Environmental Science Genius Hour

Recently I heard about a “new” idea that has roots in what is now something of an old concept. It comes from the creative release time that some companies are utilizing with their employees. Companies like Google and the like give their employees 20% of their time to work on independent projects and this leads to some very creative innovations. Teachers, being the innovators they are, recognized the worth in this and have begun to incorporate 20% release time for their students. In the classroom, this is often called genius hour. During this time, students are allowed to pursue interests of their own and create products related to those interests. Different teachers would of course set different limitations, but the idea is that students get to pursue some learning independently. Heading into the 2014-2015 school year, I’ll be teaching an honor section of an environmental science class. This is my first time teaching environmental science at this level and teaching environmental science at all in many years. I’ve been thinking about what to include in the course and the Genius Hour is very appealing to me.

My experiences with teaching about the environment go way back. I first was exposed to in high school when my most influential teacher, Doug Pens, taught me Ecology and utilized incredibly creative ways to do so. From there, I spent many years in college going up to Raquette Lake, in the Adirondacks of New York State, visiting Cortland’s educational camps there. After that, I spent years a Greenkill Environmental Education Center as a naturalist teaching young children to love and enjoy nature. Through all of this, one thing became clear, in order to truly embrace taking care of the environment students needed to first love the environment. And getting to that point is a very personal experience. For many, it means being outside and having those transformative experiences that keep you coming back outside and make you care enough to learn about and care for the natural world.

This bring me back to Genius Hour in Environmental Science. The idea here is that students will be given the so called 20% time, roughly 1 class period each week, to explore an Environmental Science topic that interests them. Ideally, it would involve research, exploration, investigation and the creation of a final product in a topic that mosts interests them. There is a part of me akin to a vestigial organ that wants to specify exactly what form this product should take. “Write a research paper”, “Conduct a scientific investigation related to XYZ”, “Make a video documentary.” These are in the class of directed assignments (and I don’t mean to imply they are bad, they just don’t seem to have the independence that goes along with my view of a Genius Hour.) I am interested in what students produce when released from the tether of my vision.

There is, of course, some risk in all of this. I have assigned small-scale projects that involved giving the students a great deal of latitude in what they did. Not all of these panned out. Some were far to simplistic, others far to overreaching. There is a sweet spot in there and I hope to give the students a chance (and the guidance) to hit it. It is the zone in which students tackle a project that is not so simple as to give no sense of accomplishment, nor not so overwhelming as to cause the student to give up. Now, getting there is the tricky part. This is new to me (experienced Genius Hour folks, please feel free to add your advice or comments.)

I do have questions that spring to mind around this concept:

-When do I introduce this idea to the class? Part of me thinks I need to get into the class a bit and cover basic concepts. The other part thinks that the point is to let the students find their own direction and run with it.
– What is my role in this process? Clearly, my role is more than to just sit back and grade papers or prepare lessons while the students do this. However, once I am involved in the process, there is an expectation that I will provide answers. That seems to run against the point of it all.
– Can my students handle such a thing? I am not questioning their intelligence or their work ethic. They are honors students that have proven themselves in the school setting. But this is different. My recent experience is that even my honors students are good at subjects and at school, but they lack independence in their learning. They need direction because they have always been given direction.
– How do I support the transition into the world of independent learning? Of course, just asking that question makes me feel the importance of pursuing this idea.

This is an idea I feel very good about and one that is certainly worth pursuing as I head into summer course planning.