So it’s the start of summer, again, and everyone is tired. But, you’re dreading your teens spending yet another summer in front of the TV, phones, and video games. When kids are too old for summer camp, but too young for a job or internship, it can be a real challenge to find a way to keep kids busy in something meaningful that they will learn from.  As our own kids have gotten older, our agreement is that they can stay home as long as they spend scheduled time working on something meaningful.  Last year they worked on their skills for tennis and dance, and this year we’re adding the idea of a Genius Project.

Teen Passion Project

What is a Genius Project?

I’ve been researching project-based learning and how schools are using this to build life skills like creativity, communication, teamwork, and planning.  This is how I stumbled upon the concept of a Genius Project, started as Google’s “20% time initiative”, which allows employees to dedicate 20% of working hours to their own ideas.  Schools are using this idea to let students choose and drive their own learning.

Real Life Example of a Genius Project: First Lego League

It occurred to me that my son had already done this type of project during his First Lego League robotics competitions. Besides the building and programming the robots, the team worked on a project to develop a solution of their choice based on a really general topic, like animals, or water.

In 7th grade, the challenge topic was water. The team designed an app that would work with leak detectors using Rasperry Pi and Arduino to identify pipe leaks or breaks. The app then would notify the homeowner to avoid huge water bills or damage to their homes, as well as save on water consumption. Other teams worked on water cleanup, or water conservation. The ideas were totally unique for every team. While the teams didn’t get to choose the overall topic of water, they did get to define the solution they thought the community could benefit from.

Wouldn’t it be great to get your tween or teen to use some of their summer to work on a fun project or skill that they choose? To give them a chance to builds on a passion or topic they’re curious about?

These are the Benefits of the Genius Hour

A Genius Project helps kids start building skills that they need and colleges look for, like planning, self-assessment, thinking outside the box. Teens and tweens will:

  • Unleash their creativity and passion by exploring new areas, “going deep” in a subject of their choosing
  • Learn by doing, and master a topic in the real world
  • Experience many teachable moments, like goal-setting, hitting obstacles and adjusting, coordinating a project and sticking to the deadlines.

When students are given “choice” they choose something they love, or are good at, or that the world needs. 

A.J. Juliani

So How Can Your Teen Get Started?

Before your teen gets started, it is important to define a realistic time commitment depending on how much time they really have available this summer. Summer break is about 10 weeks long, but with vacations, family visits, and other events, it may not be possible to dedicate all those weeks to a project. If it’s 8 weeks, or 4 weeks, it doesn’t matter. What is important is figuring out what time is available and staying committed to it.

Also, decide how much time will be spent on this project every day. This shouldn’t feel like “work”… If they choose to dig into an idea or area that they truly love, then time should fly by when they’re working on it. I would recommend no more than 2 hours every day, to balance down time with this project.

So when it’s time to get started, here are some basic steps for your teen or tween to follow:

Define the topic, including a problem and potential solution.

This is probably the hardest part of the project. How do they decide what to work on if given the chance to work on ANYTHING? Well, if they have created a Vision Board, that may be a good place to start to find ideas. Once they have picked a general topic, they may need help with brainstorming. To dig deeper, they should be able to define 3 questions or sub-topics to find out more about. This is the start of an outline or mindmap that will help them stay focused and on task. The solution can be: building a device, creating a website, hosting an event, or creating a piece of art. The possibilities are endless.

Ask lots and lots of questions.

Like in the “real world”, when we want to find a new solution, we usually don’t have all the information we need. So it’s time to do research and figure out: Has anyone done this before? Are there similar solutions out there? There is so much information online, that is definitely a good way to start. But, your teen can gather unique information by talking to the people that this solution is for: What do they think? Does this idea address their needs? What obstacles could make it difficult for your solution to be successful?

Define the potential solution. Well, the first “version”, really.

Armed with the initial idea, and research and interviews around the problem and potential solution, it should be easier to describe clearly how this project will find a solution. Your teen should be able to answer: Am I developing a new application for an existing idea? Am I trying to solve a problem in a new way?

Build a prototype and get feedback.

When we say the word prototype, usually what pops into our minds is a gadget that is a simplified version of a product. While a prototype is an initial “model”, it is not necessarily a gadget or something tangible, it could be digital work (a website, slideshow presentation with voiceover, and infographic, etc.), a work of art, or a “mini” version of an event. A prototype helps us communicate our solution to others. They should present the prototype to friends, family, or those interviewed during the research to gather feedback and ideas for improvement.

Improve and refine.

Feedback about the prototype should drive a plan to make adjustments, fixes and improvements that will define the final solution. At this point, your teen should know what worked and what didn’t, and use that information to make additional improvements. It may take a few rounds of prototype > improve and refine before you get to a final product.

Prepare your final solution and SHARE it!

Don’t let all your hard work go unnoticed. Find a way to share your final product. It could be presented on a website, a slide show with voiceover, a gadget, or an event.

Celebrate!

Finishing a Genius Project is quite the accomplishment. Go celebrate your teen with family and friends!

The Biggest Challenge of a Genius Project

The biggest challenge of a Genius Project is balancing creativity with the reality of needing at least some structure to make sure there is progress every week. In school, the teacher would serve as the project mentor to help keep things moving. At home, a parent or another member of the family will need to be that guide through this process.

Incorporate some basic project tracking

  • High level project schedule with weekly milestones: What is the start date? What is the end date? For example:
    • Week 1: Brainstorming and define the solution
    • Weeks 2-3: Research and Interviews
    • Week 4: Define the solution
    • Weeks 5-6: Build the prototype
    • Week 7: Present prototype to mentors, family and friends
    • Week 8: Refine prototype and create the final solution
    • Week 9: Share with friends, family and others you interviewed. And don’t forget to Celebrate!
  • Weekly check-ins with the parent or project mentor: Put time on the calendar to chat about what’s going well, and what obstacles are they finding. Help them by talking through potential ways to address them. They can also ask for help finding resources for information, or drafting questions for interviews, or help in interpreting feedback.
  • End of week self-evaluation: Teens are old enough to assess how they’re doing. They can identify if they keeping up with the scheduled milestones, what they could be doing better, and make plans for improvement.

The time spent on a passion project can help teens stay energized and motivated to work on and finish something amazing and innovative. As teens get familiar with the process of project-based learning, they will also learn planning skills that will be incredibly valuable in high school, college, and in real life.

Everything you need for a Genius Project

To get started, I created a couple of resources for my own kids to follow this summer. I am happy to share those with you here:

I also found a lot of great articles that are helping us prepare for our own “Summer of Genius”. There is a LOT of information out there, so I just want to share my favorites in our Resources page.

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Help your teen make this summer count with a Genius Project
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