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Seniors reflect on their extended essays By Julia Van Lare '21

In mid-November, seniors pursuing the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma finished the Extended Essays (EE) they had been crafting since December of last year. This occurred just as current juniors began the process brainstorming their own essays. The EE is a 4,000 word document required to receive a full IB diploma.

“I think students really value the idea of the full IB diploma,” IB Coordinator Ms. Julie Cantor said. “In my mind, it is an opportunity for students to really study at a high level while they're still in high school and explore some topics that they might not otherwise.”

The EE process begins with students identifying an area of interest and finding two to three research articles about that topic. After declaring their preferred subject area, students develop a research question and create an annotated bibliography. The timeline changes from year to year, but typically, juniors turn in a half draft of their EE in April before turning in the full draft in the second week of September.

“We do work with students individually,” Ms. Cantor said. “We really have spent a lot of time thinking about when students have other things coming due and trying to avoid those.”

There are five EE subject areas students may pick from, and they correspond to the IB class curriculum. The areas include language and literature, which includes both English literature and Spanish for students at the fluent level; language acquisition, which is for students interested in language and is the rarest subject for an EE; individuals and societies, which is essentially social studies and is the most popular area; sciences, which includes design tech and exercise and health sciences; math; and the arts. Within these broad subjects are smaller, more specific topics, such as economics or psychology. Each subject area is given different guidance, though they all share the same rubric. Ms. Cantor recalled EEs that analyzed everything from online shopping to Teslas. This year’s seniors represented an equally diverse group of topics.

Ally Obenberger

Senior Ally Obenberger is a captain on the track team, has gone to States in indoor track, participates in cross country and used to play soccer. Therefore, she was immediately drawn to her EE’s topic: investigating the impact television coverage has on pay inequality in professional sports.

“Obviously, it's unfair that two people can put in the same amount of work, be dedicated to something their whole lives and be compensated very differently,” Obenberger said. “I've just always been very interested in gender inequality. From my perspective, [the high school level] is very equal and we all have equal opportunities with Title IX, but on the professional level it's very skewed.”

Obenberger analyzed the problem from two sides: an economic one and a social anthropological one. On the economic side, she looked at television coverage in terms of statistics, through revenue and TV contracts. She determined the number of hours of television coverage that were devoted to men versus women’s sports, as well as the quality of that coverage.

“Basically, media coverage is really important,” Obenberger said. “My brother and my dad watch a lot of Sports Center and those talk analysis sports shows, and I remember thinking when I was younger that there's not as many women mentioned. We'd watch for an hour and I'd say, 'Huh, this is all guys.'”

After analysing that finding further, Obenberger found that the ratio of women to men in sports analysis television coverage hasn’t changed much in thirty years. Furthermore, Obenberger found the quality of that coverage to be subpar.

“For men's [sports] they might send someone to the site, they might have more interesting graphics, they could have an interactive part and say, 'vote on Twitter who you think's going to win the draft!'” Obenberger said. “Women's coverage would just be very flat.”

Within anthropology, she studied the impact gender and societal norms could have had on the trends she found in television coverage and pay.

“People grow up watching [those sports shows], so it gets nailed into everyone's head, that sports are for men, and that women do play sports, but it's more secondary,” Obenberger said.

For examples of her argument that TV coverage has impacted women’s pay, Obenberger cited the value of airing games for revenue and called sports games a “ninety minute commercial.”

“Until recently, the women's equivalent of the English Premier League was literally paying to have their games aired,” Obenberger said. “The men get the advertisements, the revenue, and then they can market even more and build bigger stadiums, get bigger and better players, and it just propells everything forward. So, until women's sports get the coverage, they're stuck in place.”

One difficulty in Obenberger’s process was dealing with constant updates to her topic. For example, the results of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s lawsuit -- where a federal judge ruled, among other things, that players could not claim to be discriminated against under the Equal Pay Act -- forced Obenberger to rewrite parts of her essay. This update was important, as the national women’s soccer team in the U.S. was one of Obenberger’s prime examples of what television coverage can do for a team.

