From Broadcasting to Biofuel:

Shady Side Students Explore Questions Big and Small

Shady Side Academy junior Delaney Mulderig has always had a passion for sports. During the spring 2020 quarantine, as she was binging sports documentaries such as The Last Dance and 30 for 30, it hit her: she could be a sports broadcast journalist. “It dawned on me that I could be the next Erin Andrews or Hannah Storm. And when I told my advisor, she said, ‘This sounds like a good idea for an independent study.’”

SSA’s independent study program allows students in grades 10-12 to design their own for-credit courses for a term or full year. They must submit a proposal to be approved by a faculty committee, then meet regularly with a faculty mentor while completing their project during dedicated time in their class schedule.

For her independent study, Mulderig is producing a documentary on Shady Side’s 2021 football team. She’s spent the fall learning not just how to shoot interviews and game footage, but also how to ask good questions and see where the story takes you, under faculty mentor James Knox, a former photojournalist.

The experience has opened her eyes to the work that goes into a good story. “When you see that perfect interview with the quarterback before a game, so many people, so many hours were involved – the preparation, figuring out the storyline, editing – it’s a lot more than just looking good on camera.”

She’s also been inspired by how the school has embraced her project. “That’s the thing about Shady Side. When I brought this idea to adults, everyone said, ‘I can help you.’ And they really want to do it – they want me to be successful.”

Mulderig is just one example of how Shady Side encourages students to pursue their passions and enables them to customize their educational journey. Programs such as the Independent Study, Senior Project, Science Research Seminar and Social Innovators Program allow students to delve deeply into an area of interest in ways not typically available in a classroom.

Senior Karen Linares Mendoza of Fox Chapel knows what it’s like to learn a second language. A native of Mexico, she learned to speak English when her family emigrated to the U.S. in 2012, and now she’s learning French at SSA.

As a junior, she took the Science Research Seminar, which advances students’ research skills and places them in laboratories for summer internships. She spent last summer in the University of Pittsburgh’s Sound Brain Lab, doing cognitive and neurobiological research on the role of speech cues in auditory processing. Afterward, the lab invited her to stay on, and she decided to lead her own research during the school year as an independent study under faculty mentor Dr. Jill Schumacher. Now she’s recruiting fellow SSA students, including some Chinese boarding students, to serve as subjects as she compares the neural tracking of speech sounds in native and non-native English speakers.

“Even before this research, I was interested in majoring in cognitive sciences, and this has solidified my interest,” she said. “I’m grateful because Shady Side has prepared me more than I could ever imagine.”

Senior Crystal Ma of Hampton has been drawing for as long as she can remember. A few years ago, she found an old sewing machine and taught herself to sew, sparking an interest in fashion. “Fashion is another canvas where I can create art that’s wearable,” she said.

Last spring, she explored that interest further through an independent study in fashion entrepreneurship, interviewing and working with three female fashion entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh. That led to a summer internship with designer Kiya Tomlin, where she learned more about the day-to-day aspects of running your own fashion brand.

This year, Ma is combining her interests in art and fashion in another independent study, a multimedia art installation, under faculty mentor Cari Batchelar. “It’s a take on how multimedia art can be used to critique problems I see, specifically within the fashion industry,” she said.

First, she’s creating a three-dimensional eye with a mirrored pupil. Next, she’ll create statues representing specific issues she sees, which will be positioned to be reflected in the eye.

Ma says the independent studies and internship helped clarify her desire to launch her own fashion brand. “It’s given me a concrete vision of what I see myself doing in the future,” she said. “And that’s made my path really linear in terms of what I want to pursue in college.”

When senior Steven Liu of McCandless was young, his family used to go on long fishing trips, fostering a love of nature and the environment. It was there he first encountered algae. “It was a nuisance,” he said. “It covered the water. I couldn’t see where I was casting my line.”

But when the budding scientist learned that algae could be used to make biofuel, it sparked an interest – and also nearly sparked a fire when he attempted to make biofuel on the kitchen stove.

A passionate environmentalist, Liu is now completing his second yearlong independent study under Dr. Devon Renock, researching the most efficient and effective method to produce algal biofuel. Last year, he spent long hours conducting his research in SSA’s McIlroy Center for Science and Innovation, and this year he’s writing it up for submission to a journal for publication. Liu’s research helped him earn admission to the 2021 Research Science Institute, a prestigious six-week summer program for high school students.

“This independent study has changed my life in a lot of aspects,” Liu said. “One big thing is the incredible equipment we have in the McIlroy Center that a lot of colleges don’t even have. It’s been a central part of my research. But also, it’s the teachers – I’m really grateful for Dr. Renock. He stayed after school basically every day with me last year, especially during crunch time. I’m just incredibly grateful for this program. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life.”

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