By Sandra Hutton, @artimmersionstudio

The Art Effect Competition is an inspiring platform for students to unleash their creativity while celebrating unsung heroes! Developed by the Lowell Milken Centre for Unsung Heroes, this competition offers a unique opportunity for young minds to express themselves artistically while honouring those whose remarkable contributions to society have often gone unnoticed or deserve wider attention. Established by Lowell Milken, the Centre is dedicated to promoting and preserving the legacies of individuals who have made significant impacts on history through their acts of courage, compassion, and innovation. Founded on the belief that everyone has the potential to make a difference, the Centre provides resources and educational programs to empower individuals to recognize and be inspired by the heroic actions of unsung heroes. Through the Art Effect Competition, students are invited to explore and honour these unsung heroes through their creative expressions, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for the power of human resilience and altruism.


As an art teacher with a passion for engaging students in meaningful projects, my journey with the Art Effect Competition began at the National Art Education Association (NAEA) conference in New York City several years ago. It was there that I first learned about the Lowell Milken Centre for Unsung Heroes and their mission to celebrate unsung heroes from various parts of the world who have made significant impacts on history. Interactions with representatives from the Centre left a profound impact on me as I realized the potential this competition held for my students. Recognizing it as a perfect opportunity for them to engage in research, reflect on character education, and develop their artistic skills, I was inspired to introduce it to my classroom. Through the competition, my students not only have the chance to create truly unique and differentiated art pieces but also to honour unsung heroes whose stories deserve to be shared with the world. This journey has been an enriching experience, both for myself and for my students, fostering a deeper understanding of the power of art to inspire change and celebrate the resilience of the human spirit.


Engaging students in the Art Effect Competition offers them a profound opportunity to immerse themselves in project-based learning, fostering deep critical thinking and creative exploration. Project-based learning (PBL) is a teaching method that encourages students to gain knowledge and skills by investigating and responding to complex questions, problems, or challenges. Originating in the progressive education movement of the early 20th century, PBL has since become a widely utilized approach in modern education systems. Unlike traditional instructional methods, PBL emphasizes student autonomy, collaboration, and real-world application of knowledge. By embarking on the Art Effect Competition journey, students are not only researching and reflecting on the lives of unsung heroes but also exercising agency in crafting their own interpretations through art. This differentiated outcome allows each student to explore their unique perspectives, interests, and talents, resulting in a diverse array of creative expressions that showcase the depth of their understanding and the richness of their imaginations. Through this process, students not only deepen their understanding of the subject matter but also develop essential skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration, preparing them for success in an ever-evolving world.


Over the years of being involved with the Unsung Hero Project and Art Effect Competition, I’ve witnessed a myriad of positive student outcomes that extend far beyond the realm of art. One notable observation is that students have come to honour the process of creation as much as the final product itself. Engaging in extensive research and reflection on their chosen unsung heroes, students meticulously consider the materials and mediums they employ, resulting in a deeper level of artistic exploration and expression. What is particularly rewarding is witnessing students fully immerse themselves in the decision-making process regarding their art, recognizing the profound impact of their chosen medium on the message they wish to convey. Moreover, as students navigate the complexities of artistic expression, I’ve observed a remarkable growth in confidence, as they come to understand that art is not just about aesthetics, but about communication and problem-solving. This holistic approach to art education not only fosters creativity but also equips students with invaluable skills that transcend the boundaries of the art studio, empowering them to navigate the challenges of the world with newfound assurance and resilience.


Incorporating the Art Effect Competition as an option for all students undertaking the Unsung Hero Project has been a deliberate choice aimed at instilling a sense of purpose and dedication in their artistic endeavours. I always spend considerable time  planning the project well ahead of the competition deadline. This allows  students to have an appropriate amount of time to deeply engage with their chosen unsung heroes and craft their artistic expressions. While the allure of substantial prizes awarded to winners in various categories may initially draw their interest, the true value lies in the process of submission itself. Through this process, students gain a nuanced understanding of the criteria for submission, honing their ability to meet specific requirements while staying true to their artistic vision. This skill is not only valuable within the context of the competition but also serves as a foundational skill that students will likely repeat in various capacities throughout their academic and professional journeys. Whether in further education or in the workforce, the ability to understand and meet submission criteria is an essential skill that empowers students to articulate their ideas effectively and navigate diverse environments with confidence and clarity.


