This semester, a Dayton Junior High class called Genius Hour was re-launched. After redesigning its original structure that incorporated insights from the first semester, the class is now exploring agile learning in new ways: by challenging students to research unfamiliar subjects and then share their newfound knowledge with the world.

Genius Hour 2.0 is challenging young students to become empowered as meaning makers and educators. This class is deepening Dayton students’ Innovate mindset.

Launched at the start of the 2018 school year, the first semester of Genius Hour was similar in structure to Design Challenge, giving students the opportunity to choose and create a project with very little confines regarding completion time and project topic.

After the first semester, Mrs. Shilhanek realized that something needed to change for her students, to better define the purpose and potential of Genius Hour. So she met with industry professionals and came up with a new model for the class that would show her students how to develop more in-depth levels of thinking, to find meaning as learners and educators.

One week before the beginning of the second semester this year, Mrs. Shilhanek met with the other Genius Hour teachers and presented her classroom plan to them. Inspired by her vision, the teachers embraced her ideas and began implementing the Genius Hour “2.0” structure into all of their own classrooms.

The class is taught by a wide variety of teachers from different areas of education in the school district. Genius Hour 2.0 is focused on expanding and exploring the interest of its students by showing them that there is a world of endless knowledge inside of every subject of study. The main difference between Design Challenge and Genius Hour 2.0, is that in Design Challenge, students learn how to make a positive impact on the world by collaborating together as learners. In Genius Hour, students gain skills in researching unfamiliar topics and sharing their knowledge with the world as educators.

Genius Hour 2.0 is currently being offered to 7th and 8th graders at Dayton. Each class project starts by forming student groups. Then, every group is given one subject that they will each have to delve into. This subject is called the “base.” After the base has been announced, each group randomly picks a “scrambler” which is another topic to combine with their base. Each team then creates a project that encompasses the connections between their base and scrambler and after their classroom presentations, the class votes on their favorite project. Whichever team wins, receives the “DaVinci award” and gets to pick the next base topic.

Genius Hour is using the work of Leonardo da Vinci as its inspiration; he was an artist, writer, architect, inventor, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, and astronomer — a true polymath. He was a collector and lover of all knowledge, with a belief that everything connects to everything else. His educational viewpoint is the core learning concept in Genius Hour 2.0, as students are becoming inspired to explore their education more deeply and find meaning in the classroom.

Last week, Mrs. Shilhanek’s 5th period Genius Hour 2.0 class began a new project. The class split up into teams and were given a base of “art.” Then these teams picked from the scramblers and got topics like “career” and “environmental impact.” One group drew from the scrambler bin the subject “psychology.”

Art and psychology. Both complex and thought-provoking subjects, yet vastly different in many ways.

One of the members of this team, an 8th-grade student named Jen, describes herself as a reserved type with a love for independent learning and art. So initially, she thought that she would be sketching or painting some kind of a diagram for this project. But one of her team members really wanted to research a culinary topic. At this point, Jen knew that it’d be tricky to find connections between all three topics, even on the surface level. But they decided to try anyway. She said, “We were diving into blind material.”

Jen didn’t see the project’s full potential until she began to dive into the “rabbit hole” research process. This process challenges the student to follow their curiosity into new areas of discovery and then to understand the connections between their discoveries. Despite the clear differences between her group’s base and scramblers, they found that it presented a learning opportunity for them to take a subject that they might already be familiar with and explore it outside of their comfort zone to learn new things and form greater connections.

She and her group became captivated by the information they found. They discovered that there is a major link to art in food — specifically in the presentation of food. After that, they started to dig deeper and discover connections between human psychology and food.

The brownie dessert display

They found that the appearance of food influenced the taste. For example, vibrant colors and attractive plating made food taste more flavorful. This information helped them make direct connections to art and desert, as well as psychology, so they focused on presenting the visual part of their project by plating their brownies. The team even found connections between a person’s enjoyment of food and the sounds that they hear, after discovering scientific studies that demonstrated that high-pitched sounds increase the sweetness of food and low-pitched sounds increase bitterness. “Our bodies are amazing,” Jen explained. “We don’t realize it, but we make fascinating auditory and visual connections.”

Jen says that a major aspect of her enjoyment in the class came down to the learning environment. Everyone in her team was able to collaborate using their individual interests and curiosities, to create a project that was meaningful to all of them. While being a part of this project, she noticed that students around her were able to focus their learning and became invested in their projects and their teams. She says: “It’s amazing what giving us creative freedom can do.”

Each year, Dayton School District finds new ways to offer leading-edge learning opportunities for all students, by reimagining education to call forth unique learning experiences. This teacher-student collaboration is telling a continuous story about the power of agile learning and how it is inspiring Dayton students to become the DaVincis of tomorrow.

Bevin Schrag Administrator

Bevin Schrag is a writer for Innovate Oregon. While working in social media and marketing at OnlineNW, she is currently studying the arts at Chemeketa Community College, to later become a media designer.