WIND POINT — This year, Alex Lynott is building a better football glove. Francisco Germano is creating an engine powered by the sun.
Last year, Natalie Scumaci wondered why human beings act irrationally. Ian Foster immersed himself in eastern religions.
For the past two years, fourth-grade students and high school seniors at The Prairie School have embarked on mind-expanding, mind-blowing journeys in new programs designed to unleash their creativity and dare them to make not the sky — but the entire universe — the limit to their thinking.
The seniors are in Capstone, a program where students engage in a year-long research project. The topic can be something that fascinates them, troubles them, a problem they want to solve, or an issue they want to know more about.
At the same time, fourth-graders are making time for a Genius Hour each day. Genius Hour is a movement created by Google that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom.
These programs, both in their second years at Prairie, are having a profound effect on how students think, analyze and process information.
Dominic Inouye, an English teacher at Prairie for seven years, started Capstone last year. He wanted students to do research on something they were interested in and not to be afraid of making themselves part of the project.
“This isn’t just to regurgitate data,” he said. “Often we are afraid to use the personal pronoun — I — in research, but we want them to have big questions about what they know, what they don’t know, who are the experts in the field, and who can they ask.”
The projects last the entire school year with Inouye helping students overcome obstacles, face frustrations and plot direction.
“These take a long time and the challenge is to keep students invigorated and fresh,” Inouye said. “Sometimes you have to reassure them the messiness of it all is OK.”
Students finish their projects by creating a website and 10 slides for a presentation. Students then talk for three minutes about their projects, Inouye said.
This year senior David Reske is exploring the best practices and benefits of differentiated instruction.
“I want to be a teacher, so for me the Capstone will benefit me going into college,” Reske said. “Before this, I didn’t know a lot about differentiation. I’d obviously seen different ways of teaching, but never knew specifically what teachers did. I’ve always been on the receiving end of instruction.”
Scumaci, who graduated from Prairie last year, was sparked by reading the book “Sway,” which attempts to explain why humans act irrationally.
“Little did I know that reading the book would lead me to write a 42-page paper on behavioral psychology,” she said. “Writing my senior Capstone taught me time management, how to appreciate and even enjoy nonfiction books, and helped me to better understand people.”
In fourth grade, teachers Christine Henke Mueller and Marcia Wilks started Genius Hour last year.
Henke Mueller recalled when her fifth-grade teacher turned her classroom into a frontier log cabin. Students wore period costumes and pretended they lived on the prairie.
“She created a transformative experience that I remember,” said Henke Mueller, who has been at Prairie for 11 years. “That’s what we want to create.”
The students spend an hour a day on whatever projects spring into their minds. Last year the projects included building an airplane, training animals and creating websites.
“Students look forward to this,” she said. “For them, it’s the best part of the day.”
The students learn perseverance, how to take chances, to open their minds. “They take hold of their own learning. It’s not just filling out blanks in a workbook,” she said. “I saw students who were safe learners take more chances.”