April 25, 2020

Student Driven: Passion/Interest Pursuits

Carolyn Eastman, Director of Innovative Projects,  NH Learning Initiative

About a year ago, I was sitting at an orientation for a potential private school my daughter was considering. I listened as each of the speakers provided information on a specific topic. Toward the end of the time, Darcy Coffta, the Director of Innovation, began sharing information about  Innovation Pursuits.

I was hooked for 3 reasons: 

  1. These are non-credit bearing pursuits.
  2. There are over 100 Innovation Pursuits, and she is Part-Time.
  3. Students are in the driver’s seat. 

Coffta states, “The growth of the program has been extraordinary. We now have many examples of how IP’s have distinguished our students and directly supported their college application process.” Examples include a student with an audio engineering IP being accepted into the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music with NYU’s Tisch School. Another student that built a video game is now continuing his education at Stanford.” The momentum of the IP program has fueled a variety of curricular changes and supported many project based learning initiatives on campus. Innovation Pursuits are a key component in the newly offered Pathway programs.”

Due to Darcy’s generosity, both in providing time for myself and others to learn more about her program, and giving permission for us to adapt the resources she has created over the past  10 years , some innovative educators in New Hampshire have begun to think about, and pilot versions of her program in their own schools. 

These are non-credit bearing pursuits.

In many schools, there are now opportunities for students to participate in Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs).  Most ELOs, if not all of them, have some awarding of credit that is determined at the local level. ELOs provide experiences outside of the school based on a student’s interest. While ELOS have been successful, there has been some debate on what the definition of an ELO is, and what level of work would constitute a certain amount of credit awarded. Most to my knowledge offer .5 credit, the equivalent to a high school elective.  There are 4 criteria: Plan, research, application, presentation. 

I was always curious how students decided on an ELO, and whether or not the criteria and awarding of credit actually deterred some students from pursuing ELOs. What if they had the opportunity to pursue a passion without the adult prescribed criteria, but rather, the student could determine the timeline, and the depth to which they went with their passion pursuit., and a mentor with a similar passion would be a guide? Would anyone even sign up without credit? 

Would ELO Coordinators be able to grow their programs to include both credit and non- bearing credit ELOs? 

Stacey Kallelis, Work Based Learning Coordinator at ,, wondered if during lab time at the high school, students might consider working on a Passion Project.  As she was adapting the idea for Salem High School, all schools shut down due to the Coronavirus and all classes began remote learning. Stacey saw this as an opportunity to pilot her passion project with students at home. She wasn’t sure if students would be interested in a non-credit bearing opportunity. Would they be interested in spending their time on something without the extrinsic motivation of a grade or credit? 

Stacey has 18 students (about 50% of her current students) who have opted to do passion projects. Because of their physical limitations right now, many of them are similar – she has several physical fitness projects going on with some students making videos of their workouts or taking photos. She has a few students learning new languages, learning to play the piano, testing different art techniques, home renovation projects,  a carpentry project, a couple of them are sewing and making PPE, one girl is writing letters to the elderly, and one has challenged herself to use this time to apply for as many scholarships as she can.

Stacey shared that the best part of it,  is hearing their excitement, seeing the content they are creating, and realizing that none of this is tied to a structured curriculum. They have had to drive themselves in their ventures and I think it makes them all the more proud to share what they have accomplished.

For Stacey right now, it’s about giving students something to get excited about and figure out what they care about. 

There are over 70 Innovation Pursuits, with a Part Time Director.

One of the challenges to the ELO opportunity, is trying to grow the program for students and how to manage it all. What I learned from Darcy Coffta, is the key to growing her program, is this: 

An Innovation Pursuit (IP) is a completely student-driven and student-directed endeavor. The subject choice is dependent upon each individual student’s passion.

The student is driving the pursuit, with guidance from the director, not the other way around.  Darcy has check points, she sends out an email to her community seeking mentors that share similar interests as the students, and then she stays out of the way. There are guard rails, but not speed bumps. Students stay passionate due to having the ability to direct the experience. They create their own plan, fill out a timeline that works with their schedule, and know in advance they will be presenting at the Innovation Celebration in the spring on their progress. Darcy had been the Director of the program for over a decade and has seen it grow exponentially. 

Students are in the driver’s seat. 

I really like the idea of the Passion Pursuit being more organic. The student could complete the 4 components of an ELO, but have the ability to do things less sequentially. The student creates the plan, has an initial experience, conducts some research to learn more and quite possibly improve, then goes back to the experience, then conducts some further research, then creates a presentation. The non-credit bearing passion pursuits may even be the precursor to the credit bearing ELO. For example, in a recent conversation with Kim Ommundsen, ELO Director at Souhegan High School, she mentioned a student that loved photography. In a Passion Pursuit, the student could start out taking pictures, then decide they want to improve a certain aspect, they look at the work of other photographers, maybe take a class, and then try out what they learned. She wondered about the idea of piloting this for a small group of Freshmen or Sophomores, to see if having students think about what they care about, then pursuing it without the pressure of extrinsic criteria and grades, would have a positive impact on future high school requirements such as the sophomore research project, and the Senior Project.  Would the students have more persistence, if they already had the ability to explore what really interested them? 

As time continues in the remote learning environment, my daughter recently mentioned, “ I can’t keep doing the same type of interaction with my teacher like this every single time – I wish they would change it up a little.” As we think about the learning, maybe the silver lining in all of this is the ability to try something out with our students,  like passion projects, and let students drive and see what they have to offer. 

For more information and to access adapted framework documents, please contact Carolyn Eastman: ceastman@nhlearninginitiative.org

A special thank you to Darcy Coffta, Director of Innovation at Berwick Academy, South Berwick, Maine, for sharing her resources and her time with us! 

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