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The importance of research writing

Maverick Notes

GENTRYI never want to hear the phrase “Zika epidemic in Brazil” ever again.

For the last three months of my high school career, I took a required class at Riverdale called Senior Exhibition, or Senior Ex. This class is rigorous; each senior chooses their own topic, finds a controversy surrounding that topic, researches the arguments for each side of the controversy, consults experts in the field, then takes a stance and forms a proposal to settle the controversy.

Seniors must then present their research in both an oral and written format, specifically through a 50-minute presentation and a 10- to 30-page research paper. The assignments on the way teach the research process to students: develop a thesis, keep track of information from different sources, form an outline and write.

The topics for Senior Ex projects vary widely, from subjects in international relations to biology to social issues. I chose to research the Zika epidemic in Brazil, proposing a solution that will halt the spread of the disease within the country and ideally prevent international transmission. After three months of reading scholarly articles and checking the news each morning for updates on the epidemic, I can confidently and thoroughly answer nearly any question that someone could ask about Zika.

This sort of rigorous research process is vital for success in college. As an engineering student next year, I will have to draft lab reports and research proposals, and the ability to write succinctly and specifically will assist me greatly. For students in other, more writing-intensive majors, understanding and practicing the research process is even more instrumental to their academic achievement.

Senior Ex is a uniquely Riverdale experience. Some other schools do have capstone projects, such as Catlin Gabel’s Senior Projects, which, according to the school’s website, “immerse (their) seniors in a professional world of their own choosing while fostering connections between (the) school and the local community” through real-world experiences such as internships. However, this differs significantly from the capstone at Riverdale, which only requires one outside contact and otherwise remains in the classroom. Laura Keldorf, who teaches Senior Ex at Riverdale, does not know of “(any) other school (in the Portland area) that offers what we do at RHS.”

I was curious about how seniors felt about Senior Ex, so I conducted an anonymous survey among my classmates, asking whether each person felt more prepared for college after taking Senior Ex. Of the 20 respondents, 95 percent believed the class benefitted their college career. Many gave reasons for this belief; one student commented, “I feel more prepared to write a research paper.” This was the most commonly cited reason, though other reasons included the oral presentation requirement and the emphasis on meeting deadlines.

I also conducted another anonymous survey among Riverdale alumni, asking whether or not Senior Exhibition actually helped in college. Responses here were more mixed: out of 15 respondents, only 60 percent remarked that it helped. However, for those who believed it did help, they cited similar reasons as this year’s seniors. A current college freshman wrote, “The research and writing process has greatly benefitted me when it came to writing my first college papers this year. Senior Ex was a great introduction into college writing in that it really shows students what to expect.”

Unfortunately, students are often wholly unprepared for the extensive writing process that awaits them in college. Kate Simpson, a professor of English at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Va., asked her students how they felt about college writing. Only 23 percent of 115 students said they felt prepared. Exposure to this sort of writing in high school would give future college students some practice before being launched into the college realm.

I wish more schools in Oregon could adopt this sort of capstone project. I understand that funding presents a huge roadblock to the implementation of this class, as well as the lack of qualified teachers to instruct students on how to research. I feel more prepared for college because of Senior Ex, and I want that preparedness to be felt by every Oregon student.

Though unlikely to happen anytime soon, I hope for a shift in high school to an emphasis on research writing in the future.

Riverdale High School graduate Brian Gentry is one of two Maverick Notes columnists for The Review. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..