Innovation Hour is “Personalized Learning at Its Best”

What is your passion? Every student at SMUS has a different answer to that question. For some their passion lies somewhere in the realm of arts or athletics; for others it’s within an academics, service or leadership domain.

And to dig deeper and ask, What is your passion project? – that would yield an even more diverse set of answers, tailored to the individual student.

At the Middle School, a small group of Grade 8 students were asked this very question as part of a pilot program, Innovation Hour, this year. Twelve students were invited to participate in a unique opportunity to supplement their in-class learning with a major self-guided project.

“Innovation Hour is a time for students to explore their passions and interests and strengths in a way that isn’t assessed like a normal project would be. It’s free time for students to explore their passions,” says Ms. Tanya Lee, who headed the pilot program.

Students were instructed that Innovation Hour was more than just free time to do what they wanted; it really was a time to focus on a passion project – one that by the end of the school year could be complete.

Mark M. composed a piece of music for the piano. Joce B. designed a smart pill bottle. Felix H. built his own computer. Izzy C. wrote a screenplay. Makayla L. created a series of visual art pieces. Larry Y. designed a new flag.

“This was personalized learning at its best. They each dug deeply into one area and they had to teach themselves skills to create whatever their end goal was,” Tanya says.

Students involved in the pilot project say they enjoyed being able to work on something in-class that was unique to them and their learning style.

“I really enjoyed it, probably because it’s something that I couldn’t do anywhere else or any other time in school,” says Mark. “At home I probably wouldn’t have been as motivated to do it, so having a specific time that was meant for me to do this really motivated me.” His finished composition is called “Quirky Finale.”

The young pianist says that while he’s done writing the music, he still hasn’t been able to get the final pay-off of playing it himself.

“I can’t play it at the moment, I’m not at that level of music yet. It’s easy to compose things above your level because I wanted to add all these different elements in,” Mark says. “I always kind of thought it was easier than it looked, but it turns out composing music is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do because there’s infinite numbers of things you can do. And, kind of like writing, there’s still the grammar of music that you’ve got to follow.”

Joce says the inspiration for her passion project came from watching her grandfather struggle with his daily medication.

“I originally wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for a passion project, but I was visiting my grandfather, and my grandmother was bugging him for forgetting to take his pills,” Joce says. “So I asked him a few questions about sorting them and remembering to take them and that inspired me and made me pretty passionate about this project.”

SMUS-MS-Innovation-Hour-JBDuring Innovation Hour, she developed a pill-loading mechanism, designed a charging station and mobile unit, and researched different tensile strengths and melting points of plastic to ultimately end up with a 3D-printed prototype.

“We’ve done some project-based learning in class before, but nothing like this,” she says. “I think Innovation Hour has been really good, but I don’t think it would be good for everyone because it is self-guided. If you get off on a tangent looking at all different types of plastics for 50 minutes, there’s no one to stop you.”

Felix says his passion project stemmed from a need for a faster computer at home. He researched parts and components, ordered them and pieced his new desktop together. He says he found that Innovation Hour allowed him to learn in a way that was best suited to his preferred learning style.

“There were some really good tutorials on YouTube on how to get it to fit together, so I was able to learn by watching videos,” he says.

Tanya says she’s quite pleased with how well Innovation Hour worked in its first iteration at the Middle School and is optimistically looking at expanding it into an exploratory option next year.

“It was a great pilot and it taught us a lot about how we want it to look. But most importantly, I want this kind of learning to be open to all students, whoever wants to learn this way.”


As we’ve written about many times on The SMUSpaper, personalized learning is key to fulfilling our mission at SMUS: “Our School seeks the excellence in all of us.” Personalized learning allows for students to focus on pursuing their passions and strengths to ultimately make learning more rewarding.



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