"Operation Genius": An Opportunity as Big as Our Students' Imaginations

Operation Genius logo

NOTE: To listen to the Parkside Chat podcast episode devoted to Operation Genius, which features a conversation between Ms. Jessica Iovinelli and Ms. Kristen Carroll, please click here.

Imagine you have an unlimited amount of time, no responsibilities, and money is not an issue. You are then offered the chance to do anything you want — learn a new topic, acquire a new skill, etc.

What would you do? How would you spend your time?

That's the challenge District 401 has posed to students in grades 6-12 in a program called "Operation Genius."

Inspired by Google's Genius Hour, the program offers students the opportunity to tackle any problem they want. The best ideas and solutions will be on display to the community in a districtwide event March 12 at Elmwood Park High School.

During the event, the student projects will be judged in two categories: middle school (6-8) and high school (9-12).

A panel of judges consisting of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nicolas D. Wade along with officials from the Village of Elmwood Park and the D401 Board of Education will award first, second and third place to projects in each category.

First-place winners will each receive a $100 gift card of their choice, followed by $75 and $50 gift cards of their choice for the second- and third-place winners. 

In addition, everyone who attends the event will be able to vote on their favorite projects in the two categories.

The top popular vote-getter in each category will receive a $100 gift card of their choice.

Origin Story

Operation Genius FlyerOperation Genius is organized and led by Director for Instructional Technology Ms. Jessica Iovinelli and EPHS special education teacher Ms. Kristen Carroll.

The notion of applying Genius Hour to a District 401 context originated with Ms. Carroll, who used the concept with her own students after encountering it in a book titled "Empower" by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer.

"It's a practice that stems from Google where they allow their employees 20 percent of their work time to pursue their passions," Ms. Carroll said. "So it benefits the greater good of the company. I just thought it was really interesting that things we use every day like Gmail and other Google apps stemmed from this. So it just really fascinated me."

When she gave her students an opportunity to follow their own passions by solving problems that interested them, Ms. Carroll was impressed with the results.

"One of my students said he was very unhappy with the GoGuardian program that we as a district were using and he had some ideas on how to improve it," she recalled. "So he created a kind of mock website with his ideas on how to improve it and make it more user friendly for the students as well as for the teachers."

The next step leading to Operation Genius came when Ms. Carroll participated in a "demo slam" professional development event where District teachers made brief presentations about innovative uses of technology in their classrooms. Ms. Carroll’s presentation concerned the work her Genius Hour students had produced.

The prospect of empowering students by giving them time to pursue their interests in an unfettered way immediately resonated with Ms. Iovinelli.

"I mean literally five minutes after she was done I was like, 'This is what the next districtwide event should be,'" said Ms. Iovinelli, who had organized 2018's "Into the Cloud," a major community event that showcased the District 401's Technology Initiative.

So why was Ms. Iovinelli intrigued by the premise behind the Genius Hour?

"Because if I was a kid and this was something that was offered to me, I would be able to run with it," she said. "There would've been so many ideas I would have had, and I would've been so excited to do that project. And I know a lot of kids who are like me who aren't necessarily excited by all the things that they're learning and don't have the opportunity to take classes or research the things that they want to. So for me it was a no-brainer."

How It Works

Ms. Jessica Iovinelli presents an overview of Operation Genius to EPHS seniors.

PHOTO: Director for Instructional Technology Ms. Jessica Iovinelli presents an overview of Operation Genius to EPHS seniors. Students in grades 6-12 are eligible to participate in the program. Click image for larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Shortly before the 2018-19 school year ended, Ms. Iovinelli and Ms. Carroll teamed up to start transforming the Genius Hour into a district-level event.

"I think we spent a lot of time trying to create a flow chart of things that needed to be done, so that this would be accessible to all of the kids and still manageable for us to be able to run," Ms. Iovinelli said.

By the time the new school year got underway in August, they were ready to present Operation Genius to District 401 faculty and students.

So how does it work?

As noted above, Operation Genius is open to the District's high school and middle school students, including 6th graders. Participation is voluntary.

All students interested in taking part had to join the program's Google Classroom for their respective grade levels by Sept. 6.

Participants now have until Sept. 27 to complete their initial "brainstorming" assignment. This entails answering three questions about their prospective projects:

  • What question/problem will your research and project solve?
  • Why is this topic important to you?
  • Why do you want to do this project?

After answering those questions, participants must then create their “driving sentence” — i.e., the sentence that provides the organizational framework for their project. The sentence must take the following form:

I will (design, build, plan, produce, invent, create, research) a ______________ to (critique, detect, discover, judge, monitor, evaluate) (why, where, when, how, what) ______________.

An example of a driving sentence would be:

I will create a website to inform people of the negative effects of skipping meals as a way to lose weight.

The point of the brainstorming assignment is to make sure students have a clear focus on what they want to do.

This is helpful for many reasons, not least of which is that the options for potential projects are as boundless as the imagination of the participants.

But whatever they choose, students must be able to communicate what they want to learn. Moreover, the projects they choose must involve research that can't be satisfied by simply doing a Google search. And their projects must be shareable with the larger community.

The Rest of the Timeline

Community members attend District 401's "Into the Cloud" event in April 2018.

PHOTO: The Operation Genius community event will be held March 12 in the EPHS Main Gym, which is where "Into the Cloud" (pictured above) took place in April 2018. Into the Cloud provided Elmwood Park residents with a first-hand look at the tangible results of the District Technology Initiative. Operation Genius, inspired by Google's Genius Hour, will put the products of student creativity on display. Click image for a larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)   

Students who successfully complete the brainstorming assignment will then have until Nov. 7 to create a "Shark Tank" pitch.

This will consist of a three-minute Screencastify presentation in which participants must "sell" their project ideas in a compelling and creative way. The pitch must include:

  • An essential guiding question — what challenge, goal or question will drive the project?
  • A detailed plan — what will the student make as a project?
  • A summary of the motivation behind the project — why did the student choose this project?

Participants will be notified by Nov. 15 whether their pitches have been accepted.

Once they receive the green light, students will have just under four months to complete their projects.

As Operation Genius participants, they will have permission to work on their projects during any free time in their classes. They may also use as much of their own time outside of school to finish their projects as they would like.

To make sure participants stay on track, they will update Ms. Iovinelli and Ms. Carroll on their progress three times via Google Forms — on Dec. 13, Jan. 13 and Feb. 13.

Mentorship and Opportunity

Jessica Iovinelli discusses Operation Genius with a member of the EPHS senior class.

PHOTO: After her presentation, Ms. Iovinelli discusses Operation Genius with a member of the EPHS senior class. Click image for a larger view. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

But the participants won't be on their own. An important part of Operation Genius is mentorship. There will be a list of mentors for participants to contact via email throughout the various stages of the program.

This list will be available in Google Classroom, and it will include teachers, administrators and fellow students with specialized knowledge in a variety of areas. Participants will be encouraged to draw on this expertise.

All of the students' hard work — and all of their creativity — will culminate in the March 12 event. From 6 to 8 p.m. in the EPHS Main Gym, the projects will be on display, and the participants will be on hand to discuss their work and answer questions.

In the end, no matter who wins the coveted gift cards, the participants will be able to take pride in having followed through on this unique invitation to opportunity.

"This connects what the kids love to their learning here in school," Ms. Iovinelli said. "Kids like to learn things that are relevant to them. So this is giving them the chance to pick something they really, really love, work with our teachers, work with other students, and bring that passion to life."

Added Ms. Carroll: "I just love that they're learning and working on so many different skills, whether it's meeting deadlines or using technology or communicating. But they're doing it while pursuing their own passions."

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