project-week-students-astrophysics
Project Week 2020: Exploring Greater Boston (and the Known Universe)

By Jack Stedman

Whether they're working at a chocolate factory or the State House, an antique instrument shop or an astrophysics lab, Commonwealth students use the school's annual Project Week to engage in work they find meaningful in highly individualized ways. Luckily, this year's Project Week—held about a month and a half before the pandemic shuttered most businesses—was no different.

Somerville Chocolate

Hannah '22 was distracted by chocolate in chemistry class. But she wasn't daydreaming about lunch; she was thinking about how crystal structures form. A few weeks prior, she had spent her Project Week at Somerville Chocolate, a small-batch chocolate shop. There, she learned the art and science of tempering, or the heating and cooling of chocolate to specific temperatures to ensure a smooth and consistent crystal structure.

Hannah now has a wealth of knowledge on the chocolate-making process: she can tell you all about sustainable sourcing, roasting beans, and the arduous task of wrapping individual bars. She can also tell you about running a small business and how much creativity, flexibility, and labor is involved in that venture.

Somerville Chocolate is located in a communal space shared by the hip Aeronaut Brewing Company and other vendors. As Hannah stepped out of the Commonwealth classroom and into this business playground, she found a robust environment of collaboration. On a typical day, she might meet the person who hand-paints signs for the brewery, chat with the man who rents shop space to make cacao-based health foods, or observe someone who runs community meetings in the taproom space.

While homework may seem like the most laborious task a tenth grader can think of, Hannah has seen the trials and tribulations of self-employment. One key takeaway: the ability to multitask, like checking emails in between stirs while refining a chocolate batch.

If you stop by Somerville Chocolate, you can experience this creative space for yourself. And you can try Hannah's favorite, the Hawaiian dark chocolate.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

To sit down with Sasha '21 and Sol '21 is to hear a new language—that is, if you hadn't studied astrophysics before.

During Project Week, the pair studied and worked at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where they attended lectures, toured the facilities (which include a 173-year-old telescope, once the biggest in the U.S.), and collected data from NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope.

Now, they talk excitedly, and often in their own sidebars, about tidal disruption events (what happens when a star gets sucked into a black hole), quasars (quasi-stellar radio sources), or Roger Blandford's work on black holes (did you see the recent black hole picture that went viral?).

The pair took on the universe, gaining not just a greater comprehension of a complex subject but also a working knowledge of how scientific progress unfolds. As one of their mentors explained, "Everyone has their own focus, their area of expertise, and each has their own bit of knowledge and understanding to contribute; when we put it all together, piece by piece, we begin to map out the universe."

Working at the Center introduced Sol and Sasha to scientists from around the world who truly wanted to share in every finding. They say they benefited greatly from these generous mentors who make Project Week possible—those who are willing to open their doors to high schoolers and generously give them their time and space. Through "life chats," mentors imparted wisdom and inspired Sasha and Sol, reminding them that their work, however small, makes a difference in the grand scheme of our universe.

Massachusetts State House

Commonwealth students stay informed and involved. That ethos is on display every day at recess, as students clamor to share news, swap lunch cleaning duties, and discuss current events. One student might announce a Feminism club meeting in room 2C, and a shout for Robotics in 4B comes next. Then a student reminds everyone to vote.

For Project Week 2020, ninth graders Romen and Ayla took that culture to heart, interning at the Massachusetts State House for Rep. Denise Garlick and Sen. Becca Rausch, respectively. They learned about the processes behind government while attending briefings, budget meetings, legislative breakfasts, and more. It was no surprise that either student chose to work under the iconic golden dome. Romen can often be heard in the halls, encouraging people to fill out presidential-primary predictions, for example. And Ayla already had experience volunteering for Sen. Rausch's campaign in her hometown before coming to Commonwealth.

Despite being in the same environment, Romen and Ayla came away with distinct observations. Ayla took special note of the fast-paced schedules and flexibility required in the life of a state senator. Patience, politeness, and sticking to a schedule came in handy for Ayla as she observed the senator moving from meeting to meeting in her district while addressing the many grievances that people shared, often without warning. Romen, on the other hand, reflected on the scope of politics and the often slow inner workings of government. The long road from bill to law doesn't seem so abstract to him anymore. He would feel comfortable taking a friend, he says, and walking right up the steps of the State House and into any public meeting or briefing that's taking place.

As Romen and Ayla can attest, the political process is more accessible than it seems. And Beacon Hill is just a few blocks away.

New England Violins

Michael '23 walks past New England Violins often. As a cellist, he decided that he wanted to pursue his art for Project Week, so he emailed the owner of the classical instrument shop. When he didn't hear back, he simply decided to stop in and ask if he could work there for the week.

This strategy is encouraged among Commonwealth students looking for projects: don't be shy, put yourself out there, it doesn't hurt to ask. Such was the case with Michael, who suddenly had access to rare and antique instruments and a mentor with knowledge and skills in abundance. At times, it seemed like a strange new world, with priceless instruments passing through the shop daily. Well, not quite "priceless"..

"I learned a lot at New England Violins, but after exchanging multiple high-grade strings and playing on multiple handmade antique cellos, I learned that classical music costs a pretty penny," he noted in his Project Week report.

As with the  Commonwealth culture of diving into a subject and examining it up close, Michael dug into his musical craft. He learned to differentiate between the subtle sounds a string can make, gaining a new vocabulary for describing their distinct tones: bright, focused, dull, metallic, smooth. He would practice by changing out strings, again and again. He learned that dipping a bent bridge in cold water and then microwaving it can make it as good as new. And he saw how new strings and a repaired soundpost can make a cello sound (nearly) priceless too.

Michael came away from the week with a new bow, new strings, and a new appreciation for his instrument's unique sounds, which echo through the hallways of Commonwealth as he rehearses with his fellow orchestra members, the sound bright, focused, and strong.

Learn More About Project Week