Newsclippings and Press Releases
New stories about the GEMS-NET project
Local teachers give new science curriculum a try
By Almond McDevitt
It's not every day that you see grownups playing with dried beans, or launching small objects into tubs to see what floats. But not only were about 40 of them doing just those things - and a lot of similar activities - last week, they were doing them in the interests of science.
And soon they'll be encouraging thousands of youngsters to do the same.
The adults were participating in the professional development workshops at the Coastal Institute on the University of Rhode Island's Bay Campus. All were elementary school teachers in southern Rhode Island, trying out science and technology kits that they'll soon be using in their classrooms.
Among them were all four second grade teachers at Hamilton School in North Kingstown, who were exploring solids, liquids, and gases. It involved, among other things, sorting mixed beans of various sizes through screens with various mesh sizes. The activity will be a big hit with their students, they said.
"Second graders are going to love this," said Joyce Fiorentino. "It's a real hands-on approach."
Jennifer Poli agreed. "It's definitely at their level."
It's supposed to be, said Dr. Josef Gorres, one of more than 20 URI scientists who have helped to develop the innovative GEMS-NET science curriculum. Since 1996, it has been adopted by five area school districts - South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Exeter-West Greenwich, and westerly. Jamestown is set to join next year, and both Narragansett and Chariho are considering it.
The kit-based curriculum is designed to teach elementary school students basic facts about the natural world and technology, and, more importantly, the scientific thinking process that led to their discovery and development.
"These kits have been developed by educators and scientists, and have been tested in school systems," Gorres said. "They must meet two criteria; first, whether they are developmentally appropriate for that age, and second, if they're bringing across the science that should be taught at that age."
A balanced approach
What Rhode Island students should be learning about the world they live in began with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which developed a national system of standards for science education. Using them as a guide, the R.I. Dept. of Education then published its own set of science education benchmarks for each grade from kindergarten to 12th grade. Eventually, standardized, process-oriented tests will measure the success of the state's schools in meeting those goals, just like math and reading.
A group of scientists and educators formed the GEMS-NET Science Curriculum Alliance two years ago to develop the curriculum under the direction of Dr. Betty Young, a professor of Education at URI, and Dr. Barbara Sullivan-Watts, a marine scientist there. Matching the benchmarks for each grade with four main areas, or "strands" of knowledge -- life science, physical science, earth and space, and technology -- they reviewed sand tested commercially available classroom teaching kits to see how well they presented each topic.
"What we wanted was a balanced menu of science," said Gorres.
They finally selected kits from two sources: STC, or Science and technology for Children, which uses the Smithsonian Institute as an educational and scientific resource; and FOSS, the Full Option Science System developed in conjunction with the University of Berkeley.
Introducing selected kits into local classrooms began in a small way in the fall of 1996, when URI's departments of Education and Natural Resource Sciences and the Graduate School of Oceanography received a $35,000 grant from the Eisenhower Higher Education Fund to purchase kits and train teachers to use them.
"We all felt that outreach to the community was an important part of what we do," said Young. "After all, we a re a land-grant university."
About 75 teachers -- two from each grade in the district -- volunteered to be the pilot teachers for the program. After hands-on classroom instruction -- and in some cases, field training -- by URI's mentoring scientists, they were given kits to use in the classroom.
In general, their efforts were a spectacular success with students, parents, and other teachers -- so much so that the Alliance has had to scramble to expand its curriculum.
"We were going to implement the GEMS program much more slowly," Young said. "But what happened was that parents who saw what was going on in other classrooms were saying, 'How come my kid doesn't have this?' and the demand just grew."
With a second, $45,000 Eisenhower grant to fund URI's end of the program through the end of 1998, and the "outstanding" cooperation of the five school superintendents and curriculum directors, she said, they've been able to meet that demand.
The districts not only provided funds to purchase teaching kits for their school, but have also paid substitutes for classroom teachers so they can attend training workshops. Furthermore, the East Greenwich school department ordered all the kits needed last year so all the districts could receive quantity discounts; this year North Kingstown has taken on the task.
The kits are re-used after refurbishment at the center operated by KITES, a similar science curriculum program developed by the East Bay Educational Collaborative in conjunction with Rhode Island College, which is now in eight Rhode Island school districts.
As a result, all 350 teachers through grade six will explore at least one curriculum kit with their pupils this year. In two years, depending on the results of the Alliance's request for a $1.5 million national Science Foundation grant, they will be able to present the full, 30 week curriculum.
And 40 of the original lead teachers have gone on to take leadership training and are now presenting the current round of professional workshops, sharing their own experience sin using the kits with their fellow teachers.
Learning from experience
As 19 fifth grade teachers were investigating "What Floats? What Sinks?" at the Coastal Institute last week, Ken Kelly warned them about the simple spring scale they were using to weight the various objects they were testing.
"Some students will think it's a toy," he told them. "It's very important to impress on them that it really is a scientific instrument."
Kelly, who teaches fifth grade at west Kingstown School in South Kingstown, knows what to expect because he and Carol DeCoster of North Kingstown's Quidnessett School, who were conducting the workshop, used that kit in their classes last year.
"It's a whole different way than I learned science in school, that's for sure."
Giving teachers a way to network and share their experiences is another benefit of having a regional curriculum, Young pointed out. Not only are Kelly and other trainers available to advise other fifth grade teachers as they're using the kits, but the scientists and educators at URI are resources as well.
"For each type of kit, there is a scientist at URI who is associated with it," she said.
Many teachers enrich their presentations of the kits in the classroom with their own resources, such as finding internet sites that relate to what the students are learning, or bringing in parents with expertise in those areas. Others find ways to connect the science lessons with their math and reading assignments.
So far, negative reactions have come from teachers at the lowest grade levels, many of whom feel that they are already overwhelmed with mandates to teach basic reading and other skills.
"It's more of a problem at the beginner levels," commented Hamilton School second grade teacher Cheryl Giroux. "They do have a lot to cover in kindergarten and first grade."
Some of the second grade lessons won't take as long as the teacher's handbook in the kits states, Poli pointed out, because students are mature enough at that age to set up the materials and supplies themselves.
She and her cohorts are looking at it positively. It helped, said Sandi Koehler, that they began the workshops with an informal gripe session where they could air their concerns about incorporating yet another program into their already crowded schedules.
"We got that out of the way first thing," she said with a laugh.
But, said Farrentino, "This is a curriculum that's needed because of the new science standards. We're going to be testing altogether differently; the kids will have to be able to do something.
"We thought before we got here that it would be something big and scary, and it's not."