Integrating character education into the Unsung Hero Project enriches the experience by instilling a deeper understanding of the intrinsic virtues that drive heroic actions and societal change. In my classroom, I have linked the project to the Virtues Project, which highlights universal virtues of character that transcend cultural and religious boundaries. The Virtues Project, introduced to my school by a former administrator, serves as a guiding framework for exploring and discussing the virtues exemplified by unsung heroes. By examining the virtues such as courage, compassion, resilience, and integrity embodied by unsung heroes, students not only deepen their understanding of the human experience but also cultivate a deeper appreciation for the qualities that drive positive change in the world. Through this lens, the project becomes a journey of personal growth and character development. By celebrating the virtues of unsung heroes, students are inspired to reflect on their own values and actions, recognizing their potential to contribute to a better world through acts of kindness, empathy, and courage. Ultimately, this holistic approach to education empowers students to recognize the interconnectedness of character, legacy, and positive social change, fostering a generation of compassionate and purpose-driven individuals committed to making a difference in their communities and beyond.


An integral component of the Unsung Hero Project is the requirement for students to write an impact paper, providing a written reflection on their selected unsung hero and their artistic process. This aspect of the project serves as a crucial opportunity for students to articulate their understanding of their chosen hero, delving deeper into their motivations, struggles, and lasting impact on society. By putting their thoughts into words, students not only solidify their own comprehension but also offer viewers valuable insights into the inspiration behind their artistic creations. This multi-dimensional approach enhances communication and storytelling, fostering a richer learning experience for both the creators and the audience alike. Through the act of writing, students further connect with the narrative of their unsung hero, amplifying the project’s capacity to inspire empathy, appreciation, and meaningful reflection.


Reflecting on several years of involvement in the Unsung Hero Project, I’ve recognized the evolution of my approach to structuring the project for students. Initially starting with Grade 8 students, I offered a highly open-ended project where students had freedom in material selection and a lengthy timeframe for completion. While this approach proved liberating for some, I observed that it overwhelmed others and led to difficulties in time management. It became evident that a prolonged project duration didn’t always yield the best outcomes, as procrastination often took its toll. Learning from these observations, I’ve adapted the project structure over time, incorporating more student check-ins, teacher-student conferences to discuss materials, and a shorter, more focused timeline with clearly defined expectations. Unveiling the project in “bite- size” pieces became a factor in its success. Additionally, during the pandemic, I found an opportunity to adapt the project framework to emphasize documentation, capitalizing on the online learning environment. Through these adjustments, I aim to provide students with a more supportive and manageable framework that nurtures their creativity while guiding them towards achieving their fullest potential.


During the 2023/24 school year, I seized an exciting opportunity to apply for a professional development program for teachers offered by the Lowell Milken Centre, aiming to become an ambassador for the Art Effect Competition. Thrilled to be selected for the first cohort of the program, I dedicated myself to the program’s requirements, which included participating in Zoom meetings and conversations with fellow educators and developing a capstone project. My capstone project focuses on expanding the Unsung Hero Project at my school to encompass students from Grades 6-8. This expansion involves refining lessons and documentation, integrating technical aspects such as an online showcase and an in-person exhibition, and implementing digital badges to reinforce steps of the process and cultivate work ethic and character traits. Additionally, the project incorporates opportunities for student reflection and critical thinking, utilizing protocols from the book Making Thinking Visible. This book explores strategies developed by Harvard University to promote critical thinking and develop students’ thinking dispositions. This approach is helpful for the Unsung Hero Project as it  provides structured frameworks for student reflection, analysis, and discussion, enhancing the depth and breadth of their exploration into the lives and legacies of unsung heroes. Through my capstone project, I am committed to enhancing the educational experience for my students while fostering a deeper appreciation for unsung heroes and the transformative power of art.


As I continue with my capstone project, I am fueled by an additional intention: to create my own art piece that models the process of conceptual artwork focused on storytelling. This endeavour not only allows me to further develop myself as both an artist and a teacher but also positions me as a role model for my students, offering them firsthand insight into the creative process. By inviting students to participate in my art creation, offering insights, advice, and engaging in discussion, I hope to foster a collaborative environment where we can explore the power of storytelling through art together. Ultimately, the creation of my art piece serves not only as an artwork in its own right but also as a provocation for deeper study and understanding, inspiring students to embrace their own creative potential and contribute meaningfully to the ongoing narrative of unsung heroes. Through this shared journey, I am committed to nurturing a community of passionate and empowered learners who are equipped to make a positive impact in both the art world and beyond.


You may find more information about how to get your students involved in the Unsung Hero Project and the Art Effect Competition here. 


Works Cited:

Lowell Milken Centre for Unsung Heroes. Lowell Milken Centre for Unsung Heroes,

Thomas, John W. “Project Based Learning: History, Research, and Practice.” ASCD, 2000.

Ritchhart, Ron, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. Jossey-Bass, 2011.

The Virtues Project. The Virtues Project,