Junior Evan Johnston had an opportunity: Pick any topic to research for a major school assignment. The only requirement is that it has to make a positive contribution to society. He chose to pay tribute to his late grandmother and great grandmother by studying the illnesses that lead to their deaths last year: Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“It’s cool to honor my grandparents’ memory through this project,” Evan says.
His work is actually part of the AP Research class at Saint Ignatius High School. Juniors learn research methods, communication skills, and work to find solutions to a variety of problems.
This course is the second part to the AP Capstone Diploma program created by the College Board to develop student skills in research, analysis, evidence-based arguments, collaboration, writing and presenting.
“The courses provide our students with explicit tools we hope all of our liberal arts education offers—critical thinking and the flexibility to re-consider one's argument in light of new valid information,” says Tom Beach, Assistant Principal for Faculty Formation.
The program was launched at Saint Ignatius during the 2016-17 school year. AP Seminar counts for a full English credit while the AP Research course counts for half a credit of Theology and half a credit of Fine Arts.
Students who took AP Seminar as sophomores could choose to take AP Research the following year, and there are currently 28 students in the class. Saint Ignatius History teacher Joe Ptak is teaching them how to conduct original research and organize the information into an academic paper that is between 15 and 20 pages long. They then must present their findings in front of an academic panel and give an oral defense of their project.
Ptak and other teachers make up the panel and grade students based on their train of thought, ability to logically connect research questions to their research and method used, and finally, how well they engage the audience.
In the research phase, a student is assessed based on the original nature of his research. “Students must demonstrate through a review of existing sources in their field that the study they conduct is unique and will contribute to advancing their field in a meaningful way,” says Ptak.
Students are free to choose their own research topic, but it must make a positive contribution to society. There are three main ways that students obtain information: articles, peer-reviewed journals, and unique data they collect themselves. The goal is to produce a quality research project that has the potential to be published in an academic journal.
Johnston’s work focused on the struggles that Alzheimer’s and dementia patients have faced during the pandemic. He interviewed six caregivers and found the most common issues to be communication (which included wearing masks and social distancing), and patients having to isolate from their families and other groups. His project was written about in the Alzheimer’s Association newsletter and featured locally on Spectrum News.
Throughout their project, students work with a mentor to help guide and connect them with sources. Many students reached out to Board of Regents members, staff, or faculty, but Ptak says they also leveraged the vast Saint Ignatius alumni network by utilizing the online platform “Ignatius Connect.” Through this channel, alumni who are interested in mentoring a student can see if their expertise lines up with a student’s project.
Project topics run the gamut, from incarceration to athletics to business. While not every research presentation is personal, like Johnston’s, they all seek to help society in some meaningful way.
Vincent Fabe ’22
Vincent has been interested in prison reform after investigating the issue in AP Seminar and is researching the role that mental illness plays in prison recidivism rates. He has been working with alumnus and psychiatrist Dr. James Rodio ’83 to sit in on interviews with prisoners who have mental illnesses such as schizoaffective disorder. His research focuses on seeing if a prisoner’s lack of access to medicine due to parole policies affects the probability that they will return to a life of crime. “Parole is so strict the parolees often can’t get their medicine from the place they normally would. The jail system needs to be reformed,” says Vincent.
Tim Putka ’22
Tim took AP Research because he wanted to be more independent in his academics. He is a member of the Saint Ignatius wrestling team and says he has had experience having to cut weight to wrestle in a certain weight class. For his project, he tested the weight of each wrestler on the team before they competed and then three days afterwards to see their change in weight. He also worked with the wrestling team coaching staff to test the hydration levels in wrestler’s urine samples, as dehydrating is a common way to cut weight. “I want to help people in the future learn to cut weight safely. There need to be changes in the system,” says Tim.
Colin Schillinger ’22
Colin says he took AP Research to expand his horizons. His project is a case study on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on small businesses. Part of his research included reviewing past historical events like the Spanish flu and the Great Chicago Fire to see how businesses recovered at that time. He also interviewed small business owners to see how they had been doing since the pandemic started. Colin interviewed small business owner Terry Brizz ’73, who later helped connect him with other sources. In some cases, Colin found that businesses did better during the pandemic depending on the type of business. “I hope the research can show a new perspective. I wanted to show which places did better and use their strategy to help other businesses do better as well,” says Colin.
Learning Life Skills
In addition to learning how to conduct research using valid sources, Ptak holds “Speaking Olympics” to prepare students for the oral defense of their paper. In this exercise, students speak on a topic at random and must avoid using “um” or “like” when speaking and maintain eye contact with the audience. The goal is to speak for five minutes without making those mistakes.
This public speaking portion counts towards the Fine Arts credit while the Theology credit lies within the morality factor of research. Each student must ensure that the method he used to collect his own unique data was ethical and that any participating party has informed consent. In the process of reaching out to subjects for the project, students also learned communication skills like crafting a professional email. “You find yourself teaching valuable life skills,” says Ptak.
Ptak would like to provide this experience to more students, and those who have taken the course have benefited greatly from the network of Saint Ignatius alumni. If anyone is interested in becoming a mentor for students in the AP Research course, contact Joe Ptak at email@example.com.