Many high school seniors are counting the days until they get their diplomas. But Animas High School students are putting in countless hours to complete their senior projects – and they’re loving every minute of it.
“Technically, the second semester of senior year is worthless,” said Kyle Edmondson, a senior math teacher at the free charter school that offers project-based learning. “But these kids are doing senior projects whose design and quality are really impressive.”
A senior project requires students to use all the skills they’ve learned in their four years at the school, beginning with research, analysis and writing a thesis. They then present their findings in a TED-style talk. Named for technology, entertainment and design, the talks present ideas, research and calls to action by experts in a limited time. The final stage is an action piece related to their topic.
“One student is building a training program for climbers because he wants to be a trainer or coach some day,” said Lori Fisher, senior humanities teacher. “Another is studying what motivates people to go to live music performances. He found a 64-page master’s thesis he’s using as part of his research. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. And he’s throwing a concert at the end.”
A senior project can be summed up simply.
“Learn about something,” Fisher said, “and make it about something that matters.”
Five students took their projects to another level.
Dominique “Domi” Frideger studied the impact of nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations and grass-roots organizations on Chinese pollution policies.
“I learned about the power of the Chinese government and how little power the organizations have,” he said. “You can’t change anything unless the government wants you to or lets you.”
Frideger is taking a year off before college and will roll over two scholarships he’s been awarded, one from the Homebuilders Association of Southwest Colorado and another from taking third place with the solar car in a statewide “Failure Fair” run by the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The Failure Fair recognized students who were taking risks with their learning.
His project partner, Dylan Kroes, investigated the concept of “Kodak courage,” the observer effect on action sports, where cameras make athletes take extreme risks. Kroes is headed to the University of Denver to study mechanical engineering, with the eventual goal of becoming an aerospace engineer.
“It’s a real effect,” Kroes said, “and I think athletes should realize it’s happening so they don’t die doing something too risky.”
Frideger’s plan to build a solar panel morphed into building a solar car, in part to compete as Team Energy Audacity in the 2016 Solar Car Challenge. They will join 26 other high school teams from around the world in Fort Worth, Texas, in July, with a goal of driving 772 miles to Minneapolis in six days. In more than 10 years of events, no one has ever completed the trip, so the winner is the car that travels farthest, Frideger said.
The learning curve has been steep and ongoing, including learning computer-aided design programs, welding, fundraising and problem-solving.
“I didn’t know anything about solar or about cars,” Kroes said. “And I’ve learned how to design things in a simpler way. Before, everything had to be structurally sound and perfect. Now, I’m learning to be more realistic.”
Most of the race teams have more members, some as many as 14.
“A lot of the race is strategy,” Kroes said. “Navigation, watching the weather to keep the batteries fully charged, traffic observation. Most teams have people assigned to that, but we’ll just have to plan really well. They require three companion cars, so we’re trying to get some underclassmen involved so they’ll want to keep a solar-car team going in the future.”
Katie Austin, Derek Pansze and Connor Whitesell are building a tiny house of 128 square feet on a trailer.
“I researched the psychological benefits to living in a tiny house,” said Austin, who’s headed to Bryn Mawr College to study English and journalism. “I wasn’t originally planning to include the religious aspect, but then I found an article by (Catholic writer and Trappist monk) Thomas Merton. The correlation between religion and living minimally has happened lots of places in different religions.”
Pansze, who’s headed to Quest University in Canada, took a look at modern nomadism and whether it has a place in society.
“I think it does,” he said. “Neonomadism promotes certain qualitative benefits, because travel, crossing borders, makes people more tolerant and more comfortable with changes in society. And we need that now.”
And Whitesell, who will pursue a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Denver, investigated balancing cost-effectiveness with green building.
“There are two types of green building,” he said. “Deep green – working with the nature and the environment, like the adobe homes in the Southwest, which keep out heat so you don’t have to mechanically cool. And light green, which is solar panels, energy efficiency and what are considered green ‘gadgets.’”
The tiny house, he said, is inherently an energy-efficient way to live.
“The biggest issue in larger houses is that they lose a lot of heat, but you can afford to insulate this very well because it’s so small,” Whitesell said. “You don’t have to cool them, and sometimes they don’t even need a heater because body heat is enough.”
While the students have learned some basic skills from building projects at Animas, a house, even a tiny one, is on a whole different scale. On top of learning construction skills, they had to raise money for materials.
“Most important is just getting the word out,” Pansze said. “We learned about marketing and what makes people buy things in our Sense of Place project, so I’ve handled the social media GoFundMe campaign.”
Alpine Lumber provided materials at cost, and Ashley Hein, the school’s development director, introduced the students to the staff at Jaynes Durango, a construction contractor, who has helped them with the construction aspects.
The students plan to work into June but may only be able to get the shell done, which they may sell as is – a common practice in tiny houses, Austin said.
Or they may leave the shell to be finished by members of next year’s senior class. The ultimate goal is to sell it to raise money for Animas High School.
“Do as much research as possible before building,” Pansze advised younger students who may consider similar projects. “Measure twice and cut once is true. We made a bunch of mistakes, and they really add up, 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there, and you’ve lost two hours of build time.”
Team Energy Audacity will unveil its solar car from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at Open Shutter Gallery, 735 Main Ave.
To learn more about the team or donate to help them get to the Solar Car Challenge in July, visit
To learn more about the tiny house project or donate to help the Animas High School students finish their projects, visit