to convey their growth journeys in the midst of this highly uncertain pandemic period.

"Besides academic requirements, it is also an opportunity where students can build upon something they love to create a product that tells their story," Personal Project coordinator and Economics teacher Dorothy Mubweka says.

"I've seen students explore this journey in the most amazing ways, which allows them to get those wings and fly as high as they want. How far or high they will go depends on their own commitments."


A Bird's-Eye View: Steve Sun vlogs about getting a private pilot license

For Steve Sun, the sky is not the limit; it is where his dream lies.

Steve's view is divided into three: a radiant blue sky strewn with gigantic clouds, lush mountains that break the horizon, and multicolor buildings that grow larger every second. His perspective from the cockpit gets a bit shaky at times, but his focus remains steady.

The throttle teeters slightly but the plane lands softly. Steve passes the 3D flight simulator test.

Ever since childhood, Steve has always fantasized about flying a commercial plane. This interest would later become the thrust of his Personal Project: to acquire a private pilot license.

Steve originally intended to travel to Canada in late 2019 to attend a flight school program. He aimed to publish an influencer vlog about his ‘ground school’ journey so that other young Chinese interested in aviation could grasp the process. However, he needed to alter this concept since his trip was canceled and so he would have no experience or footage of flying an actual plane.

As the course continued virtually, Steve endured synthesizing "massive amounts of theoretical knowledge" once a week, on top of his academic workload at Keystone, and recorded his progress in each training stage. After identifying difficulties and areas for improvement, Steve sought recommendations from his instructors and other aviation enthusiasts for flight simulator software.

"It was very authentic, very thrilling," Steve says of the flight simulator he uses via his laptop and other mobile devices. "All the visible cockpit devices can be controlled. So excluding real-life flight dynamics, there is not much of a difference using this compared to flying a real plane."

His supervisor, Design teacher Vladimir Simic, raves about Steve's drive to achieve this goal because "we're not just talking about a small thing—it's a license!" Mr. Simic believes that Steve's project is a "fantastic showcase" of combining motivation and passion at the same time.

"It's a great moment for young people to realize, 'Hey, projects like this are not really rocket science.' Actually, this is doable," Mr. Simic continues. "A lot of people who are passionate about airplanes their whole lives may have never even thought about having a license. Steve is doing an amazing thing trying to promote, 'Hey, you can do it! It's possible!'"

After nearly a year, Steve successfully passed the ground course for the private pilot license training program. He plans to continue his flight courses in Canada to obtain the pilot license so he can fly to his dream destination: Seattle, home of the world's largest airplane manufacturer.

"Seattle is also famous for its breathtaking natural landscapes," Steve adds, "and approaching towards the city gives people a spectacular bird's-eye-view of snow-covered rocky mountains and a glimpse of the sunset above the Pacific Ocean."


Wildest Dreams: Ariel Chen brings a "forest" to campus

There are faint bird chirps in the Secondary School foyer, seemingly inviting visitors towards the gallery area. There, Ariel Chen has prepared an immersive forest exhibition for her project.

The entrance's imposing display board welcomes visitors to the "Wilderness of Beijing" and introduces them to the North China leopard cat, whose footprints lie on a winding ‘forest’ path with trees made out of paper tubes and small hills printed on cardboards. A camouflage net spans the track, splitting gallery lights and turning them into sunshine. Bird chirps are transmitted by wireless speakers.

The immersive display also showcases other species such as the red fox, the roe deer, the wild boar, and the ring-necked pheasant. Of course, the focus is on the leopard cat, with which almost all current Beijing residents are probably unfamiliar.

Ariel's Personal Project seeks to raise awareness of the condition of this cat and inform everyone that it is still possible for urban residents to coexist with wildlife by changing mindsets and employing empathy for the environment.

Visitors to Ariel's immersive forest are deeply fascinated by how she has weaved her passion and call to protect the environment into this most conscientious project. One teacher has even told her that the "exhibition made me shed tears." Her supervisor, Science teacher Brad Gibbs, believes the project can be "extrapolated to the fights of other species, ecosystems, and countries" and that it shows the relevance of "understanding how, on a local level, we can help specific species."

It took Ariel over 100 hours to conceptualize, design, and construct the immersive forest, her latest undertaking to promote environmentalism and ecological conservation. Known as Keystone's "Swift Ambassador", Ariel has done outstanding work in documenting numerous bird species, especially the dwindling Beijing Swift, and for establishing the school's birdwatching club.

In 2020, she and her Keystone friends organized a fundraising initiative to install infrared cameras in several protected areas in Beijing. They pieced footage together for the documentary Leopard Cats in the Capital, the same felines featured in Ariel's exhibition.

As part of her reflection, Ariel surveyed her visitors before and after they viewed the display. Although only a few of them had prior knowledge about the leopard cat, they left with more awareness of the beauty of forests and a willingness to protect this feline’s natural habitat.

