Dr. Cottingham was appointed Interim Upper School Director in July 2021, and her Pingry experience includes three years as Upper School Academic Dean and a semester as Interim English Department Chair.
The Pingry Independent Senior Project
For many students, the Independent Senior Project (ISP) is one of their most memorable and rewarding experiences at Pingry. The capstone of a Pingry Upper School education, the ISP is a self-designed learning project that students undertake outside of the classroom during the final five weeks of their senior year. From exploring fields of interest through internships in medicine, finance, law, or media, for example, to following a dream to develop their own community and civic engagement or art project, students are invited to delve into a topic or project that they have always wanted to explore but for which they have never quite had the time.
As part of the ISP, Pingry students receive feedback and guidance from their project mentor and Pingry's ISP coach. At the culmination of the program, participants present their projects to the school community and family members—a great opportunity for younger students to learn about the ISP program and begin to envision what they might like to pursue their senior year.
For her project deliverable, Kierstyn created a blog-style website that compiled a portfolio of the work of influential young Black individuals in New Jersey, which included athletes, content creators, beauticians, and other small business owners. She had noticed an abundance of Black youth in the state who had invested time to perfect their crafts, so her project focused on highlighting several of these individuals. The first step in her ISP included creating a list of enterprises and initiatives led by Black youth from all around New Jersey, then reaching out to those individuals to understand how COVID-19 had been affecting their lives and impacting their respective crafts. At times, this process was challenging, as it was an overwhelming time for many. However, a number of those who were unable to respond to Kierstyn's questions provided a referral to another Black business owner who was helpful and responsive.
Despite the challenging circumstances of creating a project amidst a global pandemic, Kierstyn was successful in bringing attention to the extensive network of local Black youth who are trying to drive positive change. By the end of her project, Kierstyn expressed hope that her deliverable would inspire others, including herself, to support these youth during a time when help was needed.
"After starting my ISP, I could not have been happier that I had this opportunity. It educated me on the other young adults my age in my own communities and how much they are doing to help others. They have extreme dedications to their crafts and it inspired me to potentially start something of my own!"
For his re-imagined ISP, Brandon worked in the grocery's Shop from Home division, which was experiencing increased demand, as most customers were staying home and avoiding in-person shopping. Brandon had worked previously at ShopRite as a cashier, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, the store relied on experienced cashiers, like himself, who could assist with the in-demand Shop from Home service. In addition to Brandon's responsibilities of shopping for customers, packaging grocery items, and preparing orders for pick up, he also focused on improving the customer experience.
At a time when lives were upended and many businesses were closed, Brandon was able to provide essential services for his community, which he found incredibly rewarding. As difficult as things were, working at ShopRite was also a high point in his life and he appreciated the company of his co-workers, sharing, "The employee base at ShopRite was great. We all had the chance to bond and enjoy each other's company around the shared experience of working during the pandemic."
Brandon's deliverable started out as a Google Doc, with information about safety measures at work, his daily work experiences, photos, and more, and later expanded to a more clearly organized Google Site that also contained visuals. In the end, he was proud of his work and realized how much he learned, not only about the day-to-day operations of an essential business during a pandemic, but also about his own priorities. "I have learned that we take for granted the relationships and normalcy that we are so desperately craving. I now realize how much more the simple things, like playing basketball with my friends on a weekend, matter. I want to convey that patience and understanding are crucial during this time because essential workers are putting themselves at risk so that others can fill their homes with all that they need. If you go into an essential business, say 'thank you". Even the smallest gesture of kindness has a big impact and makes employees feel appreciated."
Producing a radio play—and remotely, at that—had its challenges, one of which involved figuring out how to transform a stage play into one that is told solely through audio. Helen and her classmates had to devise creative ideas for allowing the audience to properly follow the story, using only voice and sound. As one example, to mimic the sounds of a character being stabbed, they invented auditory clues similar to a knife cutting through the air, and vocal sounds of someone under attack. Helen and her classmates also omitted many of the stage directions written in the script in order to adapt it for audio.
