High school senior Mariah Campbell is the captain of the track team, one of the three sports she plays during the year. She serves on the student council and is a member of the National Honor Society. She’s busy. Add the prom, finals and graduation to that list and she’s not just busy, she’s super busy.
Yet last week, days before she was to present her senior project presentation and less than a month before the regional high school seniors graduate, Mariah looked unflappable, walking from a science classroom to an art lab while carrying a head named Henry under her arm.
Henry is Mariah’s senior project. This week, Mariah and 12 other students present their semester-long projects individually in a panel presentation at the school. It’s the final step of the senior project program that is offered at the high school and run by assistant principal Matt Malowski, giving students the option of pursuing a passion of theirs not typically offered in a classroom setting.
Mariah’s project began in the beginning of first semester when she noticed a plastic skeleton head poking out of a pile of crafts in the back of a messy art supply room.
“I saw it and all I could think was, I wonder what this person would have looked like? It’s a replica of a skull so I wouldn’t have a serial number or anything, but I realized that I could probably get close to finding out more information,” she said.
She had taken a forensic science class and knew the skull had potential, and that it could teach her about anatomy and biology, as well as art. She began researching forensic facial approximations.
“Right away I was able to determine race, gender and approximate age just by looking at the skull, which is really interesting,” she said. “The cranial sutures were kind of inaccurate because I only had a skull, not the whole body, but there are over 750 points in a skeleton that you can judge development by looking at the different stages of bone hardening. So, like as an infant, your bones are kind of soft and as you develop they get harder and grow longer.”
She dug even deeper.
“I then determined that the skull was from a Caucasian male,” she said. Mariah also hypothesized the age to be between 41 to 55. The next step was turning the plastic skeleton into a face.
“I wanted to see what the person would have looked like,” she said. So each day, Mariah jotted down facial construction notes in her senior project journal and talked to art teachers about sculpting faces. She found oil based plasticine clay and started molding. The clay acted as average tissue depth, which she discovered after calculating charts for Caucasian males from scholarly studies. Science teacher and department chair Elliott Bennett helped Mariah order eyes. Together they Googled acrylic eyes and found a pair of 26-millimeter blue ones for $20.
“It was funny because I went on vacation and then when I came back Ms. Bennett was like, ‘Mariah! Your eyes came in!’”
But it wasn’t all forward momentum. At some point during the face sculpting, the neck broke off.
“I used this coffee can from home as a neck — my parents are big coffee drinkers — and it’s actually the perfect size,” she said.
Mariah was now spending most of each day with her skeleton.
“And when you’re staring at it you have to give it some sort of name,” she said. She asked a handful of classmates what she should call her project. “And they all said Henry. So his name is Henry.”
As of Friday, Mariah still had to give Henry some eyebrows. “And he has this wig, it’s not the best looking thing, but it’s hair. I got it from the theatre department. It’s the only one they would give me.” But the theatre department didn’t have any spare eyebrows, she said.
On Monday, Mariah introduced Henry to an audience — a panel that included faculty and members of the community. It was the last step in completing her senior project, yet Mariah is not finished exploring this area of study. This fall she will attend the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She had planned to study psychology but her senior project has introduced other options.
“Now I think I want to do something with art and maybe even criminal justice,” she said.
The bell rings and Mariah is back in the hallway, backpack on, walking by classrooms and lockers. Some people say hello, others wave. Mariah says hello back but doesn’t wave. Her hands are full. After all, she’s carrying a head.
For the past semester, 13 graduating seniors at the regional high school have focused on a single research question as part of their senior projects. Project presentations began Monday afternoon and continue through Friday.