“Women's soccer is actually more advanced than men's soccer; they've won more international tournaments and they generate more revenue and higher TV ratings,” Obenberger said. “That needs to translate into other sports and how we push other sports forward.”

Obenberger does not plan to become a professional athlete, and instead wants to major in environmental science, but she said before focusing on the environment in college, she wanted the opportunity to branch out into a different subject where she knew was passionate.

“[My topic] wasn't math or a specific science, so there was more emotion in it, because [the gender pay gap in sports] is so unfair; how could it be this way?” Obenberger said. “It's so obviously fixable; if they just increase the television coverage, everything else would fall into place, so why aren't we doing it?”

Naomi Abramowicz

Senior Naomi Abramowicz, too, chose to focus her extended essay on a hobby of hers rather than her favorite academic subject. Abramowicz studied the extent to which World War 2 promoted function over aesthetic in Western women’s fashion.

“I've always been interested in making my own clothes and sewing and design,” Abramowicz said. “I've been doing that since I was a child. In terms of the history of fashion, I've spent a lot of time reading about fashion history and the history of different designers, and I've always just thought it's really interesting how much fashion changes and the continuity that underlies all of those changes.”

Abramowicz used primary sources -- old magazines and catalogs -- to analyze different elements of the clothing and the changes in fashion. She found that after World War 2, there were significant changes in the clothing that women wore. As they entered the workforce, fashion trends drifted toward wearing pants and military inspired clothing. However, as the fifties began, there began to be movement toward “aesthetic over function” as beauty standards such as hyper femininity and the hourglass figure were enunciated through fashion.

“I thought that was really interesting, because it seems like fashion and aesthetics are cyclical, like they'll cycle from extreme extravagance to minimalism and then back again, and that's just how it cycles through,” Abramowicz said.

Abramowicz got the idea for her topic from books in her personal library about fashion history.

“I've already learned a lot about World War 2 and fashion just because it plays such a prominent role in the history of women's fashion,” Abramowicz said. “Especially in the 1940s and 50s, things changed [dramatically], like with Christian Dior and The New Look, so I just decided based on that.”

Despite only considering her love for fashion a hobby, Abramowicz said the process of writing her EE was especially enjoyable.

“I like fashion and I like the history of fashion, seeing how cultural and societal change have impacted such everyday behaviors,” Abramowicz said. “I think that having that background makes it more interesting to read more about it just on my own.”

noah portner

In contrast to Abramowicz, senior Noah Portner’s EE focused on a subject that he plans to study in college and used in his creativity, activity and service (CAS) project, another requirement for the IB Diploma. Portner’s interest lies in educational equity and he studied public opinion in the county about course tracking. Tracking is when students are placed in different levels of courses. Specifically, Portner studied how parents, teachers and students felt about parents and teachers having a say in the courses students take -- also known as parent and teacher choice -- versus standardized testing playing a bigger role in course selection. He also studied how those groups perceived the impact of standardized testing or parent/teacher choice on equity.

“Parent/teacher choice in tracking is when parents or teachers push students into certain classes or hold them back, and this is particularly an issue when we're talking about wealthy students, because their parents will push them into higher classes, so it really affects education equity,” Portner said. “I wanted to know how people thought about it.”

Portner used social media to reach 50 students from around the county. He also got responses from 50 teachers and 25 parents. He found that parent and teacher choice was very unpopular with students and parents, but not for teachers, although all parties ranked it as bad for equity. Portner acknowledged that teachers may have had a preference for the “teacher choice” part of the question, something they didn’t have the option to indicate in the survey.

“I just think the way it's structurally set up in our school system makes it so that [parent and teacher choice] are grouped together,” Portner said. “Everyone knows the course request form (CRF) -- you need parent and teacher verification to take a class, so it seems like it goes hand in hand. Obviously, I would love to cut down to just teacher choice, but parent choice will always be there with these CRF forms.”

In his surveys, Portner offered standardized testing as a possible alternative. That option was even more unpopular. Portner connected this with Thomas Jefferson High School for Math, Science and Technology’s -- better known as TJ -- choice to abandon their entrance exam in favor of a total lottery.