Despite the unforeseen circumstances and challenges, Helen appreciated the opportunity to problem solve and devise creative solutions, noting, "This play has been an experience in learning how to tell a story without visuals present." While it was not the ISP she had originally planned, her project taught important life lessons. In the end, her group successfully produced a radio play that was made available for the entire Pingry community to enjoy.
As a first step in their ISP, the friends planned trips to Jersey City, seeking out ideas and inspiration from the widespread murals that are part of the Jersey City Mural Arts Program. They observed a large range of public art, including artwork from renowned artist Shepard Fairey to simple graffiti tags, studying the many different techniques of paint mixing and pouring. Angelina and Vicky also pored through books, taking in as much as possible before initiating the mural's design phase. It was important to them that the mural reflect their experiences at Pingry, so they incorporated design elements reminiscent of their doodles from their class notebooks over the years. Eventually, they landed on an aesthetically pleasing mural that includes silhouettes of different animals, with a balanced contrast of light and dark, along with specific motifs and color themes to create a sense of consistency within the piece.
Since she had never worked on a large piece of this scale before this, Angelina was surprised by how time-consuming the development process would be, even underestimating the time required to create such a colossal project. The original plan was to create two or three murals, but as time elapsed, she and Vicky only had time to complete a single mural. According to Angelina, the hardest parts of the ISP were the research and planning phase, rethinking the space after realizing their time limitations, and finding ways to incorporate the different ideas of two artists. "Throughout our piece, Vicky and I incorporated both of our different styles. We had to work around and even rethink our space in order to make a piece that both of us enjoyed."
After completing their mural, the piece was placed on display for all to enjoy on a wall in Pingry's Lower Commons, across from the Health and Wellness Suite. The artists were pleased with the final product and view their mural as "our very last doodle at Pingry." They were also delighted to give something back to the Pingry community. As a final piece of advice for any upcoming seniors who plan to work on a visual art project for their ISP, Angelina recommends they spend their time wisely and create a clear plan of action beforehand in order to execute the project. She also suggests finding inspiration ASAP—"Before you even realize it, the time flies by!"
With the assistance of his project mentor, Pingry computer science teacher Dr. Marie-Pierre Jolly, Alex designed an ISP that involved using Java to create a 3D rendering engine—the type of tool used to create modern animated films—in order to create his own 3D shapes on screen.
Early on in his project, Alex realized that developing his own new technology would be harder than it seemed at first. "My original plan of combining existing virtual and augmented reality technologies together was a seemingly simple idea in theory, especially without understanding the real work that goes into each respective field. I spent two weeks attacking the problem from a higher level, but eventually realized I was making little progress. At that point, I decided to pivot my approach to learning the fundamentals of rendering at a much lower level."
To complete his project, Alex had to learn math beyond what he had studied at Pingry, and Dr. Jolly was an enormous help in this aspect. She had a great deal of experience with computer vision, which relies on similar mathematical techniques. After immersing himself in learning new material, Alex's final deliverable was a video clip that shows triangles, moving lights, and the camera moving through space, all generated using a custom renderer to demonstrate various features.
Reflecting on lessons learned from his ISP, Alex acknowledges some mistakes, and realizes how much he learned from his experience. "I wish I had started with a simpler project initially and expanded it over time. I wasted a lot of time working from the top instead of starting at the bottom. This made it a learning experience in more than one way for me, but I am happy with how it turned out." Encouraged by how much he enjoyed his ISP experience, Alex has decided to continue advanced-level studies in engineering. "I am now studying electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and want to continue to not only learn engineering and computer science techniques, but also learn how these techniques can carry over to other cool fields as well, just as my ISP did."
Annie and Drew's ISP included mapping out their bike route, which started out in Salisbury, Massachusetts and ended in Bar Harbor, Maine, as well as planning for unanticipated scenarios that could potentially arise. In developing their project idea, Annie was reminded of her dad's longtime advice, "Proper planning prevents poor performance." This phrase had always motivated Annie to study before tests and do her best at sporting practices, but as she planned her ISP, this old adage took on new meaning. The 20-page risk management plan they developed included turn-by-turn directions for their bike route, along with scenic stops and lunch spots that they researched. The plan also included more serious content, such as protocols to follow in the case of injury, theft, or inclement weather. "By laying out instructions for ourselves should we ever be in such a scenario, we felt more comfortable with whatever situations might have come our way, like thunderstorms or a biking accident, for example," said Annie.
