A Stepping-Stone to Skills Building with Students’ Chosen Topics

Simon Thomas, Osaka Prefecture University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: The Stuff of Genius, integrating students’ topics, multiple skills 
  • Learner English level: Intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: University
  • Preparation time: 15 minutes or more
  • Activity time: From one 90-minute lesson up to a whole semester
  • Materials: Computers, projector, Internet connection or previously downloaded video, study materials relevant to chosen goals

Students who are not language majors can find it stimulating to bring interests from their academic fields into language classes to develop within a class theme or format. The Stuff of Genius videos by How Stuff Works are a series of two to three minute, animated videos that introduce inventions or ideas that have in someway affected our lives. These videos introduce a format that teachers can utilize as a stepping-stone into further skill building activities for a number of different learning goals that students can use with their chosen topics.


Step 1: Visit The Stuff of Genius website, podcast, or YouTube site. Select a video and topic suitable for your students. 

Step 2: Decide on the initial procedures to use based on the level of your students. Script gap fill, vocabulary and grammar exercises with comprehension questions offer listening, reading, shadowing, pronunciation, speaking, and discussion expansion activity potential.

Step 3: Decide the range of goals and skills you would like students to work towards and how far you would like to expand this theme.


Step 1: Introduce the video and the accompanying exercises. At this stage, content and vocabulary are the focus.

Step 2: Break the video down into its component parts, typically including:

The history and background to the invention and inventor.

A description of the invention, how it is made, works or can be used.

Opinions about it based on: 

I. The American Dream Scale (fame & fortune of the inventor).

II. The Benefit to Humanity Scale (how much humanity has benefited).

III. The Ripple Effect Scale (how far the effects of the invention have spread around the world).  

Ask the students to recount each part of the video, focusing on language form and grammar. These first two steps provide a base understanding of the format.

Step 3: Ask students to choose an item from their bags, creatively imagine the background and history to its invention, describe how it is made, works and is used, and rate it using the three given scales with ideas to support their opinions.

Step 4: After a teacher demonstration, students can apply these ideas to a mini presentation using key phrases from the original video.


Step 1: Ask students to identify one topic (man-made invention/object or theory/idea) they have studied within their major academic field and feel deserves the title of “Stuff of Genius”.

Step 2: Provide students with examples of activities to be completed, grading criteria, and rubrics for these activities.

Step 3:  With examples, help students to identify key words related to their topic. Teach Internet research techniques followed by reading and paraphrasing strategies to assist in identifying history and background descriptions of their topics.

Step 4: Using the three typical component parts of The Stuff of Genius videos, teach and practice step-by-step procedures for writing elements of a three-paragraph report with references. Assist students in writing about their topic.

Step 5: Clarify differences between written reports and spoken presentations with examples, and support students in converting their report into a presentation with slides or a poster. 

Step 6: Coach students on necessary presenting skills, asking questions, and forming responses. Give students opportunities to practice and reflect.

Step 7: Provide a suitable situation for students to present to their peers, with opportunities to question and interact with other topic choices.

Step 8: Create a system for students to exchange reports and test each other on their own topics.


The Stuff of Genius series introduces and provides a format that can be built upon to support research, reading, speaking, writing, and presentation activities. Utilizing this format and applying it to their interests, students are able to study topics relevant to them in English, acquire a range of skills, and reinforce their academic major studies.