Innovation by Design for all Students at GEMS World Academy

At GEMS, students explore solutions to real world problems by understanding design.

At GEMS World Academy Chicago, every student is able to pursue things they are curious about. Nowhere is it more visible than the school’s commitment to a design curriculum meant to open students’ minds to the problems and possibilities they see in the world.

Students learn, from the design focus at GEMS, about systems thinking, problem solving, creative thinking and teamwork, all within a group of peers with different skills and backgrounds.

“We hope that these are lifelong skills that they’ll take with them” says Peg Keiner, Director of Innovation for the Lower School at GEMS.

“Ours is not a one-size-fits-all model, but rather a space that allows students to drive their own inquiry, do their own research and design their own solutions. It starts the moment students enter preschool and carries through until graduation,” she says.

“We live in a designed world. It’s important for our students to know the power that they have with designs.”

When first grade students study school accessibility, they think about how students get to school, they venture into the city to explore the pedway. Through these field studies they examine problems such as unshoveled sidewalks or turnstile doors.

“They take on the role of the designer. They see they have the power, in the future, to build these accessible places. We use the city as our landscape for learning and as a framework for understanding our world,” Keiner says. “We equip our students with both the tools and the power to change their world.”

Photo credit: GEMS World Academy

Fourth graders recently studied bird migration and learned that a big problem in Chicago is birds flying into high-rise windows and dying. Students created movies and flyers that they used to teach the rest of the school how to prevent the death of birds. Their interest and concern empowered them to educate others and identify solutions to solve the problem locally.

“We believe design is a tool for students to be able to change this world. They are already changing things in our neighborhood by designing resources to build awareness,” she says.

By sixth, seventh and eighth grade, design and visual arts classes are required elements of the International Baccalaureate curriculum. And by the time students reach 11th and 12th grade, they are ready for the project-heavy two-year theory of design course where they create everything from board games to video games, pinball machines and VR experiences among other projects, says Greg Wilson, Director of Innovation for the Upper School at GEMS.

While doing that, they learn teamwork and collaboration with other classes at the school, he says.

“One example is when students collaborated with the music teacher to create innovative musical instruments in design class, then in music class they formed a band, learned about composition and performed their own original music on the instruments,” he says.

“We try to get them to the point where anything they can think about or dream about, they can attempt to create it,” Wilson says.

“While design innovation starts in the classroom, it branches out in robotics and makers club after school, field studies and visits to Chicago tech companies to help connect what they are learning in the classroom with life beyond GEMS,” he says. The skills they learn through design will carry them through the rest of their lives.

Recently, a GEMS alum won an innovation challenge at her university. Her team designed a water bottle that would reduce pill swallowing anxiety. “It is amazing to see students applying their design skills to make positive change in our world,” he says.

The goal for this early exposure is to build a sensitivity to how things are designed and to enable students to think of ‘new ways,’ a concept inspired by Agency by Design.

“They see the world in ways we cannot see,” Wilson says. “It’s been an amazing journey so far.”

Learn more about GEMS World Academy at

Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Chicago Parent Editorial Team
Since 1984, the Chicago Parent editorial team is trained to be the go-to source for Chicagoland families, offering a rich blend of expert advice, compelling stories, and the top local activities for kids. Renowned for their award-winning content, the team of editors and writers are dedicated to enriching family life by connecting parents with the finest resources and experiences our community has to offer.


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