20% Time

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SWBAT conduct targeted research to choose a topic for a long-term, student-driven research project.

Big Idea

Students are in charge of everything for this student driven research project.

Introduction for Teachers


When I first began implementing 20% time in my classroom, I made sure the students chose topics they could connect back to science; however, since just about any topic can be connected to science this proved to be unnecessary.

Note: Here is the link to the Edutopia article that inspired me to begin implementing 20% time in my classroom.  

This project goes far beyond any standards and really works to teach students how to take charge of their learning while helping to develop both critical and creative thinking skills.  The main science standards that every student will develop are SP1 (Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)) and SP8 (Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information) as students question, research, and present what they have discovered.

Because so many of the common core standards are developed during this project, especially the writing and speaking/listening standards, I was able to enlist the assistance of the ELA teachers on my team.  This provides the students more time to take their projects further/deeper than I was able to do on my own.  Additionally, this provides the ELA teachers a context with high student interest in which to develop these skills.

Don't be intimidated by the size/scope of this project! This is honestly one of the best things I have ever implemented.  I have been blown away by student engagement and excitement.  On the days in which I had to cancel our 20% time day, students were upset, sometimes even angry!  I started small, just having students pick a topic and put together a presentation on what they learned.  As I learned more about how others used 20% time/genius hour with their students I expanded my ideas.  Just be sure to adapt to your comfort level and I am sure you will love this as much as I do!

To get an idea on what the final projects can look like, skip down to the examples and videos in the TED Talk portion of the lesson.


5 minutes

Once students are settled, I ask them to share where they would be and/or what they would be doing if they could do anything they wanted.  Because this is a long term project, topic selection is critical to student success.  This opening discussion is a way to get students thinking about things that they love or are important to them.  Additional question prompts for students include:

  • If you had one wish, but you had to use it to change the world, what would you do?
  • In a world where money doesn’t matter, what would you do for a living and why?
  • What can you do to make school life better for all students?
  • What is the stereotype of teenagers and what can be done to change that perception?
  • If you could magically create one invention, what would it be and why?

Introduction and Topic Selection

40 minutes

Most students will have limited to no experience with this type of self-directed project.  The challenge for teachers is to really inspire students to think big and “out of the box”.  I am not looking for students to create a PowerPoint on a topic, which is what most students try to do.

Students need to be shown how to take their initial ideas and make them bigger.  For example, a student who is interested in make-up/cosmetics might want to investigate the materials that are found in common cosmetics.  This student could be encouraged to “blow up” this idea by creating a documentary on the creation and/or testing of cosmetics or creating their own line of make-up.  Students who love engineering might design and build a hover board or go-cart. Students interested in health and fitness might start an after school club that helps students get healthy and in shape.

The key to student success, in my opinion, lies in topic selection.  Students must choose something that they find extremely interested in as they will be working hard for a long period of time; that is where the PowerPoint What is 20% Time comes in.  

To get the most out of this project, it is important to allow (force) the students to make the decisions and to act as a facilitator.  This will require relinquishing control and remembering that it is not about success; students learn a ton from having their project idea fail.  My most common phrases while working on this project are

  • What do you think?
  • Can you explain…?
  • What do you want to do with…?
  • How can you expand this idea?
  • Who is your target and how can you get them excited?
  • How can this affect the community/world?
  • What have you learned so far?
  • How are you planning to overcome that challenge?

Preparing for the Pitch

90 minutes

The goal of the pitch is to ensure students have a solid plan in mind for their project and to give them an authentic audience to present their ideas.  This has a nice side effect of helping the students stay on task and take the project seriously.

Prior to this, however, students must have a clear idea of how they are going to apply what they learn about the topic they have been studying.  After students have had some time to research, I assign them to small student groups that have little to know knowledge of each others topics (it would be great if you could partner up with another teacher to create a well mixed discussion group).  I use the Student Group Discussion Guide to assist the students in facilitating their own discussion.  Once this is complete, students should be prepared to develop their pitch for the committee.

I ask 6-8 district officials to serve as the Pitch Committee, including the principal and assistance principal, the gifted coordinator and the curriculum and technology directors, some of whom the students have met and some that they will be meeting for the first time.

The pitch takes place after students have had a few weeks to develop their plan and conduct research, completing the planning sheet as they work.  (Remember, this is not something that students work on daily, but rather are given 1 day per week to focus on this project.)  I have students use Animoto to create a 1 minute presentation that includes the following information

  • What is your idea?
  • What inspired your idea?
  • What are you going to accomplish?
  • How do you plan to accomplish it?


Other than incorporating this information and keeping the 1 minute time requirement, students are able to set up the presentation however they choose.

Note: Animoto is a free site that allows one to create interesting and creative presentations by incorporating pictures, videos, text and music.  Teachers can apply for a free upgrade that allows you to create up to 50 student accounts.  If you are leery of learning a new program, students can use PowerPoint or presentation boards just as easily; however, I find that students enjoy learning new ways to put together presentations and Animoto is extremely easy to use.

As students finish creating their Animoto presentation, I provide them with the Pitch Committee Checklist and have them practice giving their presentation aloud, both on their own and to other students who are encouraged to ask questions and give suggestions for improvement.

