Journey to City X: Adventures in Engineering for Kids

About 6 years ago, as people who are excited about learning new things can be wont to do, my colleague and I emphatically agreed to piloting a 3d printer on our elementary school campus without actually knowing a single thing about 3d printing. There was a huge learning curve just trying to figure out how to get the darn thing to print out one of its pre-programmed examples. Once we accomplished the extraordinary feat of coaxing our printer to spit out a plastic bolt that we could use for pretty much nothing, we realized that we needed to figure out what meaningful objects we could fabricate – and how to design them. Our research was frustrating. Other than mass producing keychains and other items with school logos, no one seemed to have any idea about what elementary students might be able to do with a 3d printer. (By the way, if you are thinking of purchasing a 3d printer for your classroom, or doing a Donors Choose request, here is an article I wrote on some considerations you should make before you commit.)

That’s when we stumbled across City X. And Design Thinking. And Tinkercad.

And that’s when we learned that we didn’t need a 3d printer.

Don’t get me wrong. They are nice to have, and students love holding their own designs in their hands. But the most valuable part of the learning is the Design Thinking process.

The free toolkit from City X helped us to walk our students through the design process. The premise of the program is that humans have started a new settlement called City X on another planet, and the citizens need help with different challenges they are encountering in this novel environment. You can read more about how my colleague and I used the program here.

The toolkit includes a lot of resources, and was a true blessing for the two of us, as we discovered a way to really engage children while helping them to learn about empathy, problem-solving, and multiple other lifelong skills.

Now there is a City X book (thanks for letting me know about it, Amy C!), written by one of the co-creators of the original project, Brett Schilke. Journey to City X: Adventures in Engineering for Kids begins with the same idea as the original project, that the mayor of City X is asking for your help with various problems. In this book, however, there is more detail on how to embark on the design adventures as members of “The Irresistible Futures Agency.” It includes 35 challenges in the areas of transportation, environment, communication, food, health, safety, and energy. Each challenge walks students through solving problems for the fictional planet as they make connections to our own, real-world. There are still choices when it comes to who their “clients” will be and what their final solutions entail, but there are additional activities and recommended explorations in each chapter that are perfect for students new to the idea of Design Thinking.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a 3d printer. Students can prototype and test with any number of easily accessible materials such as cardboard and clay. Also keep in mind that the broad categories of each challenge make them relatively easy to integrate with science or social studies curriculum.

Once students experience the City X project, they will be ready to do “real-world” designs using the same framework.

For more of my posts on Design Thinking, click here. Also, this is one of the professional development sessions I offer, and it includes a ton of free resources.

“Foolsball”: a new game you can play in City X
person holding yellow paper with blue eyes

One-Pager for Genius Hour in Kindergarten and First Grades

Many of the Genius Hour resources that I and others have made assume a basic level of reading and research skills. Of course, with Kindergarten and 1st grades, many students may not have those foundational skills. I wanted to round up a few suggestions for primary teachers, so I went in search of resources that I could summarize and/or link to in case you want to save yourself a bit of time.

Of course, Joy Kirr’s Livebinder for Genius Hour is always my first stop because I definitely don’t want to reinvent the wheel. There are many examples of Genius Hour projects from every grade level, as well as links to teacher blog posts that are very helpful. This post is not comprehensive, but might be a good place to begin for some suggestions. As I say when I speak with other teachers, Genius Hour can look dramatically different from room to room while still maintaining the goal of student-directed learning, and its structure should vary based on student needs. It is not a free-for-all time, but it’s also not an “I’m going to tell you what you need to learn, how to learn it, and how to show you learned it” time.

There are three basic steps to Genius Hour: Wondering, Finding and Noting Information, Presenting. With younger students, I would take a very gradual release approach for each of those steps. Begin with whole group modeling, and slowly transition to giving more freedom of choice as students grasp the concept.

How does one begin Genius Hour with the youngest of our students? It’s actually quite easy because they naturally wonder about the world, and haven’t had this curiosity stifled as it often is in later grades. Another Genius Hour expert, Denise Krebs, wrote about transitioning her students from large groups with common interests to smaller, more focused groups in this post. You could also try these suggestions for a “Think, Wonder, Explore” time. Or, try a Wonder Wall, like this teacher. Of course, a favorite way to start is with a picture book. Here are some great recommendations from Gallit Zvi, who wrote The Genius Hour Guide Book with Denise Krebs.

But, wait! What if my students can’t write? You, as the teacher, could write for them, of course. To make this less overwhelming, you could have small groups settle on Wonders. Or, you can do what many of the articles I read seemed to recommend – link your students with Buddies. Whether they are students from another grade level or parent volunteers, Buddies can foster a great sense of community while helping with some of the challenging tasks during Genius Hour time. Another idea is to partner with your librarian. You can also try a rotation process, like this teacher does.

Can students this age really come up with research questions? Sure! Again, modeling with the whole group a few times is key before starting to let students work independently or in small groups. Since these students are new to research, you don’t need to insist on “thick” research questions with complex vocabulary from all of them, but certainly differentiate for advanced students with higher Bloom’s questions. Here are some question stems you could use.