"The project not only seeks to regenerate the wilderness in North China but also the curiosity and caring for nature that has disappeared in people's hearts," Ariel says. "Only by restoring this love for the environment and wildlife—and when people in Beijing are ready to welcome them—will the North China leopard come back."


Less Stress: Jessie Pang comes up with a mental health guide for teens

The sudden move to online distance learning last year took a toll on many students around the world, including Jessie Pang. Changing circumstances made it harder for Jessie to return to her rhythm. Besides, she had heard the news about other teenagers facing mental health issues due to isolation.

Jessie wanted to turn this situation around to help other young people amid the crisis. Tapping into her interest and previous knowledge of psychology, she devoted her Personal Project to creating a mental health handbook for teenagers.

In July 2020, she collected data from more than 100 anonymous teenagers around China to understand their current psychological state. Her survey results suggested that reduced personal interaction during the pandemic aggravated the stress from academic pressure teenagers were already experiencing.

Synthesizing survey data, an interview with a school counselor, and background research, Jessie came up with five "healing methods": healthy diet, sufficient sleep, regular exercise, effective time management, and deep breathing. Also, she suggested that fellow teenagers remain aware of their overall health, pay attention to emotions, and build and sustain good relationships with peers.

"In my interview with a teacher who specializes in psychology, we discussed a lot about the ideas and expectations of teenagers," Jessie adds, "and it made me reflect on my growth and reminded me why keeping a balance on study and relaxation was crucial."

Her supervisor, Physical Education teacher Aki Mustonen, commends Jessie for taking on such a personal issue, and at times an awkward topic for teenagers. Mr. Mustonen has witnessed how Jessie has utilized her project to further her interest in psychology. The guide, he adds, not only motivates many other students globally but will also become a valuable source for parents and adults to understand the "psychological struggles [teenagers] may be going through."

Jessie is finetuning her mental health guide and plans to share it on the social media platform Sina Weibo to reach more teenagers experiencing mental health challenges. She aims to keep developing her handbook further in university so more people can follow her suggested stress busters.


A Stroke of Genius: How Emily Shi finds beauty and peace through calligraphy

Emily Shi spread out the calligraphy works of her students, looking at the writing repeatedly, and then nodded in satisfaction.

Chinese calligraphy has become an indispensable part of Emily since learning it in her fourth-grade year. Although she first thought of the art as "a hobby for the elderly", Emily eventually realized its charm so that now she "finds peace" in practicing it.

Over the years, Emily has noticed that only a few students appreciate and find deeper meaning in this traditional art. She wanted to analyze classic calligraphic works for her Personal Project to encourage young people, but her supervisor Brad Gibbs advised her to go for another route.

In 2020, Emily founded a school calligraphy club where she tutored students remotely. The club has turned her passion into an interactive activity that allows her peers to put theory into practice. Here, she has also shared her analysis of famous calligraphic works in Chinese history:

·       bēi (lit. "sadness")
From Han Shi Tie by Su Shi

The Huangzhou Han Shi Tie was a poem composed by the Song dynasty poet Su Shi during his political exile to Huangzhou. The poet expressed his bleak situation during the Cold Food Festival, a traditional occasion to venerate ancestors, through the poem. The character 悲 bēi, as Emily observes, was written with various stroke intensities, which may denote the mood swings of the poet.

·       (lit. "anger")
From the Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew by Yan Zhenqing

The Draft of a Requiem to My Nephew was penned by Tang dynasty calligrapher and governor Yan Zhenqing after the brutal killing of his brother and nephew by rebels during the Anshi Rebellion. Emily notices the messiness of the strokes in the character 怒 , especially the uneven surges in ink, which she believes are the expression of the politician's anger upon knowing of the death of his relatives.

·       (lit. "happiness")
From the Lantingji Xu by Wang Xizhi

The Lantingji Xu or the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion is a classic poetry collection created during the famed artistic gathering of Jin dynasty calligrapher Wang Xizhi and his literati companions. Emily opines that the elegance of the brush strokes in the character喜 conveys Wang Xizhi's cheerfulness and unbridled freedom at the time.

Her supervisor Brad Gibbs is fascinated by Emily's project as it "nurtures the love of Chinese culture" not only for her but for others too. Emily is moved to know that her students can now "spot calligraphic features that convey emotions" and can even create their own pieces.

"Even though I had already finished my project, I will continue my club," she adds. "I learned how much you could influence others with your knowledge and how powerful that can be."


During the opening ceremony of this year’s Personal Project exhibition for ninth graders, current Assistant Head of Middle School, who will head that division next year, Meredith Phinney told her student audience that the project would be “one of the most exciting things that [they] are allowed to do in the MYP”.  She also encouraged them to “embrace the process” of creating their projects and products. She shared with them a quote from a Turkish poet.

“It's not the road, it's the journey that matters. It is how you travel, where you stop, where you pause, when you continue your journey that takes you, and then when you slow down, and when you celebrate.”