Genius Hour in Middle School

What is Genius Hour?

Genius Hour is sometimes called Passion Projects and is an opportunity for student directed learning based on inquiry. Students can explore their own unique interests in a loosely structured classroom environment. They choose what they want to study and how they want to study it. They also choose what kind of product they will create as a result of what they’ve studied. Genius Hour gives students a chance to pursue what they’re passionate about within general parameters.

Genius hour can be scheduled into your unit in multiple ways. You can make every Friday’s class period, for example, to be time for students to work on their Genius Hour activities. Some teachers provide Genius Hour opportunities during lunch block or after school. The last 10 minutes of every class period can be allotted for Genius Hour activities.

What are the benefits of Genius Hour?

Students who participate in a Genius Hour program are more intrinsically motivated, more creative, and more passionate about being a lifelong learner. They develop grit or perseverance and practice the scientific method at the same time. Students can collaborate with others who have complementary skill sets, building communication skills. Working through a passion project allows students to practice and develop their critical thinking skills and research skills.

What are the 3 rules of Genius Hour?

  1. Passion Projects must start with a driving question that is bigger than a simple Google Search.
  2. Students must research their question and collect information to help them understand fully.
  3. Finally, students must create either a physical, digital, or service oriented product to demonstrate learning.

Genius Hour Examples for Middle School Science

  • Create a podcast or TED talk.
  • Write and perform a play or a song.
  • Write a blog, pamphlet, or research paper.
  • Create a poster, a cartoon, a game, or a 3D model.
  • Teach someone else a new skill.
  • Build a website.
  • Create an app.
  • Create a video game.
  • Create, market, and sell a product.
  • Conduct a science experiment.

genius hourWhat are the steps for Genius Hour in a middle school science classroom?

Day 1:  Students should brainstorm things they are interested in and then choose something they are really passionate about.

Day 2: Pick a project. Aim for the Goldilocks of ambitious projects – the project should be big enough to be interesting but not so big that students will get discouraged too quickly. A great way to implement this in your middle school classroom would be to have students discuss their ideas with their peers and then present you with their final project in a mini-conference.

Day 3: Pick a driving question. Students should very specifically define what it is they are trying to find out. The more specific the question is, the more successful they will be. If the question can be answered in a simple Google search, they need to go back to the drawing board.

Days 4-5: Do the research. My middle schoolers are fluent Googlers but less successful doing research without direction. Provide a note catcher or other tool to help them organize their research. (Bonus points if your students design their own note catcher!) To help students stay focused, you might consider providing intermediate feedback on the direction of their research after the first day.

Day 6-?: Create something. To demonstrate what they’ve learned, students should create something. Students may want to create a publication, a blog, a video, a play, a gallery walk, a wax museum, or a painting.

Day ?: Presentation Day. Invite parents and community members. Picture this like the old fashioned science fair.

Final Day: Reflect. Students should be given an opportunity to bring the process full circle and reflect on what went well and what they would do differently. What did they learn?


Where are the teachers going?

I just signed my contract for next year. But a bunch of teachers did not.

What’s happening?

Some staff turnover is normal, of course. Education Week says that a “normal” number of teachers leaving the profession is about 8% per year.
This year is different. This year, the number is at least double and even triple in some locations. I’m worried that school will start in September without a full staff. I’m worried about class sizes, running out of lab supplies, and lab safety in overcrowded classrooms.

Why are they leaving?

Asked this question recently, I sort of snarkily replied, “If you don’t know, then you’re not paying attention.”
Burnout is ridiculously high in education in the best of circumstances, but 3 years of building the plane while we were flying it has resulted in emotional exhaustion mandates, and a whole host of random knee jerk reactions to a global problem. There’s just a lot more being asked of teachers now, but there isn’t commensurate compensation.
Low pay is a contributor. The cost of living in the United States in 2022 increased by 5.9% and is expected to increase by 8.9% in 2023. Did you salary go up that much? Mine went up 1.3% this year.
Lack of respect by parents, administrators, and students contributes as well. Is it worse this year? That probably depends on your school district, but it surely doesn’t help.

