Passion Projects ignite kids’ curiosity at Shady Side Academy

Above: Allison explored the effects of anesthesia on the body for her Passion Project in 2019, building a model for her presentation. This article is provided by Shady Side Academy.

“How does gravity work?” “What’s the difference between bees and wasps?” “How did they build the pyramids?”

Children are born with a sense of wonder about the world around them, and harnessing that natural curiosity can ignite more meaningful learning experiences. At Shady Side Academy Country Day School, fourth and fifth graders have the opportunity to explore their individual interests through “Passion Projects” – inquiry-based, student-directed learning experiences.

Passion Projects take place over 2-3 months and involve six Ps: Passion, Plan, Pitch, Project, Product and Presentation. Students are challenged to come up with three things they are interested in learning about, and to think about how they would explore each idea and share their learning with the class. What kind of research will they do? What materials will they need? What will they create to show their learning? How long will it take? Students pitch their ideas to a teacher and small group of peers, who ask questions that help them think through which one might be best to pursue.

Once they’ve selected a topic, students dive right in. Teachers take a fairly hands-off approach to empower students to drive the projects, providing support when needed. In addition to homeroom teachers Justin Rebitch (grade 4) and Raquel Kramer (grade 5), librarian Courtney Anderson helps with research and educational technology specialist Jody Kokladas helps with technology. Students can also tap other adults in the SSA community for their expertise. For example, Jesse Robinson, director of the Senior School’s Glimcher Tech & Design Hub, helped Wenwen learn to design and 3D print a model house and Solomon learn computer animation last year.

Tristan learned to make a stop-motion video for his Passion Project in 2021, using a LEGO backdrop as a green screen.

Once they’ve completed their Passion Projects, students present them in class either in person or through a video, website or digital presentation. The projects are as unique as the students themselves. Leanne created an online personality test. Beau designed vinyl skateboard decals. Mason built a cardboard marble run. Coulter created a website about cat breeds. Makenna built a robotic LEGO dog. Ysabelle learned how to sew a dress. Zach created a digital book about how to ride a bike.

“Passion Projects build confidence and a sense of independence,” said Rebitch. “That sense of ownership, of knowing you did something all by yourself, is really powerful.”

They also build time management and problem-solving skills. Kids must create a step-by-step plan and timeline for their project. If something doesn’t go as planned, they have to figure out a different way to do it.

Most of all, Passion Projects allow kids to shine in their own unique way.

“They enable us as teachers to see our students through a different lens,” said Kramer. “You really see them blossom creatively when they have the chance to create something they care about.”

Learn more about Shady Side Academy Country Day School at a Zoom Information Session on Nov. 9 or 11 or Dec. 7 or 9. Or schedule a Saturday Campus Tour on Nov. 13 or Dec. 11. Learn more at