Teacher: What's this simple machine right here? Wheel and axle, right.
Narrator: Just outside Boston in the diverse community of Malden, fifth graders are studying some of America's oldest technology, using some of its newest.
Teacher: All right, watch that gate.
Narrator: They're on a field trip to the birthplace of the country's manufacturing industry, the Saugus Iron Works.
Teacher: This works like a lever. It presses the bellows closed, it blows the air into the furnace.
Narrator: Public education in America also began in Massachusetts. In the mid-1800s, a Prussian system was adopted that featured reading, writing and arithmetic taught in separate periods governed by the clock.
David: We don't live in an industrial economy any more. We live in a knowledge economy, and so we have to think about education in a fundamentally different way. We can't be focusing on basic facts and basic skills. We have to think about ways of thinking that are going to matter more than what we do in traditional schools right now.
Teacher: You want to be a photo journalist?
Teacher: Oh, oh, all right!
Narrator: Today, many educators are calling for an integrated approach to teaching.
Teacher: The circumference of the circle...
Narrator: At Ferryway School, the Iron Works project, which is a collaborative effort of a dozen teachers integrates math, art, English, history and science.
Teacher: Look where the water's falling.
Narrator: And features a handmade water wheel competition.
Students: [clapping] Go, go, go, go.
Earl: The project's not just about the water wheel, it's not just about the Saugus Iron Works, it's about all of the subject areas being brought together. The rocks and minerals. The simple machines. The technology concepts and they learn leadership, they learn how to get along, how to cooperate. There's a lot of life lessons to be learned.
Student: And it looks like shiny metal.
Anxhela: If you're like in different classes, you sometimes forget, ’cause your mind's on one class, and then you have to be focused on another class. But when it's all together, you can just focus on one thing, ’cause it's all the same.
Ken: These divisions between disciplines are provisional at best, and also in schools, they become artificially enforced.
Narrator: Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally acclaimed author and lecturer, and an expert in creativity.
Ken: There's a kind of assumption that there's a set number of subjects in the world. And some of those are more important than the other ones. So typically, you end up with this hierarchy of math and languages and science at the top. And they are very important. But they're not more important in my view than the arts and the humanities. So that's the first thing, you've got the hierarchy. The second thing is, these things tend to be hermetically sealed off from each other. You know, so you do science on a Thursday morning. You do math in the afternoons. And this is really a feature of education, because outside of education, people know naturally that all these things flow in and out of each other. You know, that disciplines affect each other.
Karen: So you want to put your GPSs up this way.
Narrator: Across the country, imaginative teachers make learning richer and deeper by connecting subjects through projects.
Karen: We want you to write down that latitude and longitude on your paper.
Narrator: In the Eastern Washington town of Waterville, local farmers team up with fourth graders to track tiny horny-toad lizards as part of a national program called Nature Mapping.
Karen: And we don't know what the horny-toads do. We don't understand what they do during the winter.
Narrator: Teachers and experts designed an interdisciplinary curriculum for the year-long project.
Karen: And when I saw what the kids were supposed to do at different age levels, I said, "Oh, we have math. We have science. We have technology, we have art. We have all these components."
Student: How to catch a horny-toad. The first thing you have to have is a good eye.
Narrator: At Landry Middle School, just outside New Orleans, the eighth-grade teaching team built an interdisciplinary unit around one of their students' favorite subjects, cars.
Teacher: Oh, it curves! Look at that!
Narrator: In science class, students made balloon-propelled cars out of recycled materials, and road tested their various designs.
Teacher: Try to write some different selling points.
Narrator: In English, students wrote car commercials. And in math, they calculated loan payments.
Teacher: Now six percent of whatever you get for item number seven.
Student: So multiply six percent...
Teacher: ...times that.
Linda: I've had kids come back to me and tell me, "Do you remember that project we did?" They have never, ever come back and said, "You remember that test we did?" So I think that's the impact. If the kids remember it, our scores will go up, and our test scores have.
Student: Good afternoon. Welcome to the culminating event of "Fading Footprints."