Where are they going?

In February of this year, Forbes  Magazine published “Why Teachers are Leaving and Where They’re Going.” Apparently, there is a demand for teacher skills in companies that produce educational products and companies that train educators. Teachers have transferable skills such as the ability to chunk information and deliver content, efficiency, creativity, and organization. Teachers are masters at graphic design, management. published a list of 35 businesses that are interested in hiring teachers because of these transferable skills.

Why am I staying?

Again, my answer is the same. If you don’t know, then you’re not paying attention. I’m staying because of the kids. I love helping to engage students to think critically. I love it when they accidentally call me “Mom” (yes, even in middle school). I love knowing my impact.

If you’re going to stay on this crazy carnival ride with me,  here’s a little freebie for you. Just a little something to use when you go back to school at the end of the summer!

The Science of Summer Sports

“But when will we have to know this?” Every middle school teacher has heard this lament. It’s hard to make Newton’s Laws or simple machines exciting, and it’s hard for a 7th or 8th grade student to engage with heavy dry material. But when you can make the science engaging or relevant, kids will dig in. Children are naturally curious, and if you can tap into that curiosity, you can help them learn anything. The newest product line in the JustAddH2O store is a series of products connecting the summer games to science, and the kids are loving it! The science of summer sports engages middle schoolers and helps them make connections to physical science.

science of cyclingThe Science of Cycling

The first product in the science of summer sports product line analyzes how science affects cycling.

How do helmets work? First we’ll tackle the problem of bicycle helmets. Learn how helmets work and then use what you learned to protect an egg in everyone’s favorite lab – the egg drop!

Helmets protect your head from injury in two ways. The plastic outer shell helps your head slide rather than stop suddenly, preventing or lessening the severity of an injury. The foam padding inside cushions the impact by spreading it out over a longer period of time and a larger surface, reducing the force on any one part of the head.

Use what you learn about helmets to design and build a container to protect an egg from breaking. Kids love this activity – I’ve had students come back years later and remind me of how their egg didn’t break (or did break) and what fun they had doing the lab.

What are wheels and axles? A wheel and axle is a simple machine that helps make work easier. In a bicycle, the pedal acts like a wheel and transfers the movement of your food to the smaller axle, which transfers the movement to the bicycle chain. The bicycle chain acts like a pulley and transfers the movement to another axle, this one in the center of the bicycle wheel. This axle transfers the movement to the larger wheel which makes the bike move.

Students make their own go-kart wheel and axles out of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, I tell students to bring in a piece of fruit or a vegetable without telling them what it will be used for, and then I pair up students so that they have to make their go-kart from the two items they brought in. This is another high engagement activity that graduates remind me of years later.  “Remember that time we had to make a cart out of a piece of celery and a green pepper?!”

The Science of Basketballthe science of basketball

The summer games wouldn’t be complete without basketball. There are 3 hands on activities that even sports-challenged middle schoolers can complete to learn about the science of basketball.

How does the surface affect the bounce? Students can practice collecting data while trying to determine how the type of surface affects how high a basketball bounces. Using controls (inflation of the ball, height from which the ball is dropped) and variables (different surfaces), students use the scientific method. A simple data table comparing the height of a bounce on linoleum, wood, grass, carpet, asphalt, or whatever surfaces are available to you will allow students to make comparisons. Create a bar graph and add another NGSS skill to your toolbelt.

How does inflation affect the bounce? A similar experiment uses differently inflated basketballs to measure how each one bounces. Have students try different amounts of inflation ranging from 4 psi up to 8 or 9 psi to determine the inflation that produces the best bounce. Students will use controls (surface and height from which the basketball is dropped) and variables (inflation) and collect data which they can graph in a bar graph.

How do senses affect accuracy? A fun activity students enjoy is to compare how many baskets a student can get in 10 shots when they’ve covered one eye, plugged their ears, or worn gloves.

science of runningThe Science of Running

Start off studying about the science of running by learning how the human body is built to run. The muscles and tendons of the legs combine with the arches in the foot to make our bodies perfect runners. The ability to sweat helps us control our body temperatures.

