Genius Hour showing educators that letting students pick studies might be right track

Alayna Pohler (left) and Josie Eckert, members of the Riverview Middle School Seventh Grade Blue Team, explain to the Huntington County Community School Corporation Board of School Trustees at its April 10 meeting how they decided to create a lip balm product for their Genius Hour project. The profits from sales of the lip balm are being donated to The Salvation Army.
Alayna Pohler (left) and Josie Eckert, members of the Riverview Middle School Seventh Grade Blue Team, explain to the Huntington County Community School Corporation Board of School Trustees at its April 10 meeting how they decided to create a lip balm product for their Genius Hour project. The profits from sales of the lip balm are being donated to The Salvation Army. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published April 20, 2017

The idea of letting kids learn what they want to learn sounds like a recipe for disaster, but as the seventh-grade Blue Team at Riverview Middle School has proven, it’s sheer genius.

It’s called Genius Hour, a program that is teaching middle school students to not just think out of the box, but for themselves as well. The results have been impressive, says Assistant Principal Michael Parsons.

“Back in December I had an opportunity to watch what our seventh grade Blue Team students were doing, and that literally blew my mind,” he said during a presentation made to the Huntington County Community School Corporation Board of School Trustees. “I could not imagine what our kids were capable of doing. It instilled a lot of confidence in me.”

Science teacher Steve Park says Genius Hour, which started last fall, gives students power over learning as they pick topics they are curious or passionate about. He says he found out about the program from some science conferences he had attended.

“The last couple of years I’ve noticed that there’s been an undercurrent of letting kids explore some areas of their learning that they don’t normally get to,” he says. “In my years of teaching this is one of the most rewarding things I’ve been able to be a part of.”

Here’s how it works:

The students get 20 percent of their class time — which amounts to an hour each week — to learn what they want. Their assignment is to pick a topic and learn about it.

The Blue Team teachers advise them to explore what they’re passionate about — “Something that you want to really dig deep into,” Park says. “Then, after you’ve researched it and you’ve found out as much as you possibly can about it, then you create something.”

The project could be a website, a document, a product, video, a company, an app or anything that will relay the information that they learned.

“Then you give it out to the world,” Park says. “The world needs to know what you’re doing. Fortunately with the technology that we have, that’s a pretty easy thing to do.”

Some examples of Genius Hour projects the students came up with include increasing tourism in Huntington County, the health benefits of origami, creating a swimsuit line, a cheaper and stronger way to build a pole barn and reporting on a company that sells bracelets to help fund schools, build clean water wells and support research for diseases.

One group, comprised of students Alayna Pohler and Josie Eckert, came up with the idea of creating their own lip balm. They researched recipes, made all natural lavender and peppermint lip balm, and sold their product for $3 each.

“Our startup cost for the project was $20 in debt. We have already made $80, so we’re out of debt,” Pohler said. “We appreciate the people who have helped us and supported us through this process, especially.”

The biggest thing they learned during their work was choosing the right recipe for their lip balm. The one they picked is a mixture of beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter, essential oil, honey and vegetable oil.

“We wanted to use essential oils, so we chose that one,” Eckert says. “And also, choosing what organization to donate to.”

They researched several charities, seeking one to donate their profits to that would reap the biggest bang from their lip balm bucks.

“We encourage people to think before they donate. I have a list of organizations that explains how much the organization actually gives to the people they are helping.” Eckert says. “Salvation Army gives 96 percent of the money they receive for their cause.”

Park says one of the underlying philosophies about Genius Hour is that students realize that the power is their own.

“It’s not the teachers, it’s not the classroom, it’s not the subject,” he says. “Their learning is based upon what they want to make it, and they can affect their community that way.”

He also says there is great potential for failure with a program such as this. The students drive what they do, which isn’t always an easy thing for kids. They’re used to being told what to do, rather than think and research on their own.

Park explains there are a few “cons” to the program, including misuse of the free time, using Genius Hour versus test preparation, how to grade the projects and teachers’ roles — teachers had to adjust their planning and role accordingly to be more of a “facilitator” — and plan for a mess.

Another concern was that students at this age are accustomed to being told what to do; they felt uneasy without having a structured “assignment.” Some might even feel some anxiety. To help them out, Language arts teacher Rochelle Kennedy put together some Google Slides to show students how to get started:

• Brainstorm what you’re passionate about.

Students are urged to think about something that really hits them deep — what breaks their heart.

• Choose your topic.

As an example, one student chose music therapy as his topic, using his own musical talent as part of his project presentation.

• Write a good question.

The question had to be a “driving” question and could not be “Google-able.” Park says it should take eight weeks to a lifetime to answer the question.

• Research.

“For many this was an eye-opening experience because, as we all know, there’s a lot of junk out there,” Park says. “There’s a lot of false information that we as teachers had to tell them, ‘Dig a little deeper here because this isn’t right.’”

• Share what you have learned with the world.

The teachers wanted the students to do meaningful work, something that they could compile and share with others. Teachers spent a lot of time going from student to student and challenging their research to make sure it was accurate.

The project also promoted work beyond the classroom, with lots of kids working at home on their project.

“They didn’t feel like it was extra work,” Park says. “It was something that they were passionate about anyway.”

The Blue Team students recently held a “symposium” in which students and teachers could walk around, view the exhibit and talk about their research. The teachers had no idea how the first one would go, but Park says it turned out to be a huge success.

“To see the kids come alive, because even the shy kids, who a lot of times were afraid to speak in front of others, when they were passionate about what they were learning about, that is pretty powerful stuff,” he said.

Kennedy said she, Park and the Blue Team teachers of Sara Barrett (social studies), Crystal Hippensteel (math) and Sue Kornexl (resource teacher) were as excited as the students by the outcome.

“We had no idea the power of student choice and passion would be so moving for so many of our students. Their research and projects far exceeded our expectations,” Kennedy says. “We had students design a profitable business model, and use the profits to benefit charity. We had students excited about learning and sharing, and making a difference in our community.”

The second semester of Genius Hour is now underway, with a second symposium to present the students’ projects scheduled for May.