I am lucky enough to have the help of my ELA teachers so I provide students with 2-3 days to prepare for their pitch (it all depends on the students) with some time in science and some time in language arts. 

I break the committee members into 2 or 3 groups in order to maximize their time.  Students will take turns presenting their ideas, which starts with an introduction, moves to the Animoto video, and finishes with a question/answer session.  During the presentations, the committee will complete the checklist and provide students with feedback and/or suggestions.  I request that the committee does not give the students the checklist, but holds them all until the final pitch is given.  The pitch committee is not responsible for determining if a student project idea is acceptable, rather the experience helps students solidify ideas and determine if they have gaps/questions they must consider before moving forward.

Each pitch takes approximately two minutes so this process can take about 2 hours for all groups to complete.  Working at a school with a true middle school concept, my team follows an alternate schedule for the day allowing us to complete all of the pitches in a single day.  While students are waiting for or finished with their turn, they may continue working on their project or complete assignments for their other classes.  


90 minutes

Following the pitch, students are given more time to complete their research.  The amount of time really depends on how you format this project.  Last year I did everything within my science class so students had 1 class period per week dedicated to 20% time.  This year, my fabulous team has agreed to assist so students have more time to complete grander projects giving students 2-3 class periods per week to work.  I suggest giving students 3-4 weeks of research time prior to beginning preparation for the Parent Showcase but this could change based on how the project is structured and the level of the students (be prepared to be flexible with the timeline, especially the first time implementing 20% time).

This year I chose to assign students to a mentor teacher from the team to make it easier to monitor and assist students.  To help with this, following each work session students will complete a blog post that documents

  • What they accomplished
  • Questions they have
  • Challenges they have come across
  • Goals for next time
  • Photographs/videos of their journey


Students will use these when they are putting together their final TED talk.  The following video shows how some students chose to demonstrate what they have learned.

Teacher mentors will help guide and support students but their role is not to answer the student questions directly or tell them what to do next, but rather assist students in developing their own answers (granted, this is challenging for most teachers).

During this time I begin sharing TED talks with students, especially those given by kids.  This works to motivate students while at the same time introducing them to the format they will use to present their final projects at the end of the year. 


Preparing for Parent Showcase

90 minutes

Just as this type of learning is new for the students, it is also new to the parents.  By this time, parents will have heard their child discussing 20% time and might be wondering exactly what this means.  The parent showcase is an opportunity to get the parents involved and is the next milestone for students, again helping them stay motivated and on track.

This can be set up in a multitude of ways.  I choose to set this up “science fair style”.  Students use tri-fold boards that provide the gist of their project and goals, the more visual the better.  Students set these boards up in the cafeteria and for about an hour parents interact with the groups, asking questions and giving feedback and suggestions.  The goal is to get students talking about their project in detail, giving them valuable practice with presenting information to an authentic audience and to identify any areas that are lacking in clarity or direction.  This is also a great opportunity for students to get volunteers that have background knowledge in their area of study so it is helpful to have sign up lists for contact information/volunteers at each station.

Following the showcase, students are given several weeks to finalize their projects so they are ready to begin preparing for the TED style talks at the end of the year.

The TED Talk

45 minutes

The TED talk is the culminating event of 20% time and allows students to share their journey with an audience.  Each talk must be supported by a visual aid, a PowerPoint of images/videos that help students tell their story.  Once again, this can be formatted in many ways and you and your students should decide this together. 

I begin by having students analyze several TED talks given by kids.  We list what we like/don’t like about each video along with what we responded or connected to with the topic or speaker.  This is something that my LA teachers assist me with.  We then discuss the type of content each of our TED talks should include.  Suggested questions for students to answer are:

  • What was your project?
  • How did you come to pick that project?
  • What challenges did you encounter and how did you overcome those challenges?
  • What did you learn about your topic? About yourself?
  • How has going through this project affected you as a learner?
  • Was your project successful? Why or why not?
  • What are your plans for continuing this project or what would you do differently? 

Students used either the TED Talk Planning Guide or Structured TED Planning Outline, depending on which they felt best met their needs.  Both ask for the same information but the first allows for more freedom/flexibility on the part of the student. 

Students spend several weeks preparing and practicing their presentation during 20% time workdays.  LA teachers provide practice time and feedback tools for students as part of their speech unit.  Because this should be a celebration of all the students have accomplished, I invite the parents and district members who served on the pitch committee as guests to our presentations.  As students give their talk, I use the rubric to assess them and the LA teachers assess their public speaking using a separate rubric.

Below are several student examples.  It is really the end result of this experience that allows a person to fully appreciate the value of the time invested (not spent) in this project if it is done correctly.  Time and again I have been witness to some amazing work done by my students, even without spending time on the showcase and peer feedback.

Some of the non-recorded student work can be seen by viewing the following: Student Example: Wingsuit Presentation Notes with Student Example: Wingsuit Visual AidStudent Example: Fraczak Aircrafts with Student Example: Fraczak Aircrafts PowerPoint and Student Example: The Evolution of the National Hockey League (Visual Aid).