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With 180 upperclassmen presenting their senior projects, it was far from a routine day at Hellgate High School on Thursday.

The day’s usual schedule was shelved while 126 community members, plus another 100 staff, judged the comprehensive projects, which were presented to large student and parent audiences in many venues throughout the school.

Diverse as the students themselves, the projects ranged from building a video game to chainsaw art to volunteering in an Indian orphanage to gluten-free cooking.

Teaching, explained seniors Teal Packard and Jase Buche, is harder than it looks, is frustrating at times, but is hugely rewarding.

“It is way more awesome than I thought it could be,” Packard said while the duo presented their project in which they taught Bonner School students how to swing dance.

The seniors, who are both from Bonner, thought it would be fun to teach their community’s younger students something they wouldn’t normally have a chance to learn.

As it turned out, their timing was perfect.

This year, Bonner just started a new dance class, and the week the Hellgate students wanted to teach happened to be at the same time Cary Markin, the sixth-eighth grade dance teacher, was chaperoning another group of students to Washington, D.C.

Every day, for two hours each day, Packard and Buche broke down the dance steps in manageable form so their 12 young students understood the moves.

In the end, the Bonner students became so accomplished, they performed their new skills as part of the senior’s presentation Thursday, and put on a polished performance.

Along with fulfilling the writing requirements of the project, the Hellgate seniors also held a benefit dance – a food drive that benefited the Missoula Food Bank.

After the seniors’ presentation, Markin said the experience for her students was remarkable.

“I came back and I was in shock over what they had learned,” she said. “Teal and Jase taught them all these complicated steps, and taught them in just five days – it was incredible.”

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Although Hellgate, Big Sky, Willard and Seeley-Swan high schools have been doing senior projects for years, Sentinel will begin doing them next year, said Beth Huguet, Hellgate business teacher and senior project coordinator.

The projects are not a graduation requirement, but those who do benefit for many reasons, she said.

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Not only do senior projects go toward 20 percent of the first semester English grade and 20 percent of students’ fourth-quarter government grade, they also provide an opportunity for a student to delve into a meaningful topic of their choosing.

“These projects really let students take ownership of their own learning,” she said, “and that’s what we want.

“We begin the year talking about what they want to do and we ask them, ‘Is there something in the world you want to change? Something you haven’t had the chance to learn before or understand better?’ ”

Rocky Allen, a community member who volunteered to be a judge, said she admired the wide-ranging topics the seniors presented, “and they were really enthusiastic about their projects.”

Michael Chandler, another community judge, concurred with Allen.

“They are all very good,” he said, “and I think the whole senior project concept is exceptionally good.

“I’ve been very impressed with the students – some of the projects have been truly exceptional, all of them have been interesting.”

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Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

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