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The Extended Essay journey: An opportunity for interdisciplinary research

Uzay Ashton, EE Coordinator and Teacher of High School English, East Campus
18 December 2019

UWCSEA East High School students dress up as their Extended Essay.

The Extended Essay (EE) is an integral part of the two-year IB Diploma Programme (IBDP), making up one-third of what is known as the IB Core, comprised of the EE, Theory of Knowledge (ToK) and Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS). At UWCSEA, we introduce IBDP students to the EE in the middle of their Grade 11 year. Over the course of the next 12 months, students conduct independent research on a topic and subject area of their choice, demonstrating their passion and intellectual initiative by writing a 4,000 word paper worthy of any first-year university course.

In 2016, the International Baccalaureate introduced the World Studies Extended Essay (WSEE) which “gives students the opportunity to undertake an interdisciplinary study of an issue of contemporary global significance” (“Interdisciplinary Essays”). Since then, full diploma students around the globe have been looking into ways in which they can combine their passion for two diverse subjects and apply it to one of six areas of study: conflict, peace, and security; culture, language, and identity; environmental and/or economic sustainability; equality and inequality; health and development; or science, technology, and society. The opportunity and challenge to identify and investigate an interdisciplinary topic has led to some fascinating EEs in recent years—and has also inspired teachers to support students in finding a unique research question that sparks their intellectual curiosity and personal passions.

The EE Process

To support students in their EE journey, we have developed a year-long process that provides them with the information, inspiration and insights that they need to be successful. To introduce the EE in Grade 11, we like to assume that students have no background knowledge regarding the EE; that way, all students receive the same foundational information at the same time. The process begins with an introductory assembly early in Term 2 of Grade 11 where we answer common questions about the EE such as: What is it? How does it work? How long does it take? Which subjects can be used? What are the deadlines? Students are then encouraged to start thinking about topics they’d like to pursue before attending two different carousels.

Heads of Department prepare to host carousel sessions, which offer a 20-minute glimpse into what an EE looks like in their specific subject area. Ahead of the carousel process this past year, I ask teachers to help create examples of research questions on the same topic but through the lens of different academic subjects.

Stimulating topics and questions

The sample topic I gave was bees. Yes, bees. It’s a topic which I hold near to my heart; as the most important pollinator of food crops, it’s essential that we keep the honeybee population alive and thriving throughout the world. I wanted to know how our teachers would formulate a research question around the subject of bees, so I posed this question: “Pretend I am a student who wants to study a passion of mine: bees. My problem is that I don’t know which subject area to select for my EE. What type of question could I research if I were to register in your subject area?”

I received many responses from a wide variety of subject areas, but the two that stood out the most for me were the ones submitted for a WSEE:

  • To what extent do wildlife documentaries employ the language of bias in their descriptions of behaviour amongst bees? (English A and Biology)
  • What are the ecological and commercial opportunities for the adoption of stingless beehives in Singapore? (ESS and Business Management)

The various examples—of both single subject and WSEE research questions—help to stimulate students’ thinking around potential topics.

Carousels and research skills

As they attend the carousel sessions, the students learn more about their options. For instance, students attending a Language A carousel learn that there are three different categories that can be explored; in a History carousel, they will learn that their topic must focus on the human past and be at least ten years old; for Mathematics, students will learn that any topic that has a mathematical focus can be used for an EE: it doesn’t have to be confined to the theory of mathematics itself.

Students also attend a mandatory Research Skills Workshop hosted by our Middle and High School Teacher Librarian; this offers them the chance to learn more about the many research databases that are available to them through our extensive library. Students are then given some time to further consider their ideas before submitting their proposals a few weeks later.

World Studies EE

For those students who choose the interdisciplinary WSEE, they are also expected to show how their research question is contemporary in nature (i.e., within their lifetime), relates to an issue of global significance, and can also be demonstrated through a local manifestation. A local manifestation can mean a distinct place (e.g., Toronto, Canada), a localised issue (e.g., air pollution surrounding a specific airport), or a particular text, art form, or genre (e.g., Cubism).

In an effort to apply the WSEE concept this year, one student looked into the global significance of exercise and the human body through the lenses of both Dance and Biology; more specifically, she researched how ballet training can change a dancer’s lower limb structure. The student’s enthusiasm for dance coupled with her curiosity in biology led her to this unusual yet intriguing research idea.

This is the beauty of the WSEE: it can transform an area of passion into an area worthy of academic study and critical thought.

Teacher supervisors

The full EE experience for all IBDP students is supported by teacher supervisors. Each student is allocated to a teacher supervisor who will mentor and guide their EE journey. From this point forward, the supervisor becomes their first line of contact: all meetings and reflection sessions are held with the supervisor.

In the beginning, the supervisors guide students to a focused research question deserving of academic study. Students meet with their supervisors a number of times over the course of the next 12 months for informal check-in sessions. In addition, they also meet officially three times for mandatory reflective conversations, which result in three additional writing tasks: an initial reflection (descriptive), an interim reflection (analytical), and a final reflection (evaluative).

Dedicated EE days

In May of Grade 11, students are off timetable on EE Writing Day and use this opportunity to meet with their supervisors, attend workshops, conduct research, perform experiments, and begin writing their drafts. Supervisors often provide snacks, comfortable work spaces, and words of wisdom and encouragement for the students who are eager to put a dent into their first drafts, which are due the first day back after the summer holidays.

At UWCSEA, students submit their final drafts in their Grade 12 year on EE Celebration Day, which is typically the first day back after October break on East Campus. Students are encouraged to come to school dressed as their EE topic and enjoy food and festivities together with their supervisors and parents/guardians (I’d like to add that all the food is donated by very generous Grade 12 parents! They clearly know how to feed a room full of young adults!). And just like that, their EE journey nears an end.

Value of the EE

Our students are not just researching an area of interest; they are researching potential solutions to real issues within our communities, our societies, our world. As teachers, parents and guardians, we can support our students by guiding EE conversations towards ideas that are stimulating and that challenge students to become advocates for the type of education that acts as a force for good in the world.

Works cited

“Coherence in the Core.” The International Baccalaureate, 2016, Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

“Guiding Statements.” UWCSEA | International School in Singapore, Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

“Interdisciplinary Essays.” The International Baccalaureate, IBO,§ion=1. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.