Startup High School Takes a Page from the Silicon Valley Playbook

Passion, Challenge, Impact: The Genius Project

Zach Lynch

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Georgena Luiso

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Students listen to a lecture from Mrs. Alberts in preparation for a Genius Project activity—some with eager interest, others not so much.

There are many things that make Sage Creek unique: the science and technology-focused curriculum, the ultra-modern campus, the championship-winning sports teams…the list goes on. Last year, however, the English department threw their metaphorical hat into the ring by introducing the one and only Genius Project.

“At its heart, [the project is] a way for students to learn about their passions,” English department chair Corrie Myers said. “[Students will] learn real life skills, problem-solving, planning, and… how to tackle things when the problem is really big.”

Photo By Zach Lynch
Junior class participates in a constructive Genius Project workshop, where
advice was exchanged between peers.

In a more practical sense, the Genius Project is a two-year-long assignment in which students choose anything they want to dedicate their time to, as long as it is challenging and impacts the local community. Students’ individual concepts are widely varied, and encompass everything from beach cleanups to food drives to art installations to startup fashion companies.

Much of the project is intended to take place outside of the classroom and out in the “real world,” but roughly one English period per week is dedicated to free work time, sometimes referred to as “20 Percent Time” after its spiritual predecessor at Google, Inc.

As a way to encourage regular progress, SStudents present their current progress at the end of their junior and senior year English classes, with a final TED Talk-inspired symposium at the conclusion of senior year.

When the concept was first pitched to the class of 2017, students and parents alike were skeptical; to give perhaps the most infamous example, one then-junior submitted a satirical proposal to help the world by finding Bigfoot. Likewise, some newer students share in their apprehension.

Photographer: Zach Lynch

“It’ll take a lot of my time,” freshman Noor Abushaban predicted. “I have a few years to go, but still no idea what project to implement. I’m scared for the challenge.”

However, many students think otherwise, including senior Heather Feldmann, whose highly successful youth sports camp is often held up as an exemplar of what the Genius Project can accomplish.

“I think it’s… underrated by the students,” senior Heather Feldmann said. “Without anyone who’s done it before us, it’s hard to see the vision… so a lot of kids don’t take it as seriously as they should.” Feldmann went on to describe the Genius Project as “one of [her] favorite high school experiences,” and hopes to pass leadership of her program to a younger student next year.

Photographer: Zach Lynch

Both the English department and Sage Creek staff as a whole have taken notice of what students like Feldmann have accomplished with the opportunity they were given to create.

“Our students are very driven and smart, and capable of doing much more than just what we assign them to do,” Myers said.

She further professed her admiration for her students, calling their ambition one of the main inspirations behind the project. Myers also expressed her hopes that every student appreciates the amount of work that went into the project’s creation, as well as the effort required to participate in it.

“It’s difficult doing things differently,” Myers said. “It is much easier to [just] assign your students a book to read. It is exhausting to be creative, [but] that is… my ultimate goal.”