Thursday, September 26, 2013

Choosing a topic for 20%

I had my students brainstorming ideas for their 20% projects. I used the Bad Idea Factory (Kevin Brookhouser  -, and created a Google docs form, which allowed us to collect all ideas in one central location. The mission was to come up with as many ideas as possible, and the table with the most ideas would get a TBD prize.

While going over some of the ideas posted, I ran across my first problem - I had not been as clear as I thought. About half of the class was submitting ideas that could best be described as Science fair projects. I don't know if this was partly due to the fact that they were trying to come up with more ideas, or simply because the idea of a "project that will allow you to explore your personal interests" was too vague or overwhelming. I asked several groups about this, and the response was mostly along the lines "I always wanted to do/find out _____, but never had the chance". I did not want to crimp the curiosity, but I worried about night before the pitch syndrome, when they realized that curiosity does not equal passion. One of the students in this group came up to me later and asked, "What if I did all the experiments I want to do, and publish them as a series of videos?" I replied with what has become my mantra as I work through this with them:

"Would you be caught working on this on Superbowl Sunday, while your family has having a party?" 

Once I got over that hurdle, I was also faced with the students that really were stuck on even finding a topic. For those students I devised a kind of systematic elimination:

- List three big ideas that you like.
- Under those, write down a couple of areas of particular interest.
- Now, write down one project that you could do for those. (If you cant think of any, eliminate that area)
- For the few that are left, tell me "Who will benefit most from you working on this?" (Eliminate any that include the word but in your answer)
- Finally answer the question "Would you work on this when no one is watching (AKA: Superbowl Sunday with a party in the next room)? (Eliminate any that do not receive a resounding "Yeah")

This appeared to work, I'll let you know after I read the introductory blogs.

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