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South Valley Journal

Genius Hour unlocks the magic of learning

May 17, 2021 11:35AM ● By Jet Burnham

Like-minded students team up to make and sell bracelets for charity. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

To learn more about engineering, five eighth grade boys designed a couch, fitted with frame anchors, wheels and undercarriage LED lights that could be pulled behind a four-wheeler. 

“I learned designing is hard!” eighth grader Dallin McCay said about the project. The boys worked through problems with wheel durability and portable charger compatibility for the lights before they had a finished product and a successful ride. They even had to apply their knowledge of angles to get the couch through the classroom door when they presented their project to their teacher and classmates at North Star Academy’s Genius Hour Showcase.

For 10 weeks, students at NSA, a K–9 charter school, worked during the weekly Genius Hour to develop an idea into a real-world product or service project.

Some students worked on individual projects to learn more about origami, yetis, magnets, circuits, wilderness survival or the history of music. Others worked in groups, making and selling bracelets to earn money for a children’s cancer charity or tying blankets for the animal shelter.

Some projects were developed to solve a problem. Seventh graders Bryson Froebe and Brayden Smith were tired of tripping over books on the classroom floor, so they engineered and built a desk organizer. Macy Smith and Emery Briggs started a recycling club to clean up trash around the school. A group of middle schoolers made stress balls to give to stressed-out younger students.

NSA teacher Michelle Stewart was impressed with what her fifth graders accomplished.

“I had three kids build and program a drone, and I had two kids make a gaming website,” she said.

She said Genius Hour gives students time to explore topics they enjoy so they are excited to learn.

“Their excitement has just been through the roof with this,” she said. “They are just passionate about it because they're doing what they want to do; they have a complete buy-in.”

Students worked through six steps to develop their ideas: brainstorm, make a plan, research, create/test/improve, share and reflect.

“They have this big idea of what they want to do, and it really broke down the process of how to figure out what they needed to do,” Stewart said.

The independent project taught students critical thinking skills, goal setting, collaboration and creative problem-solving.

“They came to realizations more on their own without me having to guide them,” Stewart said. “I just felt like they really learned a lot this way.”

NSA Enrichment Specialist Jamie VanLeuven said Genius Hour projects are above and beyond what teachers normally ask of students in class. She was impressed when a fifth grader taught himself a programming language so he could code a video game for his project.

“For a fifth grader to take that initiative and figure it out, and learn the programming tutorials on his own, that's not something a normal curriculum would include,” VanLeuven said.

She said students with behavioral challenges, learning challenges or special needs thrive with the Genius Hour program. She has seen dramatic behavior changes in these students as they are allowed to work at their own pace on a topic they chose.

“To see those kids thrive in the general ed classroom, just really excites me,” VanLeuven said.

Genius Hour is part of the schoolwide enrichment model that is the basis of NSA’s charter. It is inspired by Joseph Renzulli, who said, "Where interest and ability intersect, magic happens."

In previous years, the Genius Hour was called Clusters and students joined a mixed grade class, based on their interests, to work as a group on a product or service project. This year, students had to remain in their own classrooms to work on individual and smaller group projects to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines that put limits on inter-class interactions. Stewart said she was reluctant about the change but found most students did better with this year’s program setup.