Measuring Lung Capacity – Students can make bubbles using a straw dipped in bubble solution on your lab tables and measure the diameters of the bubbles. Using the formula of a sphere, you can calculate the volume of the bubble and therefore the volume of your lungs. It’s interesting to compare the lung capacity of tall students versus shorter students or the lung capacities of athletes versus non-athletes.

Chicken Leg dissection. In what’s sure to be the most remembered activity of the school year, have students dissect a chicken leg. Start off explaining the difference between smooth, skeletal, and cardiac muscle. Then, provide students with a labeled drawing of the muscles of the human leg and have them attempt to locate those muscles in a chicken leg. Surprisingly, the muscles are very similar (Hey, great opportunity to talk about homologous structures!). Then, remove the muscles and identify the bones in the chicken leg to compare them to the bones of the human leg.

The Science of Swimmingthe science of swimming

My favorite summer games sport is swimming, probably due to Michael Phelps dominating during my formative years 🙂 Here are two activities you can do with your middle schoolers to learn about the science of swimming.

Newton’s Third Law – Swimming is a result of pushing the water in one direction while the water pushes you in the other direction. Newton’s Third Law is one that is easy for students to understand, and an old fashioned game of marbles helps them get it. I build marble tracks by taping meter sticks to the lab tables. Set up a marble on the track and then flick another marble toward it. What happens? How does that change when you set up 2 target marbles and flick one shooter marble? How about setting up 2 target marbles and 2 shooter marbles? This is a great activity not only to learn about Newton’s Laws, but also to lead into momentum.

Hydrodynamics – Why do competitive swimmers wear bathing caps? You’ll need a kiddie pool to answer that questions. Use string to attach a spring scale to various objects – start with a frisbee, an orange, and a wooden block. Then, measure the force required to pull the object across the water. If you pull nearly horizontally, the force you’re measuring is the force of the water rather than the force of gravity. As you’re measuring the force, the concept of hydrodynamics comes in to play. Students will see that different shapes move more easily in water.

Citizen Science with Middle Schoolers

Science isn’t just a subject in school. It’s a body of knowledge studied by people all over the world. Your middle schoolers can participate in real science collaboration by collecting data and contributing to citizen science. Participating in citizen science with middle schoolers gives them a sense of how big the scientific community is and how important making observations and reporting what you know is in the real world of science.

How do you do citizen science?

The goals of citizen science includes engaging the American public in addressing societal needs and accelerating science understanding. Students as young as middle schoolers can participate in addressing real world problems. Most projects take 5-10 minutes and actually contribute data that real live scientists can use. is an official government website which collects and curates a catalog of federally supported citizen science projects. Currently, there are 493 crowdsourced projects available for citizen participation.

Here are some citizen science activities for your middle schoolers:citizen science for middle schoolers

Globe At Night – this project crowd sources data on light pollution. Students connect to the Globe at Night project page with their Smart phones and record their observations at night, including the location, date and time. They use a universal Sky Quality Meter or select a constellation chart that most closely resembles their view at the moment.

NoiseTube is a crowd sourced data collection site to report on noise pollution. Students connect to the Globe at Night project page with their Smart phones and

iNaturalist is a catalog of wildlife photos collected by citizen scientists throughout the world. Your students can contribute their photos taken on a field trip or in their own backyards. Experts can help students identify the organisms they observed and, in return, the photos students take can be used by the experts in studying populations of different species. There is also a fun gallery of recent photos that can be sorted by location. I found some photos submitted right from my own neighborhood!

InstantWild and Wildwatch Kenya are easy ways for students to help researchers track animal populations without leaving their classrooms – I use it for “what to do when you’re done” time. Students watch 60 second video clips of various areas and tag the animals they see and hopefully identify them using various clues.

S’Cool is a NASA research opportunity in which students report the cloud cover and type of clouds they are witnessing at their location.

Does Crowdsourcing Citizen Science Work?