After setting out by bike on May 20, spending several days riding along the coast, exploring small New England towns, and camping in tents at night, on May 26 they arrived in Bar Harbor in time for their flight back home. Reflecting on her ISP, Annie is grateful for the sense of fulfillment in completing their ISP successfully. "I think the highlight for me in accomplishing this risk management plan and bike tour was learning to execute something big with limited input and changes from administration and teachers. Drew and I worked together to create what we thought was a foolproof plan and I was really proud of the work we did for it."
Annie offers some final advice for seniors thinking about ISP ideas for their own upcoming projects. "THINK BIG! It’s always easy to scale down an idea but you don’t want to be halfway through ISP and wish you had done something more exciting or fulfilling."
Through his ISP, Ryan worked closely with his mentors, who taught him some basic data science projects and tasks, including an introduction to SQL, a programming language for working with data. Ryan also learned how to use Pentaho, a data analytics and integration platform, and by the end of May, he was able to take raw data, format it into a graph, and write a detailed report analyzing the financial state of a company. Ryan's deliverable consisted of daily journal entries, which recorded his work over the course of the month. He enjoyed updating his journal, commenting, "This was satisfying for me because at the end of every day, I could sit back and see my progress and track what I had learned."
In addition to learning new data analytic skills, Ryan was pleasantly surprised by the knowledge he gained working in a corporate environment. "One thing I did not expect to gain from my ISP is firsthand experience working in a small company. During my time at True Arrow, I realized the camaraderie between my two ISP advisors, who spend many hours together. They have a very strong bond, and this enables them to work together very well."
In the end, Ryan's ISP was a positive experience, allowing him to achieve the goals he set out for himself. When asked about advice for current Pingry students in the process of developing ISP proposals, Ryan offers a practical approach. "Do something you think you would enjoy, but it should also be useful. This opportunity can help you figure out what to do later in life, and the experience can influence your decisions for what to work towards in college."
Jewell had been curious about technical directing and stage management for quite some time, but her experience in these areas had been limited. Under the helpful guidance of her mentor, Pingry drama teacher Mr. Alan Van Antwerp, the first step in Jewell’s ISP was to learn how to run the lights for Proof. She started off learning about different types of lights, and why some, depending on the angle at which the light is emitted from the lens, are better for certain scenes. Next up for Jewell was to learn how to use Pingry's lightboard to program cues for the show, as well as how to change their color or use different lights in order to set the appropriate atmosphere. She also learned how to set cues to a specific time, and add blackouts between scenes. Jewell was able to apply her new skills to be successful as Proof’s technical director, and this might not be her last stint working on a play. “The knowledge that I gained from this experience will be very helpful if I choose to continue with technical theater in the future, which I hope to.”
Jewell also gained experience in backstage management and working with sets, props, and costumes for the Middle School musical. She reorganized the props room in Attic Theater, making it quicker and easier to find items needed for performances. During the shows, Jewell acted as “crisis control,” responding to any last-minute needs that came up, and she worked closely with the students in the play. She also had the opportunity to create some props of her own, including a sculpture made out of styrofoam and clay.
Offering some final tips for seniors in the process of exploring ideas for their ISPs, Jewell advises, “Choose something that you want to do, and to do it because you love it. I wouldn’t necessarily advise choosing an ISP because it is the most ‘practical’ for the future or because your parents want you to. This is one of the few opportunities you have to try something new or do something you wouldn’t have time to pursue otherwise, and I’d urge anyone to really take advantage of that and have fun with your ISP.”
Alexy, who does not identify with a single nationality, grew up in the United Kingdom until age nine, when his family moved to the U.S. His parents and grandparents were raised in other countries, spanning most of the globe! Because his family is so culturally and ethnically diverse, Alexy wanted to understand his family members’ geographic movement, which he uncovered by retracing their journeys on a customized, interactive map using Google My Maps. He tracked the movements of 12 immediate family members and nine cousins by color-coding the lines of passage of each individual or group of individuals who moved together. Alexy described the relevance of the locations, as well as corresponding stories and photos of documents, people, or houses in the marked areas, which included locations in Russia, South Africa, Japan, and France, to name a few. By utilizing resources such as Ancestry.com, a book published by his great aunt, Tatyana Grosman, and family records, Alexy was able to find answers, as well as the rationale behind other mysteries, such as why some family members changed their last names to counter anti-semitism in Germany.
