Harkness solo: Independent projects stir passions

Senior study opportunity features the breadth of Exeter students' interests.

Patrick Garrity
November 29, 2021

Wyatt McLaughlin '22 shows off his newly converted electric moped during his senior project presentation.

Wyatt McLaughlin ’22 wanted to prove he could make a meaningful individual contribution to the fight against climate change even amid a busy senior year at the Academy. He just needed to learn how to weld first.

McLaughlin worked late nights throughout his senior fall in his parents’ basement workshop converting a worn-out moped from gasoline to electric-battery power. He presented his near-final product to classmates and his adviser, Modern Languages Instructor Mark Trafton, to close fall term.

McLaughlin’s two-wheeler transformation was one of seven senior independent study projects completed throughout the fall. The program allows Exeter students to explore areas of interest that fall outside traditional course descriptions. Interested seniors, with approval from the faculty, design individual or joint projects of comparable value and scope to those of an academic course.

“I wanted to do something at this school that was purely for me,” said McLaughlin, a four-year day student from Exeter. “I think that stems from years of doing work in classes for other people. Even though it’s for your own brain, you’re doing the work for your teacher. In this environment, I could completely guide myself and, with the help of Mr. Trafton along the way, this was entirely for me and no one else.”

The time and resources poured into senior projects often exceed those dedicated to many senior-level classes, and McLaughlin’s was no exception. He spent an average of three hours a night throughout fall term rebuilding the bike, interrupted only when he waited for parts to be delivered.

He eventually gutted the entire engine casing of the bike to house the new electric motor and the 72-volt battery. Trial and error led to replacing the original rear cog on the chain to increase speed — a painstaking process that required McLaughlin to grind down the bike’s drive shaft to make the cog fit — and then replacing the front cog to allow for more torque.

“I’ve always been a tinkerer. My dad and I always do the maintenance on the family cars and things like that — he’s the one who showed me how to weld — ever since I’ve been little,” McLaughlin said. “That’s just something we do in my family and something my dad and I bond over.”

Here are the other independent study projects completed this fall, as described by the seniors:

Moksha Akil
The Purpose of a Prayer

My project this term was a way for me merge my love of history and English by writing historical fiction short stories on Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the Bosnian War (1992-1995). I created multiple characters within these stories and wrote a world around them. In this, I hope to have captured their emotions — their pain, frustration, hopelessness. Hurricane Katrina and the Bosnian War were two incredibly painful moments in history and my goal was to write the characters’ emotions with as much accuracy as possible through historical research.


Anne Chen and Siona Jain
Laboring Women: Imperial Exploitations of Chinese and Indian Bodies

This project was completed in two parts. In the first, we created and followed a syllabus exploring the way our lives have been touched by colonial trauma, specifically as first-generation women of color. We began with broad themes and then narrowed into the tea trade, care drain, Oriental fetishization, colonial law, and interracial suffragette movements. In the second part, we choreographed an eight-piece show with duets, solos, and ensembles speaking to this research.


Vincent Xiao
Investigating the Effects of Active Aerodynamics on High-Performance Rear Wheel Drive Road Vehicles
I have worked on the design and development of custom active aerodynamics for a one-fifth scale Formula 1 race car. I used computer-aided design and computational fluid dynamics softwares to create and optimize aerodynamic profiles, before testing the physical elements in a wind tunnel and on the car.
Zander Galli
Pandemics & Conservation High School Curriculum

My goal is to build a curriculum for high school students that emphasizes the connection between wildlife conservation and future pandemic emergence. COVID-19 will serve as the impetus since its effects are so immediate. From HIV to SARS to malaria, the curriculum will explain that the destruction of nature and the removal of wild species from their ecosystems allows for an abundance of diseases to spread into human populations and that without sweeping biodiversity protections, the pattern is destined to be repeated.


Michelle Park
Both Sides of the Prison Cell: Oral Histories with Individuals Who Have Worked in Prison Facilities
After conducting oral histories with formerly incarcerated individuals in Washington state this past summer, I wanted to pursue interviews with correctional officers and higher officials. I began by asking the individuals who worked in prison facilities questions about how working with incarcerated individuals affected their lives, how they began working at a prison, and how they changed due to their job. I also inquired about the more personal aspects of their work that aren’t often shared in scholarship: the fears or anxieties that came with their job, their interactions with incarcerated individuals, the obstacles they faced, the rewarding parts of their job, and most of all, how it felt to go home at the end of the day while others couldn’t. With this project, I’m hoping to begin investigating how all players — incarcerated individuals, wardens, correctional officers — are psychologically affected by the larger prison industrial complex by showcasing how both sides of the prison cell intertwine.
Adrian Sun
Virtual Gifting: The Emergence of Digital Conspicuous Consumption 

I chose to write a research paper that investigated the transition of physical conspicuous consumption to digital conspicuous consumption in China — specifically, the feature of virtual gifting in livestreaming platforms. Citing various extant literatures that have studied the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption, my literature review firstly contextualizes conspicuous consumption in China, highlighting the motivations and factors that exacerbate such practices in the nation. My paper further argues that the motivations of social reward and recognition that drive the expenditure of luxury goods hold true for the practice of virtual gifting as well. Finally, my paper maintains that due to the sentiments of envy, narcissism, and social comparison that prompt conspicuous consumption in the virtual world indicates that virtual gifting may be negatively correlated with user mental health. By analyzing the unique phenomenon of digital consumption in China, we come to understand the influences of rapid socioeconomic transformations on consumer behavior and mental health.