“I was very happy to hear that TJ moved away from the test after they enrolled a class with like zero African American students, which is ridiculous, because they take classes with like four or five hundred people, and none of them were Black,” Portner said.

Portner was drawn to his topic given the lack of diversity he saw in his IB classes. He was first introduced to inequity in more advanced classes in middle school, in a conversation with a classmate whose parents were immigrants.

“I was in the locker rooms in seventh grade talking to this kid who was at the locker next to me, and he was in the most remedial math class, whereas I was in the most advanced,” Portner said. “I was struggling, because I had been pushed there. He was complaining about how it was so easy, and how he wanted more of a challenge. When I brought up that he should transfer to the higher level math class, he had no idea what it even was. I realized the counselors and the parents had failed to deliver him that information. We pretend it's all so fair, but he had no idea what was going on.”

Portner’s survey gauged public opinion, but he wants to keep expanding his project. He sits on the Social Studies Advisory Committee for the county, which gives suggestions to improve curriculum. Portner has brought up his work to a county representative and has decided to follow-up with teachers, where he found the results most interesting. After doing more research, he hopes to write the school board a memo with suggestions.

“There's a lot of work to be done, and like I was saying, after my survey, no one was really sure how to proceed,” Portner said. “There's no one right way to do this, because you don't want to take opportunities away. Nobody likes standardized testing or parent choice, but you have to find a balance, and that's hard to do.”

Emma Huther

Like Portner, senior Emma Huther tackled a large issue: climate change. She did it by redesigning the dry erase marker as one of the two seniors who completed an EE in the area of design technology.

Huther was inspired by a book she read in junior year, "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Ways we Make Things," by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. Cradle to cradle is the idea that products should be reusable rather than being wasteful; every stage of the product’s lifecycle is examined to ensure it is carbon neutral.

“In the last stage of the [product’s] life cycle, which is disposal, it returns to the earth,” Huther said. “It's the theory that things should be recyclable or compostable in order to be more sustainable, and when designing products, our end goal shouldn't be landfill.”

Braungart and McDonough’s book inspired Huther’s interest in civil engineering.

“[The authors of the book] have this idea that we can cohabit the Earth and be beneficial to our surroundings, and I really like that,” Huther said. “I read this book and I realized that I wanted to redesign infrastructure to be more sustainable. When I mentioned this to my supervisor for my extended essay, he said, 'You need to start small. You only have 4,000 words.' So, I picked a dry erase marker.”

A dry erase marker has six parts. On the outside of the marker, there’s the marker body, the cap on one end of the marker and the plug on the other, all of which are made of polypropylene plastic. Inside the marker, there’s a felt tip, casing--also polypropylene--and a polyester reservoir inside that casing. To begin with, Huther proposed replacing all the polypropylene elements with aluminum.

“Aluminum can be recycled indefinitely and it's one of the most sustainable materials you can use,” Huther said. “It takes twice as much energy to produce new plastic than it does new aluminum, and since aluminum can be recycled indefinitely, it's just so much more useful and worthwhile.”

Next, Huther replaced the polypropylene casing with a thin cardboard tube, which is plant-based and therefore compostable. A cartridge inside the tube would allow users to swap out the inner part of the marker. Inside the cartridge, instead of the polyester reservoir to store ink, Huther proposed using an easy-growing plant--milkweed floss--which has other benefits besides being compostable.

“By planting milkweed floss, it attracts monarch butterflies, which are a dying butterfly population,” Huther said. “They are also pollinators, so milkweed is great. It's biodegradable, it's natural, and through the use of milkweed floss and the planting of milkweed we can attract a declining population.”

Huther has thought about applying for a grant to use for her redesigned marker, though it is not her top priority at the moment. The redesign was not an entirely satisfying experience.

“I think that when I finished, I was very conflicted,” Huther said. “I had this feeling of pride, and I felt like I had accomplished something, but I think it was juxtaposed by the reality that there is so much waste in this world, and the idea that what one person can do is so little.”