Narrator: In some schools, like King Middle School in Portland, Maine, interdisciplinary learning drives the entire curriculum, drawing on knowledge gained in several different classes, seventh graders here produced a CD-ROM that features Maine's endangered species.
Teacher: The model that we use is expeditionary learning, outward bound. So it's really, it focuses on hands-on learning. We try to integrate science, social studies, math and English with technology, with artwork, with community members, field work, etcetera.
Narrator: In the process of making the CDs, students learn to collaborate and contribute their various talents. In music class, they recorded soundtracks for the CD; in art they painted scientifically accurate watercolors of their animals.
Student: Everybody talks about field work, and...
Narrator: And in video production class, they made the movie about the making of the CD.
Student: On our winter walk, we learned about how animals and plants survive in Maine's harsh climate.
Narrator: Since implementing the interdisciplinary curriculum, King principal, Mike McCarthy has seen the test scores of King's diverse student body go from the bottom one-third, to the top one-third in the state.
Michael: I've heard people describe what a gifted and talented classroom would look like. It should include field experiences, it should include technology; it should independent work; it should include work that's in-depth. Well, that's basically what our school is. One of the kids said, "Nobody feels stupid around here anymore." And I think that was one of our highest achievements.
Teacher: Open up, find "Wild Ginger." It's on page 59.
Narrator: At the School of Environmental Studies just outside Minneapolis, nature provides the context for the school's interdisciplinary approach to learning in service to the community.
Dan: We work with the local communities. We have 20 ponds and lakes that we are monitoring every year since we've been open. And so the kids go out and do a chemical analysis of the water. They also will write a technical paper. And then they present their findings to the water commissioners from the local cities. And those people actually will be the student work.
Student: Could use one more, I think.
Student: We need one more.
Mark: When you go to a normal high school you get biology and earth science and English, and then here you get just world, you get everything, and it's all together. And you realize that it's all systemic, and it all connects. And you leave here, you know, with real value.
Teacher: So that would be one of the predators of the pond.
Amanda: I can't learn from a textbook. I can't concentrate. I don't have the ability to concentrate like that. And here, with the hands-on activities that we do, and the integration of everything into our daily lives, it helps me absorb the information a lot better.
Student: All right, recreational use.
Narrator: Instead of tests in various subjects, the school judges presentations to peers and content experts as a better way to assess the understanding of complex subjects.
Teacher: And through biological magnification the tiger hare is then poisoned because it eats the fish.
Tom: I think that where we are is a lot like when the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane. Imagine for a minute when the Wright Brothers flew their first airplane, everybody running up to them, congratulating, saying, "That's wonderful." And someone walks up and says, "Well, that's impressive, but how is it going to improve the railroad?" The standards for performance that we're using are railroad performances.
Teacher: Today you are going to take the SAT-1.
Tom: So we're kind of locked in by those standards to fixing the railroad, when we need to get busy on inventing flight.
Narrator: In industries like filmmaking and gaming where collaboration and creativity are prized, employers are looking for people who can fly.
Randy: Education has been a lot about accruing facts. And today, getting facts is a lot easier than it's ever been. But doing something interesting with those facts, it's not so much in the points themselves, but in the relationship between them.
Teacher: And you don't have to scrap the design, ’cause the design is beautiful.
Randy: One of the things that comes out of that interdisciplinary kind of learning is it forces people to examine patterns. And the real knowledge is when you recognize the complexity of a pattern and then can resolve it into a simplicity that allows it to be applied to something else. That's so much of the business of art and technology and breakthrough.
Narrator: Further breakthroughs in education will come from understanding that people learn best by integrating bits of information, and combining them to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Student: There's actually 230 endangered species.
Ken: For a really innovative creative education, you simply have to have a broad curriculum. One that includes the arts, as well as the sciences, as well the humanities and languages and technology.
Teacher: We're going to take the math idea of below zero and turn it into music.
Ken: For there's no doubt in my mind that a really creative school encourages all kinds of interaction between subjects. There's just no doubt about that.
Teacher: Oh, I see some really wonderful positive negatives, just like those math numbers. Great!
Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to edutopia.org.