Innovative Pilot Program Connects Traditional Disciplines – A Key for 21st Century Learning and Problem-Solving

The Needham Education Foundation is awarding a start-up grant of $111,500 to fund a pilot program in interdisciplinary learning at Needham High School, including an innovative course planned for fall 2013. The grant was announced at this evening’s meeting of the Needham School Committee.

“This is a very exciting advance that will have a profound impact not only on our students, but also on Needham’s standing as one of the state’s premier school districts,” said Needham Public School Superintendent Daniel Gutekanst.

The grant is the largest in the 22-year history of the NEF.  It provides resources for the pilot year of a new interdisciplinary course, which has been developed by Needham High educators in collaboration with the NEF.  The course will help students learn to make crucial connections between academic disciplines and develop problem-solving skills that are essential for success in higher education and beyond.

“Students who take the course will gain valuable skills in the cross-disciplinary thinking that is expected in top colleges — and that is crucial for success in so many academic and professional endeavors,” said Needham High School Principal Jonathan Pizzi, who was joined by teachers and NEF leaders to describe the course to School Committee members on Wednesday.

Addressing the Need for Cross-Discipline Learning

Interdisciplinary studies are a departure from traditional teaching models that present academic subjects (English, math, science, etc) in isolated silos. Educators nationwide are embracing interdisciplinary learning. In Needham, teachers have been exploring cross discipline instruction informally for many years. But creating these complex courses requires staff time for program and curriculum development.  A 2009 accreditation report of Needham High School by The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) identified the need for formalized opportunities for interdisciplinary learning.  The district set a goal to implement an interdisciplinary course at Needham High in its 2013-2016 school improvement plan.

The NEF grant enables Needham Public Schools (NPS) to take a vital first step in breaking down academic silos at the secondary school level. This program emerged from the NEF’s Collaborative Initiative, created in 2006, in which the NEF works closely with the NPS administration to fund large, multi-year initiatives that will have major, strategic impact on education — yet would not be possible within the current school operating budget.

“Community support of the NEF over the years is making it possible for us to seed innovation on a large scale in Needham schools,” said NEF co-president Brooke Baker. “Funding and helping to develop this course has been a real partnership with district educators to provide maximum impact in Needham public schools.”

The Greater Boston Project

In early 2012, five teams of teachers responded to NEF’s request for proposal to develop a high school course that combined local resources, community service, project-based learning, and an interdisciplinary focus.  “The Greater Boston Project” was chosen for full course development and received a $31,000 NEF grant for research and development, which proceeded over the summer with consulting help from Olin College professors.

The resulting course, called Integrated Senior Studies: The Greater Boston Project, will launch in fall 2013 and focus on specific periods in Boston’s history.  Students will investigate how individuals and groups perceived themselves and the world around them and how they worked to effect change. Students will read primary historical sources, analyze demographic trends, build mathematical models, and hone presentation skills. The course will culminate with community action projects created by the students.  The program, for up to 75 seniors, will meet for two consecutive class periods daily and will be taught collaboratively by three experienced teachers.  Students will earn 8 academic credits (four English, two math, and two social studies).   

The grant for the course’s pilot year was approved by the NEF last month. If the program is deemed successful, school officials will request operational funding in the district-funded budget for future years. The NEF will continue to work with the district to expand interdisciplinary learning in other courses and other grades.

“Already the creativity and energy around developing this course has spread throughout the district and has become a springboard for more interdisciplinary learning throughout the Needham school culture,” Gutekanst said.

See coverage of the initiative on the Needham Channel.