Unequivocally, YES! There are dozens of case studies published at that illustrate the value added by students contributing data to the global understanding of wildly varied scientific research projects.  Cases reported upon include a Smithsonian Transcription project in which volunteers decoded the handwriting of various documents recorded by artists, scientists, inventors and explorers of history. Other cases report analyses of weather reports and earthquakes, Monarch butterfly migration, seasonal changes, and bird population data.

Virtual Visit to the Statue of Liberty

What is an Interactive Virtual Field Trip

There are times when talking about something just isn’t good enough. Great examples are glaciers, deserts and canyons. There are still plenty of places I want my middle school science students to “visit” that just aren’t possible. An interactive virtual field trip allows students to learn about a remote location, as well as its geology and ecosystem, without leaving their desks. Incorporating videos and interesting articles to read along with some guided questions allows students to experience places they would ordinarily not be able to go.

How do you do an interactive virtual field trip?

The format for your interactive virtual field trip can be any format that your students can access. The virtual field trips I use in my classroom are all hyperdocs with links to videos and articles embedded along with guided questions.

The Statue of Liberty

statue of liberty virtual field trip

The virtual field trip to the Statue of Liberty begins at the National Park Services website

Students begin by reading about the history of the Statue and answering some guided questions. They’ll learn about the origins of the Statue as well as how it was designed.


statue of liberty virtual tour

As students continue the virtual tour, they’ll learn some interesting trivia about the Statue. For example, did you know that the Statue of Liberty is built on the former Fort Wood which was a strategic spot to protect New York from an enemy assault?

statue of Liberty virtual tour

More trivia that students will learn is that the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet 1 inch tall and was shipped to the United States in 214 crates which weighted 225 tons. Climbing to the crown requires climbing 354 steps and the Statue was closed for 8 years after the 911 terrorist attacks.

Statue of Liberty Virtual Tour

The Statue of Liberty virtual tour also includes a peak into Ellis Island. Ellis Island currently houses an museum but it was once the main immigration building which processed immigrants. The island also includes a former hospital for immigrants which was built to hold 125 patients but sometimes held up to 500.


If you want to check out the Statue of Liberty Virtual Field Trip, click here! On sale 50% off now through May 30th!

What do teachers say about the Statue of Liberty Virtual Field Trip?

One teacher who took her 7th grade students on a trip to the Statue of Liberty gave it 5 stars and said “Great virtual field trip…especially nice for an emergency sub plan.” Another teacher, who used the virtual field trip with her 5th graders with learning difficulties, also gave it 5 stars and said “Super resource 🙂 My students loved it!” 

Another reviewer said “This was an engaging resource for a year without field trips…or any year!” If the pandemic has given your students some cabin fever, this might be a good solution. The Statue of Liberty virtual field trip also earned 5 stars from a reviewer who said “Great resource!”


Other Interactive Virtual Field Trips

If the Statue of Liberty sounds like fun, here are some others that my students have been enjoying:

How the Earth Day Escape Room works

The Earth Day Escape Room helps students learn about the history of Earth Day and how they can help solve some of the environmental problems facing the Earth. Every year, chooses a new theme for Earth Day. The theme for 2022 is “Invest in Our Planet.” The Earth Day Escape room this year is focused on an invest in our planet theme.

Why teachers love digital escape rooms

Teachers love escape rooms for many reasons, including:

  • Escape rooms are low prep. All the teacher needs to do is post a link.
  • Students are happily engaged for 20-40 minutes while learning about an important topic.
  • Students have an opportunity to practice collaboration and cooperation and communication skills.
  • Digital escape rooms require much less prep time than physical escape rooms which needs boxes, locks, and clues printed and hidden throughout the classroom.
  • Digital escape rooms build growth mindset and reinforce the importance of grit and perseverance.

Why students love digital escape rooms

My students beg for escape rooms. They prefer escape rooms with locked boxes and clues hidden around the room, but they also love digital escape rooms. Here’s why:

  • Escape rooms are a break from the monotony of regular class work.
  • Escape rooms give students a chance to talk with and work with their friends.
  • Students enjoy the feeling of success when they figure out a puzzle.

