Independent studies provide students with real-world applications to pursue their passions


Annie Douma

Senior Sarah Bethel is displaying her work within FHC’s greenhouse.

During his sixth-hour independent study, senior Thomas Carano learned how to become a hacker—or, at least, how to build code like one. Of the many computer science projects he has worked on, his favorite included creating a program to track the keystrokes on another device. 

“The coolest thing that I created was called Keylogger,” Thomas said. “It’s malware, so it’s illegal if you use it in illegal ways, but I just wanted to know how to make it. I made an application to be downloaded, and it’s like, ‘Oh hey, welcome to this Wi-Fi portal, put your email and password into this,’ and then it sends me an email [with] the email and password. If you type something else, it’ll also send me an email which is really neat.”

By taking an independent study, Thomas has thrived in the world of code with projects such as Keylogger or learning HTML to create websites. Although the class is rather personalized, he is also surrounded by friends who are similarly interested and motivated to expand their skills with technology.

Ultimately, this class is a consistent highlight of the school day having the opportunity to truly engage in a subject that Thomas is passionate about. 

“I like having the freedom of having [fewer] time constraints because I don’t really have to stress about anything,” Thomas said. “I can do what I want when I want, and it makes me actually excited to do work.”

This level of advanced study wouldn’t be possible without an independent study, and Thomas loved the experience so much that he’s planning to pursue a degree in computer science at the University of Michigan. 

However, computer science isn’t the only future students are interested in. In a completely different area of the school, senior Sarah Bethel also pursues knowledge beyond what any traditional class offers. 

With a potential career in science and sustainability, an incredible mentor, and the freedom of the course, taking a greenhouse independent study was the perfect option for Sarah to continue her environmental education. She dedicates time to the greenhouse, ensuring that all of the plants have the water and care that they need.

“I love seeing things grow,” Sarah said. “I think it’s fun to see what it looks like, and my [plants] are getting flowers now. Also, I’m doing an independent research project along with the greenhouse. You can choose anything, so it’s really tailored to what you like.” 

As Sarah succeeds in her own project, she also loves watching others thrive within their chosen elements. Students around the school participate in individualized classes to follow their passions and better prepare themselves for life after high school. 

I felt like I had no idea what I was doing when I started, but even after just like a little bit of guidance, I feel like I have it under control. It just shows you that you really don’t need to be experienced to try something.

— Sarah Bethel

Just like a seed, Sarah’s knowledge of running a greenhouse started from nothing, including where it was located. Now, however, Sarah has blossomed into her role as a plant parent. 

“[On the first day], I didn’t even know how to get [to the greenhouse],” Sarah said, “but now I know. I didn’t know what to do with any of the stuff. I didn’t know how to seed; that is really confusing, but then [environmental science teacher Chad Scholten] taught me one day, and after that, I feel like I got better.”

Behind each of these students—whether they’re furthering their education in the environment, languages, anatomy, teaching, or computer science—there is an encouraging teacher who inspires them to dive deeper into their studies. 

For computer science teacher Joseph Smith, seeing the final products that his students create is the best aspect of running an independent study. While some students build video games, others use their programming abilities to create tools that are helpful for the classroom. 

“I had a student last year that took over the television that’s in my room that has a calendar on it,” Smith said. “The original idea was [from] him, and it worked for all of last year. Then, I—being the absolute control freak that I am—was like, ‘That’s sweet, but I want to do it my way,’ so then I wrote it, but that inspiration came from him.”

It’s incredible for students to discover the practical application of their skills in an independent study. When they funnel their energy into one goal, the outcome is an achievement they’re excited about. 

As one would expect, to be truly successful in an independent study requires a strong work ethic and motivation. Reflecting on the reality of life after school, Smith knows that independently overcoming obstacles is a valuable skill to have.

“There’s this idea of perseverance,” Smith said. “While I know how to program, and I can read code, I’ve never used Unity, which is a platform that a lot of games are designed on. Lots of times, kids will get stuck, and I can help them with the code, but if they got issues with Unity, I’m like, ‘Go hit up a forum or watch this tutorial,’ or I can try and troubleshoot with them. They get that internal sense of ‘Hey, I [have to] go try and figure this out.’” 

Persevering through these challenges and learning curves always results in immense satisfaction and pride. Both Thomas and Sarah encourage other students to take advantage of the opportunities that independent studies offer. 

“If somebody has something that they’re really interested in, and they have a teacher that would be able to support that, I think they should ask to do an independent study,” Thomas said. “If you have nothing else going on, and you have all your credits senior year, it’s a great way to learn about something that you want to delve deeper into.”