BY MICHAEL WALTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Central High School senior Nate Pupel clutched a classmate's plastic water bottle to illustrate a point as he explained his English class project to a small discussion group.
"What he's drinking," Pupel said. "You can make a lot of money out of that."
Pupel's project focuses on the economic causes and consequences of falling water levels in the Great Lakes, and was one of dozens of trimester-long research projects senior English students talked about with peers and community volunteers at the Central library on Thursday.
Central language arts teacher Sean Jones described the projects as a "culmination of the senior English experience" at Central. Students are assigned to choose a social, political or environmental issue of both local and national importance.
They then spend weeks researching the topic and writing a 1,000-word, solution-based final paper on the subject.
The discussion groups gathered in the library about a month before the final papers are due. Community members — including a local attorney, Northwestern Michigan College staffers, Traverse City Area Public Schools employees and several Kiwanis Club members — serve an important function in the research process, Jones said.
"One of the things we want seniors to be able to do is engage in professional, adult-like conversations. And make real-world connections with life beyond the other side of that wall," he said, pointing to a bookcase-lined outer wall.
Attorney Gary Gardner served as a sounding board for ideas and a discussion facilitator as senior Ray Silvas pitched his project about lowering the voting age to 17.
Silvas argued it's unjust for some states, including Michigan, to charge 17-year-olds as adults in criminal courts when those same teenagers cannot vote in state or federal elections. He suggested repealing and rewriting the 26th Amendment to lower the voting age.
One student at Gardner's table brought up the inherent difficulty of repealing constitutional amendments.
"I wonder if we shouldn't start with state or local elections, rather than trying to tackle a constitutional amendment," Gardner said.
Volunteer Ann Geht, an NMC librarian, oversaw Pupel's table. She offered him some advice.
"This is a huge topic," she said. "Would you be willing to narrow it down?"
It was the first time Geht participated in the discussions. She was impressed and said the seniors' work mirrored papers written by NMC students.
"It was exciting to see high school kids doing college-level work," Geht said. "We crank them out a little faster at NMC, but it was college-level work."
Senior Derek Roush chose to research the effects of standardized testing on teachers and students.
"Teachers end up trying to teach students how to fill in bubbles and write five-paragraph essays instead of teaching their subject matter," Roush said.
Roush acknowledged initial nervousness about presenting his idea, but he gained valuable insight from speaking with peers and his discussion facilitator, Central Principal Rick Vandermolen.
He expressed little doubt about writing a successful paper with the final deadline looming.
"With all this information, it better come together," Roush said. "Well, I don't see how it could not."