And then they’re going to research? But they can’t even read! This is another phase where rotations, Buddies, and/or your librarian can be essential. One tip that I like from teacher Renee Dooly is to use QR codes to help students find digital information. I used to introduce different types of resources to my students one at a time. For example, I checked out a bunch of books by the same publishing group about different countries, and showed them how to find the information in those books. They had a choice of country, but we stuck to the same type of resource and presentation. As they learned about other resource types, those choices were added in on other projects later in the year. Also, don’t forget about free tools like Immersive Reader, which are getting built in to many online educational resources.

What about methods for presenting what they learned? Some teachers have one way for all students to present, such as using Book Creator. Others give a limited number of choices, as you can see in this blog post. Once the whole class has learned how to do something, make that a new option. Or, get together all of the students who want to do the same type of presentation, such as a video, and give a mini-lesson. (Buddies are good for this, too!) Got a classroom iPad? Record your mini-lessons, upload them to Google Drive, and give students QR codes to scan when they are ready to watch.

Genius Hour can be done with younger students, but a lot of scaffolding is needed. The good news is that students who get this exposure in younger grades will really be able to take the skills for self-directed learning and blossom with them in later grades.

photo of a boy reading book
Photo by mentatdgt on
happy multiethnic children discussing structure of primitive organism

Genius Hour Teacher Planner

I am gearing up to do some professional development sessions on Genius Hour this summer, and realized that it might be helpful to have a one-pager for teachers to refer to as they begin planning to do Genius Hour with their students. Genius Hour can come in many forms, depending on your situation, so I thought it might be helpful to have a way to look at the “Big Picture” before designing the details. Most of the planning sheets that I see when I do searches are for the students, but I’d love for you to let me know if you have seen any that are for teachers. I am in the process of updating my Genius Hour resources, including the digital ones, and will let you know when the new and improved page is posted. In the meantime, if you are thinking of doing Genius Hour next school year, feel free to download this planner. Let me know if you see anything that needs to be tweaked! Also, if you are interested in me doing a professional development for your school or district on Genius Hour, Design Thinking, Coding, or Maker Education, please e-mail me at!

Access the PDF for this page here

Design for Change

The single most impactful adjustment I made to my curriculum in the later decades of my teaching career was to make room for students to work on issues they chose that were interesting and relevant to them. This was scary for me because I never had any idea where the year would lead me. But I learned so much along with the students that the risks I took and mistakes I made were definitely worthwhile. One year, my small 3rd grade class decided to investigate overfishing for their Genius Hour project. (I always did a group Genius Hour project with my 3rd graders because it was their first year doing major research in Gifted and Talented, and my classes in that grade level were generally tiny.) If you had asked me at the beginning of the year about my interest in overfishing on a scale of 1-5, I would have said 0. But these students were all passionate about the ocean, and that is where their interest took us. Weeks into their research, I was just as committed and concerned as they were – especially after our Skype session with a journalist covering the issue.

From that project to many others that I could describe where students were making plans to solve real-life problems, the message was clear – when students see the value of their work, they are much more engaged and ultimately become more empowered. This is where the Design for Change website could help you. Instead of starting from scratch as my students and I did, you can begin with a framework that is chosen by your students. With racial justice, educational equity, and climate change as the three main topics to select from, they can then find out more from podcasts and other materials that have been curated to guide them on paths toward making positive contributions toward our world as they learn. Whether you want to do a long-term unit, or focus on “Empathy Warmups,” “Design Sprints,” or “Community Action” individually, the free resources on this website – including a teacher platform to monitor progress – will give you much more support than I ever had when my students initially began passion projects.

Design for Change has a site for the United States and a global site. Both boil down the Design Thinking process to these four steps: Feel, Imagine, Do, Share. The global site even provides toolkits written for specific countries in their major languages. There are also options for using the materials virtually or in face-to-face environments.

Though we can’t always do this in education, I found that engagement comes quicker if you start from a place a student already values rather than working to convince a student, “this is what you should value.” But students often need to investigate a bit to realize what is important to them, and this is where Design for Change can help.

use your voice inscription on gray background
Photo by Polina Kovaleva on

Inventing 101

Alexis Lewis is a teenage inventor who is on a mission to inspire other teens to innovate.  You can read her story, and about the products she has invented so far in her young life, here.  Alexis specifically wants middle schools to guide students with inventing curriculum, and has launched a website to help in this endeavor.  Inventing 101 is a good start as a repository of resources with this end in mind.  You can also visit her personal website to learn more about other teen inventors on this page


Unit Planning Game

The amazing @tersonya (Sonya Terborg) shared an incredible tool on Twitter the other day that I think a lot of readers of this blog will like.  It is called, “The Unit Planning Game.” Based on the 17 Global Goals adopted by UN delegates in 2015, “The Unit Planning Game” will help educators and independent learners develop a framework for a project based on interest.

Users are first directed to choose from one of the 17 goals.  For example, I chose, “Gender Equality.”  Next up is the chance to select a “Solutions” card.  Finally, three Standards cards can be designated. (Currently, the standards are fairly generic, in the areas of reading, writing, and math.)

After all of the choices have been made, the user clicks on, “Generate Unit Plan,” and a customized three-stage unit will appear.  It includes an Essential Question  (for my example, the question was, “How might we change perception to make things more equal for boys and girls?”), potential performance assessments, and links to resources.

“The Unit Planning Game” is provided by Participate, and you can get even more ideas from its Project Based Learning page titled, “Teach the Global Goals.”

Unit Planning Game – a Nice Way to Jumpstart a PBL Unit