Experiential Learning Gets Real at GEMS

Students at GEMS World Academy Chicago learn while doing through its extensive Field Studies programs. Find out why experiential learning matters to today’s kids.

Growing up, parents likely groused at some point that they’ll never use what their teachers were teaching them in the “real world.” At GEMS World Academy Chicago, students don’t have those complaints thanks to the experiential learning built into everything they do.

The “why it matters in the real world” hits home when the students leave their classrooms at the Preschool through Grade 12 private, independent school in Chicago’s Lakeshore East neighborhood. That’s when they explore the larger classroom of the entire city of Chicago as part of GEMS’ unique Field Studies curriculum.

“When you have these real field experiences you start to see connections align. It’s personal and for them, valuing something that becomes personal becomes passion,” says Shannon Hurst, an Upper School science teacher at GEMS. “I think that these Field Studies are just a really nice way to engage their own values and intrinsic philosophies and see how that plays out in the real world.”

In Field Studies, each subject the students study is connected to what’s happening outside the classroom.

“That makes the learning authentic,” says Justin Christensen, a language and literature teacher at GEMS Upper School. “It just makes it more real for them. You can see their goals, their creativity, they are engaged. They start to see what they are doing in the classroom relates to everything.”

These two Upper School faculty members took some time out of their lessons to share how they feel experiential learning is exactly what today’s kids need.

Creating deeper learning

Field Studies are so much deeper than the fun traditional field trips parents most likely remember.

For instance, Hurst says while the history department was studying the history of the Civil War, she taught her science students about the medicinal practices on the Civil War battlefield. As part of that, they spent a day at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago learning about amputations during the war.

Or when her students were studying sound waves, Hurst took them to the Aragon Ballroom, which has a floor built with springs and an acoustic center. Not only were the students able to experience how sound waves traveled differently in the space thanks to a 1920s organ, they also learned about the Aragon’s contribution to the history of Chicago.

And this year, Christensen is teaching his students about new journalism. For this lesson, students will head out to the Loop and use the city as fuel for their narrative writing.

Opening minds to career options

Parents find themselves at a moment where no one can predict what types of jobs will be available to their children in the future. Those jobs simply haven’t been created yet.

This is where Hurst feels GEMS Field Studies shines. “I think bringing them to a real experience, whether it be a hospital experience or collegiate experience or working with a professor, opens them up to the ideas, gives them real experience and helps them to deepen or understand that content in the classroom and how they can apply it to their future studies,” she says. “I think these experiences help them connect what their passions are and what they can potentially do with it in the near future.”

In the field, they also see inclusiveness and how individuality is embraced in the workplace, the teachers say.

Preparing for university rigor

Christensen says being out of the classroom creates time to reflect on what they know and what they’ve learned.

“When they are immersed, it gives them a chance to think on a level that is going to be really beneficial when they get to university. They’ll be thinking about how they know what they know,” he says.

The students’ research projects and essays are tackling questions where answers are not found in a simple Google search, such as how sound pollution impacts Chicago, how manufactured plastic pollutants change people’s hormones or how the language in Black exploitation films changed English in America.

These efforts take students’ college essays and applications to the next level, both teachers say.

And when they get to college, students report that they are ahead of the curve and comfortable with critical thinking and making the global-to-local connections being asked of them because they learned it first at GEMS.

“There’s serious rigor at this school. It’s a trial by fire for two years but when they are done, they’ve really been tested and they are ready to go to university. They’re prepared,” Christensen says.

Discover more about how GEMS is a fit for today’s students at gemschicago.org.

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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