Reflecting on some of the project highlights, Alexy shares, “Tying together what I know about my family and the events from contemporary history that coincided with their actions was very interesting. Following the path of my mother’s family fleeing Russia was especially intriguing, as I continually found facts, people, and events that led me further into the journey. I was able to find out more about my family that I never knew and expand upon the information I thought I knew.” For current Pingry students considering different ISP options, Alexy offers up some final advice: “I would definitely recommend people look into a similar ISP. Of course, it will be very different for each person, but if there are interesting stories and parts of your family that you hope to know more about, researching it is certainly a rewarding experience. It was an invaluable experience that I’m sure I will continue to explore.”
Interested in learning about different areas of medicine, Jackie decided to split the time she spent on her ISP between working with an anaesthesiologist in the OR and a neonatologist. During the first three weeks, Jackie shadowed an anaesthesiologist at Morristown Medical Center, beginning each day in the surgery holding room, observing her mentor meet with patients and get their consent prior to surgery. Alongside her mentor, Jackie scrubbed in and to observe one to four surgeries a day while sitting quietly on a stool behind a surgical drape, listening to the goings-on between nurses and doctors during surgery. The anaesthesiologist spent time explaining what was taking place before, during, and after surgery, and patiently answered Jackie’s questions. By the end of the three weeks, Jackie had observed a wide range of surgeries, from coronary artery bypass grafts to pediatric hernias, and she came out of it all even more excited than before she started. She joked, “Because everything was so interesting and cool, this experience has made me want to be every type of surgeon, anesthesiologist, and nurse possible!”
Jackie continued with the second phase of her ISP, also at Morristown Medical Center, this time alongside a neonatologist in the NICU. In stark contrast to the OR, Jackie observed the NICU to be a warmer environment, much quieter, and yet almost more tense (the opposite of what she expected). “There was more unease in the NICU because there were many rooms of sick babies, and anytime a vital sign was out of range, a little beeper would go off. I was almost always on edge in the NICU.” In the end, Jackie was pleased with her ISP selection. “I learned how medicine actually works in the real world. The doctors, nurses, and patients all created a fulfilling ISP experience that I will forever be grateful for.”
What final advice can Jackie offer to students deciding what kind of ISP to undertake? “Take advantage of this opportunity! It’s hard to convince hospitals/workplaces for you to crash their daily routine, but, with this senior project, it’s the perfect excuse to shadow and learn from the best. Although such a work-intense ISP might seem unattractive, it’s over in a second. Trust me, I resented waking up at 5:00 a.m. to make it to Morristown by 7:00 a.m. every day, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It was unbelievably worth it.”
Over the course of his ISP, Ish participated in just about every project at the shop, from oil changes and clutch jobs, to sourcing and swapping a new engine into a customer’s car. Ish was appreciative that his mentor not only taught him but also let him participate in making repairs. By the end of the month, Ish had acquired more practical skills and knowledge than he could have imagined, as well as confidence in his own abilities. “This hands-on experience with cars proved very valuable, and in the last month I learned more about the mechanical workings of cars than I had in years of being around them. Having this experience was so valuable to me because it showed me that I had learned enough to do repairs on any of my own cars in the future.”
For his ISP deliverable, Ish created an online blog, highlighting some of the favorite cars he encountered, and what made them interesting or valuable to his project. Ish surprised himself by how much time he ended up spending at the garage, some days from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM, without missing any days, even with a busy after-school schedule. It was an incredibly positive experience, and Ish would recommend a hands-on project like his to other seniors at Pingry. “Overall, my ISP experience was above and beyond what I could have expected, and I learned so much more than I anticipated due to how much time and liberty I had to actually work on cars myself in the shop. My recommendation to next year’s seniors is to be ambitious and creative with your choice, and really use the time to do something you like to do, as there is always time for resume-boosting internships and such later on.”