Kolleen Lothian, 31, a seventh-grade teacher at Totem Middle School, tasked her students with a project assignment called Genius Hour where they developed a research and action project to raise money for causes. Students including Mckinley Galde, Sydney Sumsion and Molly Wright collectively raised $3,300. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Kolleen Lothian, 31, a seventh-grade teacher at Totem Middle School, tasked her students with a project assignment called Genius Hour where they developed a research and action project to raise money for causes. Students including Mckinley Galde, Sydney Sumsion and Molly Wright collectively raised $3,300. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Google’s ‘Genius Hour’ inspired Marysville students to raise $3K

A teacher tasked some of her students to find causes to research and support. The project took off.

MARYSVILLE — It was a stroke of genius and an act of caring.

For these seventh-graders, it was also a lesson that it’s possible to make a difference — even if you’re just a kid.

Students in Kolleen Lothian’s language arts classes at Totem Middle School raised money for causes they were passionate about in a format known as Genius Hour. It’s a classroom spin-off of the principles popularized by Google that lets workers pursue passion projects on the clock.

Students could choose local or global issues. Causes included a food bank, animal shelter, park cleanup, babies of recovering addicts, suicide prevention, reducing the effect of plastic bags and water problems in Africa.

“They had to pitch their idea to their peers and get feedback, then move forward,” Lothian said. “In three weeks, they raised $3,300.”

Molly Wright, 13, collected $136 for the True Colors Fund for LGBTQ homeless youth by selling prints of her artwork.

“I thought it would be amazing to raise money for something I care about by doing something I love,” she said. “It was eye-opening how you can help so much, even if it’s just an idea.”

Students turned their ideas into results — just like the folks at Google, which allows its engineers to spend 20 percent of their time to work on any pet project.

Lothian, 31, a Totem teacher for eight years, learned about Genius Hour at a training on working with gifted students. Her guidebook was “Genius Hour: Passion Projects That Ignite Innovation and Student Inquiry” by Andi McNair.

“I wanted to find a way to engage my students in reading and writing,” she said. “Immediately my students latched onto it. I saw the light bulbs go off. I was blown away about how much these kids who have so little comparatively were so willing to be generous. A lot wanted to solve problems close to home.”

Participation was mandatory for the 29 students in her accelerated class, but she opened it to all her students and about a dozen took her up on it.

Molly was inspired by research data that showed a higher percentage of homeless LGBTQ youth than the general population.

“I looked for things that bothered me in the world and my mind went to homelessness, but I wanted something more specific,” Molly said. “So I thought of LGBTQ homelessness because people get kicked out of their homes and have nowhere to go. And it’s also hard for them to find shelters that will accept them for who they are. So they need places and resources.”

Plastic bags were a concern for Maia Brown, 13.

“I collected plastic bags to recycle so they wouldn’t end up in the streets and in the water,” Maia said. “I learned you can do a lot in a short amount of time. And help any cause if you put your mind to it.”

The focus for Mckinley Galde, 12, was animal cruelty.

“Everybody, including animals, just want to be loved,” Mckinley said. She and a classmate paired up to raise $62 and gather 91 pet items for Everett Animal Shelter. “I wanted to donate … so it could keep those animals safe and healthy for when they do get a good home.”

Sydney Sumsion, 12, collected 868 items and $80 for the Food For Thought Backpack Program at Marysville Community Food Bank.

“It gets food to kids who don’t have a ton at home. If they are relying on school food, all that gets to them on the weekends so they have enough food,” Sydney said. “Some people donated money and I spent it on specific items. And other people gave me items on the list I had given them.”

The students were motivated by their successes.

“I found it was really easy to help a cause if you just do it. A lot of people they’ll think about it and go, ‘Oh, I could totally do this,’ but they never really get around to it,” Sydney said.

“I may be young, but I can still make a difference.”

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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