How the Earth Day Escape Room works

When a class is completing the Earth Day Escape Room, the teacher provides the students with a link by sharing it on Google Classroom.

The link takes students to a Google site which has a video explaining the problem they must solve.


After watching the video, students scroll down and see the note that Mr. Carmichael left for them on the door.

earth day 2022 escape room

Students will Google what year the first Earth Day was and discover it was in 1970. At the bottom of the page is a Google Form asking which locker they want to open. Note: Students must be signed in to a Google Account for this to work, however, the form does NOT collect email addresses. If you are concerned, have students sign in on a dummy account.

earth day 2022 escape room

Entering 1970 into the Google Form brings students to a page with a link and a question.

earth day 2022


Clicking the link takes students to a digital drag and drop activity. They must drag the correct answers to the boxes and then read the red letters from top to bottom to figure out the password.

earth day 2022


In this case, the password is RECYCLE. Students then are asked what they theme of this year’s Earth Day is, which is easily Googled. After entering Invest In Our Earth, Students reach another day 2022

Clicking the link leads to another digital worksheet. In this case, students must type the correct answers in the boxes. As each correct answer is entered, more clues are revealed. The worksheet includes a link to a slideshow on climate change that students can use to find the answers. In this case, entering the correct answers reveals a picture of the Earth with the 5 digit code 74382.


Entering 74382 into the Google Form brings students to another page which contains a video and an image of 10 statements about plastics. The question asks how many of those ten statements are true (9). Entering 9 into the Google form leads students to the last day 2022

The last puzzle is a poem which says that the key to the supply closet is on the QWERTY keyboard. Students either know that QWERTY is the type of keyboard on a computer, or they can Google it. They are asked where they should look for the key and are given choices like in the auditorium, on the piano, or on the computer in the library. When they choose library, students are rewarded with the successful completion of the escape room. They get a congratulations message and this video.


If you’re interested in purchasing the Earth Day digital escape room for your students, you can purchase it on TeachersPayTeachers by clicking here or buy it for 50% off now through the end of April on


If you have any questions regarding the Earth Day digital escape room, please click here.

Think, Pair, Share with Middle School Science

think pair share science

What is Think-Pair-Share

Think-Pair-Share is a simple three step process. Given a question (“How many times should we repeat this experiment to confirm our data?” “Which planet would you most want to travel to and why?”), students stop for a minute and compose their answer. Then, they find (or are assigned) a partner, and share their answers. Finally, students can report out what they’ve decided.

Why you should try Think-Pair-Share

The benefits of Think-Pair-Share to the middle school science classroom are many:

  • It gives students an opportunity to think individually about a topic or answer to a question, but reduces the stress of sharing their answer with the whole class.
  • Sharing ideas with classmates allows students to modify their responses before announcing them publicly.
  • Think-Pair-Share builds science communication skills. Being able to talk about science helps students understand science.
  • Practicing their answers in a non-threatening way allows hesitant students to gain confidence.
  • It’s a great way to differentiate – pair students with partners that will help them bring out the best in each other!

When to use Think-Pair-Share

Think-Pair-Share is a collaborative learning strategy that can be used at multiple parts of a lesson.

  • It’s a great bellringer. Students start discussing the topic at the beginning of class and get ready to start learning.
  • It’s a great way to conduct checkpoints during the lesson and provide formative feedback to the teacher of areas that need clarification.
  • It’s a great closure activity that allows students to describe their own learning.

Modifications to Think-Pair-Share

When the learning topic is broad, or when the goal is to generate a large list of ideas, a good modification is to have students “Give one, Get one.” In this modification, students list all of their ideas about a topic (i.e. “Name examples of first class levers.”). Then, they travel around the room to three or four friends and give an answer and get an answer in return, thus building their own list.


Death Valley National Park Virtual Field Trip

What is an Interactive Virtual Field Trip

There are times when talking about something just isn’t good enough. Great examples are glaciers, deserts and canyons. There are still plenty of places I want my middle school science students to “visit” that just aren’t possible. An interactive virtual field trip allows students to learn about a remote location, as well as its geology and ecosystem, without leaving their desks. Incorporating videos and interesting articles to read along with some guided questions allows students to experience places they would ordinarily not be able to go.

