STUDENT-DRIVEN: We do learning differently by encouraging students to investigate their passions through in-depth research projects.


A well-defined and rigorous project begins with the Proposal. Students start by writing a rationale describing their interest in a subject and how it relates to their short and long-term goals. With approval by the parent(s) and advisor, preliminary research begins. Five to ten hours of time is devoted to reading a general overview of the topic, creating a web/outline of subtopics, creating a list of open-ended questions to guide further research, and gathering sources that will be used.

With preliminary research complete, the student creates a project binder and schedules a Proposal Meeting with his/her project team. At that meeting, the student and two advisors review sources, discuss primary sources (e.g. live experts and field trips), and work on focusing the project. Credit and timelines are proposed and upon approval, the research phase is entered.

The proposal phase is a time of close collaboration between the student and advisor in choosing and evaluating sources. Webs, outlines, and questions are discussed and revised together before the proposal goes to the project team, ensuring that the proper groundwork for a successful investigation has been done.

Books, articles, and electronic sources are researched thoroughly and notes are produced. Students are generally asked to read an entire book on their subject ensuring a comprehensive understanding. The Research phase comprises 30-40% of the time spent on any project. Notes are organized and a Works Cited (MLA) is created. VNS students are encouraged to look beyond the walls of the school for information, inspiration, and understanding. Hands-on experiences frequently provide the impetus for VNS students to go above and beyond their original goals. VNS students have discovered that the most valuable resources are “live experts.” Not only can they provide direction and offer additional sources, but they offer an exciting and real-world perspective on the subject at hand. Many students have had extraordinary experiences, from standing next to a surgeon during an open-heart operation to working with an engineer on a student-invented product to working at a Chicago inner-city teen drop-in center while living at a mission facility.

At the conclusion of the research phase, a planning meeting is held between the advisor and the student to review the research and discuss ideas for products to display the newly-gained knowledge. One written document is required in addition to other products (e.g. PowerPoint, websites, artwork, music, poster boards, models, games, activities, films, stories, and a host of other possibilities). The sum total of these products must comprehensively display the student’s knowledge on the subject. Once the products are determined, the student completes sketches, outlines, and plans for their completion. Timelines are reviewed and the Production phase begins.

The Production phase consumes approximately 30-40% of the project time focusing on creating, revising, and editing of repeated drafts for all types of products. Peers, parents, advisors, and the student all have roles in revision and editing—the goal is to achieve high quality in all areas. Non-written products give students a chance to employ other talents and spend hands-on time with their subjects. Students have set up a wide variety of visual displays, given speeches/talks to community groups, taken an invention from idea to design to prototyping, built complex and near-professional model train layouts, designed and sewn Elizabethan dresses, choreographed dances, taught classes, built boomerangs, and planned weddings. Real-world work is the true connection between research and understanding.

At the close of the project, the student organizes all components of the entire project process, including time logs. An End-of-Project Analysis is written (2-3 pages minimum), and the project is saved in an electronic portfolio. A meeting is scheduled for the student and the original project team to evaluate the work. Evaluation meetings generally last 45 minutes to one hour and are a collaborative process to determine the quality of products and processes. The student leads the discussion, covering process, content, and self-evaluation for placement on a nine-part rubric. As a rule, students have a very accurate sense regarding the strong and weak points of the work and the evaluation meeting is as much about suggestions for the future as it is about assessment of the present. The student’s individual advisor often acts as an advocate for the student, since he/she has been a guide/resource throughout the project. A balance between hours spent and quality of work determines the credit earned.