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Mendon Upton Students Follow Their Passion

Nipmuc sophomore Julia Keville shows Memorial third-graders pet clothing and accessories that she made for her 20-Time Project.

If you could spend 20 percent of your time working on a project that interested you, what would you choose? Would you learn a new language, invent a new product, or even write the next great American novel? Several schools in the Mendon Upton Regional School District are exploring what sparks can become flames when students have time to explore their passions.

For years, companies such as 3M and Google have allowed their employees to devote 20 percent of their working time to pursue their interests – a program that has led to the invention of Post-It Notes, Masking Tape, Google News, Gmail, and more.

Nipmuc English Teacher Courtney Henry heard about the 20-time project and felt it would be a great fit for students at the high school level. "I really saw the value in students choosing to work on something that they were passionate about," she said. "It allows them to do something self-directed and set their own path."

After piloting the project for a semester last school year, the program was rolled out to all three Communication and Literary classes this year.

Third Grade students in Brenda Webster's class at Memorial Elementary School will also be exploring their own interests as they begin a similar "Passion Project" with the help of some Nipmuc High School mentors.

Webster said that she got their idea from Henry, and decided the best way to kick off the project for her students was to have a presentation of some 20-time projects by the high school students.

"What better visual is there then for them to see where someone's passion can lead to," said Webster.

Six Nipmuc students presented their projects to the third graders on February 16, each talking about why they chose their topic and what they learned during the process. "Being in a hospital can be really stressful," said sophomore Allison Weed about her 20-time project of handmaking stuffed animals and delivering them to children in the Pediatric Ward at Boston Medical Center. "I thought these would be a comfort."

Julia Keville, also a sophomore, decided to combine her love of fashion and dogs to create a line of pet clothing and accessories for her project. "I want to do this in the future," Julia told the 3rd graders.

The Memorial students also had the chance to learn about the projects of freshmen Bret Hackenson, who created a solar powered cell phone battery charger and Julia Orff, who organized and directed a five-week after-school Drama Camp for Clough Elementary School students; and of sophomores Natalie Plourde and McKenzie Pilkington, who each created an animation video for their projects.

Now that the 3rd graders have seen what a "Passion Project" is all about, they will begin by exploring topics that peak their interests. "I want to do my project on manatees because I know they are an endangered species and I want to find a way to reduce pollution to help save them," said 3rd grader Roisin Ward.

The students will spend time over the next few weeks narrowing down their topics, pitching their ideas to their classmates, and working on bringing their passions to life with a finished product.

"We are planning to Skype with the high school students throughout this process so they can mentor the students," said Webster. "It's a great way for them to then become empowered to help others."

And the high school feels that the benefits go both ways.

"I think it's really valuable for the high school students to be able to work with the younger ones," said Henry. "The younger kids are very enthusiastic; that excitement can be contagious."


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