Put a Genius Hour Junkyard in Your Classroom

Every classroom should have a junkyard. You know, a pile of stuff that most folks would figure isn’t good for much. Not much, that is, except for creating, designing, making, discovering and inventing stuff.

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

                                                                                      ~ Thomas Edison

Figure 1. Just a small part of my own personal junkyard.

Figure 1. Just a small part of my own personal junkyard.

I am a pack rat by nature and have always kept things that most people would throw away; bits of wire, a cut off section of copper pipe, old circuit boards, pieces of odd shaped plastic salvaged from broken appliances, that sort of thing (Figure 1). That stuff comes in handy a lot more often than you might think, especially if you spend any amount of time making and fixing things. It’s a great feeling to find a way to adapt, modify, reuse or up-cycle an item that would otherwise have found its way into the local dump. It’s also a lot of fun.

Figure 2. Cover of Recycled Robots by Robert Malone

Figure 2. Cover of Recycled Robots by Robert Malone

My teaching team will soon be going into its third year of what we call “Personal Learning and Creation Time” at my school. The kids tend to call it “20% Time” because that is what we have informally called it, although I think we are going to switch to “Genius Hour.” It has a better ring to it.

Last year, I picked up a copy of Recycled Robots by Robert Malone (Figure 2). I looked through the book and scraped up a few of the items it specified from around the house. I think there was an empty thread spool, a discarded transparent tape holder, plus a few other odds and ends, some of which were not specifically required by the book. I threw the items into a box and took it to school figuring it was enough, along with the supplies that were included with the book, to at least get started on something. I showed the book to a few students and one pair in particular showed an interest in building one of the robots, so I gave them the book and over the next several weeks they used the one hour a week we open up, for doing pretty much whatever you want, to built one of the projects. It came out great.

Figure 3. Robot model made from random stuff.

Figure 3. Robot model made from random stuff.

The neat thing is, they then went on to build another larger robot model. I kept finding things to add to what I now call my Genius Hour Junkyard, and each week they would look through it to see what was there, and after another several weeks they had built a creation of their own design (Figure 3).

There’s more. These two had been bitten by the robot bug. They asked me what I though of building a full-size model of R2D2, the much loved little beeping and whistling droid of Star Wars fame. I said I thought it was a great idea. It didn’t take them long to notice the pile of large foam blocks I had extracted from a shipment of broken oscilloscopes I had recently received and before anyone could say “but what about the mess!” they were hacking away at it to form what would eventually become the body of R2D2 (Figure 4).

They got as much done in class as they could but it was getting close to the end of the school year. So, they continued working on it at home so they would be able to finish it before school was out. Unfortunately, I do not have a picture of the finished project but it was a respectable effort, and there was no doubt that it was in fact R2D2.

Figure 4. Large model of R2D2 in progress.

Figure 4. Large model of R2D2 in progress.

Anyone who is currently running a Genius Hour, or is planning to, should get up a junkyard of their own. It doesn’t take much to get one started. You can probably find a dozen things around your abode right now that you could easily toss into a cardboard box to take to school. Things like empty spice boxes, packing material, vacuum formed clear plastic packages, empty ink pen barrels, paper clips, scraps of cloth and leather, broken shoe laces, empty toilet paper and paper towel rolls, paper mache making supplies—the possibilities are literally infinite. You can also use your class or school newsletter to solicit donations from home.  Buttons, beads, wire, twine, the aforementioned empty thread spools, small pieces of scrap wood, and broken toys all make good additions to the collection.

Although my Genius Hour Junkyard began as a few modest parts in a cardboard box (you can see it sitting on the table in Figure 3), by the time next school year rolls around, it’s gonna’ be huge!

6 thoughts on “Put a Genius Hour Junkyard in Your Classroom

  1. Great idea! I really like your innovative approach to classroom. I’ll adopt it to mine.

  2. I would love to do this at the elementary level, but I am not sure what my junk yard would look like. I was thinking of starting with empty food boxes and paper. What do you think?

  3. Hi Toni;

    I think that would be excellent. Pretty much anything that can be glued, stapled or taped together would work.

    Let me know how it works out.


  4. Once you get a rep for keeping throw away stuff, someone will give you a dead computer or VCR. Throw some screwdrivers into the mix and your students will find amazing things inside to use. Mine always love the magnets inside old hard drives.

  5. Great ideas Sean. I have gathered up some old CD drives, a stereo and a printer for kids to take apart this year. People in the building have started asking me if I want their junk and I love it!

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