Emma Berver

Senior Emma Berver, editor-in-chief of the Penman, the school’s literary magazine, was inspired to write her EE when she read Ada Limón’s poetry book “Beautiful Dead Things” last fall. Given that Limón is a new and more obscure poet, Berver decided to write a literature EE and compare her work to that of Sylvia Plath. She analyzed how they both used a juxtaposition of images, a confessional style and personification to express themes of self-identity, inner-turmoil and emotional escape.

“[Analyzing the work of Ada Limón] was very exciting for me because it forced me to try to research something completely new,” Berver said. “With Sylvia Plath, I could rely on some papers I read or other literary analysis or literary criticism I could find, but with this newer poet, I could take whatever angle I wanted.”

Though Plath is a very well known poet, Berver said she approached her work from a different angle than she was used to seeing.

“She's a very well-known poet that I think is misunderstood, in a sense,” Berver said. “A lot of people tie her life into her work. I was not looking at her life at all; I was just looking at the merit of what she had created as a poet. Instead of saying, 'The reason she wrote this was because she was going through mental illness when she wrote it,' I was just looking at what literary devices she uses, because I think she writes really great poetry. “

Berver’s favorite poems by the two poets are “I Remember the Carrots” by Limón and “Tulips” by Plath. “I Remember the Carrots” is about Limón’s childhood memory of her father planting carrots, and Limón ripping them up before they could grow because of how excited she was to see them, thus the book’s title “Beautiful Dead Things.” “Tulips” examines a hospital room with bright red tulips, and how strange it is to have dying flowers at a hospital.

“[There’s] a ‘bright dead thing’ in [Plath’s] poem,” Berver said. “They're about two totally different things -- a hospital and growing up from childhood -- but they use the same type of imagery.”

Besides their similar themes and literary devices, Berver drew the conclusion that Plath was of significant influence for Limón as well as contemporary poets in general.

“I think that when Sylvia Plath [wrote], it was very rare to have poetry be so confessional and personal, whereas now I feel like that's what a lot of more modern poetry is,” Berver said. “It's very easy-to-read poetry--it's not difficult to find out what they're talking about. You could go into it and read it once and take something away, or you could read it a lot, like I did, and you can find a lot of smaller details.”

Berver plans to major in English. Although she’s never had a formal class in poetry, she has experience with the artform from her work on the Penman and the poetry she reads in her free time.

“I think analyzing literature after you've tried to write things yourself, you look at it differently,” Berver said. “I know how hard it is, so I appreciate their ability, because I know how hard it is to write a really good poem.”

As sophomores and juniors decide whether to write an EE and what to write about, many said it is important to write about an area of interest.

“If you choose something you're really interested in, it makes it so much more fun, and it won't feel as daunting,” Berver said. “As you start researching it, you get wrapped up in it and all of a sudden you're at 4000 words, and it's like, oh, I guess I'm done!”

However, all EE subjects do not have the same popularity or structure. Huther said that while the EE is interesting, it is also important to be realistic about your topic selection.

“I wholeheartedly agree [that you should pick a subject you’re passionate about], but I also think that maybe in the interest of your own sanity, it's important to consider picking something that you find easy to write about,” Huther said. “There's not a whole lot of resources for design technology EEs. In a lot of other courses, the [guidance] is very explicit and that's not so much the case for design tech. I wouldn't have changed my EE, because it helped me realize many things, but it was probably more difficult than I expected.”

In terms of the writing process, Abramowicz said organization is key.

“I think the most important thing is that you should do all of your research before you start writing so you can figure out what you're going to write about,” Abramowicz said. “Then do a really detailed outline because that's very, very helpful, because otherwise you get off track and go over the word count.”

For sophomores who are considering whether to pursue a full IB diploma, Portner said the EE should not be the deciding factor. In fact, many said it can be an enjoyable process.

“Go for it,” Obenberger said. “It was really difficult, but when it was printing out when I was done, I thought, 'Wow, I wrote that and I researched that,' which was pretty cool. I'd say, go for it.”