Program at South Middle School puts students in charge

It isn’t often that students are told they can choose what they want to learn about. When South Middle School students were given the option, it resulted in some interesting topics — everything from go-carts to chocolate chip cookies to college basketball.

This semester, seventh-grade students at South worked on projects of their own invention as part of the Genius Project. Students, working individually or as a team, sought to design a computer game, create a website, build a go-cart or come up with a healthy chocolate chip cookie recipe. The question posed to students was simple, said seventh-grade teacher Tara Zelvy.

“If you could learn anything you wanted to learn, what would you do?” Zelvy said. “Is there a problem in this world that you wish you could solve?”

One team of students began with their common interest of Kansas University basketball. What began with an effort to better understand the NCAA’s player eligibility requirements expanded to the students tracking potential recruits and making their own videos on the topic. Eventually, the team decided to put all their material on a website. Isaac Steiner, 12, was one of the students involved in the project, and said that he was happy with what his group was able to accomplish.

“It was pretty cool because of the fact that we are only like 12 and 13,” he said. “We made a whole website and it had decent videos on it.”

Isaac said he didn’t have much experience with video before working on the website, and doing the project helped him realize that video editing is something he likes.

“I think it’s kind of cool that you can explore anything you want,” he said. “It kind of gives you more of a creative, exploring side rather than just sitting in school and learning about stuff from a textbook.”

Zelvy and five other teachers at South — Kelly Hart, Beth Weishaar, Stephanie Coleman, Whitney Farrell and Cathy Hilliard — initiated the projects, which students worked on over the course of nine weeks during their guided studies period. Zelvy said that regardless of the topic, the projects required students to come up with alternatives when their ideas didn’t work as planned.

“We had to work on the concept of ‘failing forward,'” Zelvy said. “That didn’t work so what can we do about it? This is harder than we thought, so who can we bring in to help us?”

The Genius Project will continue at South next school year, and students will have additional resources to work with. The project was recently awarded a $2,000 grant from the Lawrence Schools Foundation to purchase additional supplies for projects.

Zelvy said the grant will be used to buy supplies such as building materials, robotics kits and engineering hardware. As a teacher, Zelvy said the grant addresses one of the biggest challenges she faced.

“We needed lumber, and we needed bike wheels and gears and bike chains,” she said. “…Things that just aren’t in a middle school curriculum.”

Teachers can reapply for Lawrence Schools Foundation grants each year, and Zelvy said they hope to continue the project in years to come.