How do you do an interactive virtual field trip?

The format for your interactive virtual field trip can be any format that your students can access. The virtual field trips I use in my classroom are all hyperdocs with links to videos and articles embedded along with guided questions.

Death Valley National Park

  death valley virtual tour Death Valley National Park is the hottest, driest, and lowest National Park. The virtual tour starts on the National Parks Service webpage. As students read the webpage, they are asked to identify some weather extremes that have occurred in Death Valley such as the highest recorded temperature (134 degrees Fahrenheit!). Then, students travel to the Racetrack Playa using Google Earth. They explore the mystery of the large rocks that move across the playa seemingly by themselves.     death valley virtual tour The next stop in the virtual tour is the Artists Palette and Zabriskie Point. Students learn which minerals make the different colors in the hills of Death Valley. This is followed by a quick stop at the Badwater Basin which is named “badwater” because it is too salty to drink.         death valley virtual tour Students will also explore Ubehebe Crater which was formed by steam and gas explosions when hot magma rose up to ground water. The Eureka Dunes, our next stop on the virtual tour, is known for its rumbling sound made by sand avalanching down the dunes.         Finally, the last stop of the Death Valley virtual tour is an exploration of the adaptations of plants and animals living in this harsh environment.

What do teachers say about the Death Valley National Park Virtual Field Trip?

One teacher who took her students on a trip to Death Valley and gave it 5 stars, saying “Was a fun alternative to an actual in person field trip since we were unable to take any this year.” Another teacher, who used the virtual field trip with her 8th graders, also gave it 5 stars and said “Great for distance learning! I like the format of a field trip.” Another teacher says “I love this product!”

Click here to check out the Death Valley Virtual tour  for yourself!  Download it before April 30th to save 50%!

Other Interactive Virtual Field Trips

If the Statue of Liberty sounds like fun, here are some others that my students have been enjoying:

Why Bellringers?

What is a bellringer?

A bellringer is an activity or small assignment that students complete when they first enter a classroom. They can be writing assignments, quick formative assessments, or partnered activities.

Why should middle school teachers use bellringers?

  • Bellringers gives students an opportunity to transition from one task (or class) to another and mentally prepare.
  • Bellringers benefits students by giving them time to get into an appropriate mindset for the class.
  • Students who participate in bellringers are more engaged in the class.
  • Teachers can collect data on student engagement and retention by using bellringers.
  • Bellringers can help manage behaviors during a transition.
  • A 2 minute bellringer gives the teacher time to take care of housekeeping without wasting class time.

Examples of Bellringers for middle school science

  • In middle school science, a bellringer can be a “Turn and Talk” in which students discuss an idea or concept.
  • Another common bellringer in middle school science is a quick formative assessment – I often use self-grading Google forms quizzes with 3-4 questions on yesterday’s topics as a quick way to see how students are managing the content.
  • To support the common core standards, I also frequently use a writing task as a bellringer. Sometimes that writing task is related to the topic we’re studying and sometimes it’s random – “Describe the weather this weekend as if you were a meteorologist,” or “My favorite lab from sixth grade was…”
  • 4 corners – Have students start conversations with a prompt on the white board like “Go to corner #1 if you think GMOs are safe to eat and go to corner #2 if you think they are unsafe.”
  • Play a game of Wordle.
  • Engage with a phenomenon. This is a great way to start with a 5E lesson plan.
  • Review activities – A quick game of Boom cards or I have Who Has.
  • Scaffold review – Practice an old skill like measurement or graphing.
  • SEL check ns – How are you doing today? Pick an emoji.

Free bellringers

today in science freebie

The “Today in Science” resource that I created last year was a big hit for bellringers in my school this year. Every day, students received information regarding a scientific event that occurred on that day in history. There was an image of the event and a writing prompt to go along with it. Parents emailed me often that students were sharing what they learned at home and sparking dinner conversation about the space program or historical bridge building.

Try out 6 free writing prompts for April here. Reply below with a comment letting me know how your students responded!