How to Connect Student Passion to a Purpose

What happens when we provide time for students to pursue their passions and connect them to a deeper purpose through projects they design? This has been a big question behind our Capstone Program at Hawaii Preparatory Academy.

This learner-centered initiative affords students time every week throughout their 5th, 8th, and 12th-grade years to develop meaningful projects.

A while back I had the opportunity to be on Kyle Wagner’s podcast to share more about our Capstone Program and dive into how we, as edu-transformers, can:

  • Help our students discover their passions and connect them to a greater purpose.
  • Scaffold and support the project process using the six ‘P’s’.
  • Shift from being a teacher to a project mentor by adopting a growth mindset.
  • Start a similar initiative in our classrooms or schools.

Enjoy this shortened interview in which I share valuable insights and practical advice for implementing a capstone program. You can listen to the full interview here.

Kyle: Hey, Edu Transformer and Learner Center practitioner. I want you to imagine this. Imagine your learners, from as young as five through post-secondary, discovering their passions, connecting to a sense of purpose, and self-directing their projects to connect that purpose to the community.

That is the capstone program taking root worldwide to create self-directed learners. I have the privilege of sitting down with Dagan Bernstein, the coordinator of a capstone program at Hawaii Preparatory Academy. We’re going to learn how to start a similar program at our school, help students discover their passions, connect to a sense of purpose, scaffold the process through the six magical P’s, learn why failure is an option, and how students can learn from that. Finally, we’ll explore how to shift from being a teacher at the front of the classroom to being a project mentor on the side. Here’s my conversation with Dagan. I hope you get a lot out of it.

Hey, everyone tuning in globally. I have the privilege of sitting down with Dagan, who’s going to tell you about himself and the capstone program. Welcome to the podcast, Dagan.

Dagan: Aloha, Kyle. It’s great to be here.

Kyle: Aloha. I love that greeting. Which part of Hawaii are you in?

Dagan: I’m on Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island, in Waimea, up in the hills.

Kyle: Is Waimea similar to Waimea Bay, with beaches and white sand?

Dagan: No, it’s very different. I see green rolling hills, windy clouds, and big mountains around me. It’s a unique, special environment near two 14,000-foot mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. It’s a beautiful, small mountain community.

Kyle: Nice. Are those hikeable mountains?

Dagan: They’re not hikable in the sense of throwing on a backpack and hiking up them. They’re pretty big mountains and, by volume, some of the largest in the world.

Kyle: Wow. Let’s dig into the capstone program. You first reached out regarding a post I had written about designing learning around bigger experiences. Can you give us the evolution of the capstone program at your school?

Dagan: It started about six or seven years ago when our dean of academics pitched the capstone initiative. The goal was for every student in grades 5, 8, and 12 to complete a year-long capstone project as a culminating assessment of their skills. It was tied to broader initiatives around 21st-century skills, like soft skills or future-ready skills. It was an opportunity for students to do something driven by inquiry from their own interests, design a project, see it through, and be assessed on it.

We phased it in, starting with grade five, which had a pre-existing project around honey bees and pollination. Then we phased in grade eight, where I was teaching algebra and music. I took on a capstone course where students built ukuleles and did projects around music and culture. Finally, we phased in the twelfth-grade program. Last year’s graduating class was the first to go through all three capstone projects.

The program has evolved. One major change was having a coordinator at each campus. Another was integrating our school-wide sustainability model, Malama Kaiāulu, into the capstone projects.

Kyle: That’s wonderful. It sounds like the program evolved from being teacher-interest-driven to student-interest-driven. Can you share one of the most successful capstones you’ve witnessed?

Dagan: One project that stands out is from the 2020-21 school year. A student pitched a project about addressing wild pigs hit by cars. It lacked passion, so I pushed the student to explore their deeper interests. Eventually, they focused on creating a middle school advocacy group for LGBTQ+ students. This project changed the dynamics and discussions at school. The student did thorough research, met with the principal, counselor, and others, and created a space for LGBTQ+ students and allies. It became a model for other schools in our area. The project culminated in a guidebook on creating a middle school group for LGBTQ+ students. It was impactful and meaningful, transforming the student’s view of themselves and building their confidence.

Kyle: That’s incredible. It shows the power of a capstone. Now, let’s talk about potential challenges. Are all capstone projects successful, or do you face challenges?

Dagan: Not all projects are successful. I use a 20-60-20 rule: 20% are amazing, 60% are solid, and 20% may not produce the desired outcome. However, we structure the capstone program where failure is an option. For example, a student wanted to visit elderly homes to play games during the COVID pandemic but struggled to pivot when this wasn’t possible. Despite the setbacks, the student learned valuable lessons about effective communication, resilience, and taking action. Even if a project doesn’t come to fruition, the reflective piece and self-assessment provide tangible evidence of what they need to work on.

Kyle: How do you scaffold the capstone process for students?

Dagan: We start by identifying who the students are and their interests. Then, we connect their interests to a community issue. Once they identify a community need, they build a proposal with an essential question to guide the project. After submitting the proposal, they conduct research, ask questions, and build out a project plan with four or five main steps. We provide materials and support throughout the process. We have check-ins, peer feedback, and a final presentation where students share their projects with the community. Finally, there’s a reflection piece and an archive of project summaries.

Kyle: It’s a great scaffold. How do you equip teachers to support students in this process?

Dagan: I owe a lot to the National Capstone Consortium, a network of teachers who share knowledge and resources. One key takeaway is that capstone programs should align with the school’s mission, culture, structure, and resources. Capstone is about the art of what is possible, and it requires flexibility and openness to change. Teachers need to be curious, communicate, and calibrate with their colleagues. It’s a mindset shift from delivering a set curriculum to guiding students in their projects.

Kyle: How do you form partnerships with the community for these projects?

Dagan: We have established relationships with community groups that support our program. Sometimes students identify a community need and we help them find a partner. This involves teaching them how to initiate contact, ensuring safety, and discussing real-world skills. For example, a student wanted to do a project on premature births but couldn’t find a mentor. They pivoted to create a blog about their experience with a younger sibling who was born premature, finding a mentor in writing and blogging. This failure-is-an-option mantra helps keep projects moving forward.

Kyle: Great. Where can people find more resources or support for capstone programs?

Dagan: I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn as Dagan Bernstein, and my website is The National Capstone Consortium at is also a great resource. I’m happy to connect with anyone interested in starting a capstone program.

Kyle: Thanks for the conversation, Dagan. How do you say goodbye in Hawaii?

Dagan: Aloha or my favorite, “a hui hou”, which means until next time.

Kyle: A hui hou, Dagan.

Dagan: A hui hou, Kyle. Mahalo.