Independent projects offer students options
Frostestad sketched this before creating the costume for the production.
While the College offers a wide selection of course options in various subjects, some students remain dissatisfied by the range and choice of classes. As a result, many students appeal to the Registrar’s Office to pursue independent study projects for credit.
In the past few years, the number of independent projects undertaken by students has increased steadily. Director of Institutional Research William P. Wilson, Ph.D., reported that 98 students completed independent projects in 2009 and 100 students in 2010. This semester, the Registrar’s Office has seen a dramatic increase in students’ interest in independent work. To date, approximately 150 students are scheduled to conduct independent projects, according to Associate Registrar Valerie Sirois. “Roughly 67 percent are seniors [and] 25 percent are juniors,” Wilson added.
As part of the application process, students must find a faculty member to sponsor their project, and this supervisor acts as a mentor with whom students can collaborate as needed. “Projects ordinarily involve the preparation of an extensive paper or other suitable indication of the student’s independent research or artistic efforts,” Sirois said.
Most students’ project ideas stem from passions in their own lives that they would like to investigate further. American studies major Edwin Torres ’12 wants to spend time exploring his interest in filmmaking before he graduates this spring. When he realized that the College lacked a hands-on experience course he wanted to take, he approached Professor of English Phyllis Mannocchi—who also takes students enrolled in the “American Independents: Their Art and Production” JanPlan course to the Sundance Film Festival each year—with an independent project idea.
“Since I’m finished with all of my major classes,” Torres said, “I just thought, you know what? I’m going to make a movie.” Torres described the film, which he has entitled A Higher Education, as a short, silent 10 to 12 minute drama with music. “It’s a coming of age story of a young boy’s experience with differences of environment from the South Bronx to his transition to a college environment,” he explained.
Torres has already written and scheduled the filming of his short film, and Mannocchi has been an integral part of this process. In addition to recommending books and lending equipment to Torres, he also credited her with guiding the perspective and storytelling aspects of his project. “She’s given me a realistic outlook about what the audience is going to see and tells me how I should tailor my film to have a good universal feel,” Torres said.
Mannocchi, who has motivated Torres to ensure that all aspects of his film are “en pointe,” also encouraged him to enter his final product into various film festivals. If possible, he plans to begin networking at Sundance when he takes Mannocchi’s JanPlan class.
This independent study is the first major filmmaking project that Torres will complete, and he hopes to use the skills he has gained in the future. Although he has secured a full-time job with Travelers, he wonders if this project will encourage him to eventually apply to film school.
While Torres collaborated with a professor outside of his American studies major, most students undertake independent projects within their major. Stephanie LaRose ’12 completed two separate independent projects last year in the Psychology Department. Her primary project qualified for three credit hours, and the second was a less time-intensive volunteer opportunity for which she received one credit.
In her three-credit project, LaRose worked with Assistant Professors of Psychology Jennifer Coane and Erin Sheets to conduct experiments evaluating the organization of memory as people plan for the future. “I had people come into the lab and either think about a scenario [while] planning for the future or think about a specific event in the past,” LaRose explained. Then she tested her subjects on how many words they remembered across trials.
Her one-credit project gave her a completely different experience. LaRose collaborated loosely with her faculty advisor Tarja Raag, associate professor of psychology, as she volunteered with children at Hope’s Place for Grieving Children in Waterville. “Tarja suggested that I do it for credit and turn in a paper to her,” LaRose said. “She offered free reign, and every once in a while, I would update her.” LaRose opted for a much closer partnership in her work with Coane. “I basically lived with her, I saw her so much,” she said. They met once a week to come up with the experiment’s design, but she also frequented Coane’s office to meet with her informally.
LaRose’s psychology professors really encouraged her to conduct these projects. “I had thought about independent studies a couple of times, but they never really took shape until the professors taught me about it and made it sound like something I was capable of doing,” LaRose said. She plans to use these independent projects to help her get into graduate school for clinical psychology. “I can show them that I’ve done the research, and I know how it works.”
There are other students who consider their independent study projects a necessity rather than an option. As a student who has crafted her own independent major of medieval and renaissance studies, Lena Frostestad ’12 had to be creative when creating her major’s course load. “Sometimes there are certain classes you want to take, but they are not offered when you can take them. An independent study is a good solution,” she said.
During the fall of her sophomore year, Frostestad took on a two-credit project with the Theater and Dance Department’s JanPlan production of Next! A Cabaret for the Front Lines. Head costume designer Cecilia Cancellari ’11 took Frostestad on as an assistant costume designer.
Adjunct Associate Professor of Theater and Dance Jim Thurston served as her advisor, and Frostestad appreciated their one-on-one time. “It allows a student to get to know their professor on a more personal level and vice-versa. You learn so much more, and it’s a great way to express your ideas, while simultaneously attaining a better grasp of your professor’s perspective.”
Independent study projects come in various forms, and the Registrar’s Office is open to students’ ideas. “One of the best things about Colby is that the classes are so small, and you get much more personal attention from the professor than you would at a huge university,” Frostestad said. “An independent study project is the embodiment of all the benefits of a small liberal arts college.”