ELMHURST – It’s not often you hear about an eighth-grader offering solutions to the territorial conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. But that’s exactly what Mustafa Valika, 13, did as part of his “passion project,” a year-long research project eighth-graders in Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205’s gifted English program complete over the course of the year.
Students in the REACH program presented their projects and findings at the district-wide Elmhurst Innovation Expo on May 6 at Bryan Middle School.
Mustafa, who attends Sandburg Middle School, said he loved presenting his project to family, friends and teachers at the expo because he was very proud of the work he did with his partner, fellow eighth-grader Parth Parikh.
“My family is from Pakistan, and his is from India, so we thought it would be cool to work on this together and try to solve a border conflict,” Mustafa said. “We did a lot of research about the conflict and learned there were a lot of wars over Kashmir. Our conclusion is that the people of Kashmir should decide if they want to be independent, or if they want to split the temporary border and have half of the territory join Pakistan and the other half join India.”
For the past three years, students in the REACH English classes have been assigned the passion project, for which they choose a topic they’re passionate about to research for the entire school year.
After choosing their idea, they begin by coming up with research questions, which they have to present to their teachers and class. After the proposal is approved, they spend the rest of the year researching their topics, which this year included the physics of skateboarding, running a business, raising money for charities, alternate forms of energy and more.
One student even built a 1-meter-square housethat was displayed at the expo. Students used posters or video presentations at booths set up throughout Bryan Middle School to explain their projects and findings.
Frank Dahlman, REACH English teacher at Sandburg, said he’s continually amazed at the students’ ideas and projects every year.
“This is a self-directed project. The students have ownership, and they feel so proud of themselves,” he said. “They’re capable of a lot more than they’re given credit for. They were very mature and professional in how they presented themselves. It was so fun to see the pride they had in themselves and their work. These are projects you don’t normally see eighth-graders take on.”
About 120 students participated in the event, which Dahlman said was “awesome.” He explained three of the main goals of the project are for students to gain research skills, speaking and writing skills, and self-reliance.
“This project is about taking on the issues that come up during the process and having the perseverance to push through and solve the problems,” he said. “The project keeps kids engaged and motivated to keep working because it’s their ideas. In the beginning they’re very excited about it, and in the middle of the year they get a little worn down, but at the end when it all comes together, you see that swagger and motivation return.”
For Emma Baran, 14, the most important aspect of the project was learning about time management. Emma has been making her own clothes for a few years, so she wanted to create her own clothing business for her project. The Sandburg Middle School student said she procrastinated in the beginning of the project and wasn’t able to complete the website before the expo.
“I didn’t actually start selling my clothes yet, but I plan to continue working on the project and start selling my clothes this summer,” she said. “My goal is to make a profit off my business, which hasn’t happened yet. ... I learned a lot about determination and what it takes to stay focused.”
Mustafa said while it was a lot of work, he really enjoyed working on the project.
“It was cool that [my partner and I] came up with an idea that could help make peace over a long-standing conflict,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in what we did together. We learned a lot about problem-solving and time management.”