Problem-based units integrating science and mathematics were developed over the course of Project GEMS. The Innovation Model, originally conceived by GEMS Academy teachers in 2009, was further refined during this timeframe. The heuristic was utilized for planning and reflection, both by teachers and by students.
The GEMS Academy teachers found that the one-day-a-week enrichment program was an ideal setting for the implementation of integrated science and mathematics units. Since participating students were still receiving core content instruction in the regular classroom, GEMS Academy gave them the freedom to explore themes that might not have aligned directly with their grade-level curriculum. For example, our third grade students were able to grasp concepts related to the Pythagorean Theorem, though they typically would not have been exposed to that material until middle school. Similarly, a student with a keen interest in dinosaurs could explore that topic in connection with a STEM Career unit in which the student studied paleontology – even if paleontology were not related to the core content for their specific grade level. Additionally, the integrated units proved to be a very natural way to offer instruction in science and mathematics. Though the school structure tends to draw bold lines between academic subjects, the real world does not.
The use of broad global themes such as Innovation, Sustainability, and Design were the perfect vehicle for blurring the lines between related content areas. Perhaps the most significant findings related to the development and implementation of the integrated units came from the positive responses of the students and their families. The students responded well to open-ended questioning, to increased opportunities for collaboration, and to opportunities to self-select their course of study. However, achieving this level of independence was the result of growth over the course of the grant. Initially, students had great difficulty selecting a research topic. They had deeply ingrained misperceptions regarding risk-taking and "failure." Over time, students discovered how to be responsible for their own learning. Both the students and the parents responded positively to the progress reflected on the Growth Reports each semester, and both students and parents expressed strong support for the continuation of a similar program throughout the school district. Regarding the assessment for content validity, that did not occur within the funding cycle of this grant.