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New stories about the GEMS-NET project

submitter: GEMS-NET (Guiding Education in Math & Science Network)
description: New Stories about the GEMS-NET LSC project.
published: 10/29/1998
posted to site: 10/27/1998

New science curriculum uses practical skills


SOUTH KINGSTOWN – It's time for a science lesson at South Road School. At a signal from their teacher, the children get out their assignments: small plastic vials of water that they have collected at home.

Jamie Shanley, a University or Rhode Island education student who is doing her student teaching here, explains what they'll be doing and what terms they'll use.

"Clarity," she says, 'Who can tell me what clarity is?"

Hands shoot up all over the room as eager third and fourth graders in this combined class vie to offer their answers. Shanley encourages their responses, gently correcting as needed.

Around the room is evidence of their earlier investigations into and its' behavior. Hand-drawn wall charts document the results of races held between drops of different sizes - the big ones always won. Each student also has a lab book, whose photocopied pages are covered with pencilled in observations.

A new approach

Shanley continued with the lesson as Christine Tuoni, the classroom teacher, escorted the observer to a quiet corner down thc hall to explain what her students are doing.

They're just a handful of the 10,780 pupils in southern Rhode Island who are getting excited about science this year, thanks to an innovative new elementary curriculum developed by the GEMS-NET Science Education Alliance and URI. It emphasizes observation and problem-solving skills – which carry over to other subjects–as well as scientific concepts in four basic areas life sciences, physical sciences, earth and space, and technology.

So far, the curriculum has been adopted by five public school districts – South Kingstown, North Kingstown. East Greenwich, Exceter- West Greenwich. and Westerly – and is under consideration by Narragansett Chariho and Jamestown. (A similar program, KITES, is being used by East Bay area public schools).

Tuoni is a "lead teacher," who introduced elements of the curriculum into their classrooms last year. This year, all 350 teachers in kindergarten through sixth grade in the participating schools are involved, though not for the entire school year.

"Every single teacher is doing al least some of the curriculum this year," said Dr. Barbara K. Sullivan-Watts, co-director of GEMS-NET and a marine research scientist at URI. "At this point, it's a 10-week curriculum in most classrooms, but that will expand to 30 weeks in two years."

The impetus for its development came eight years ago from the National Science Foundation, which established national standards for science education.

"Lot's of school districts started looking at their science curricula," Tuoni said "South Kingstown hasn't used a science text -- in fact very few elementary schools have -- teachers were on their own as far as what they taught."

Just choosing what to teach from the vast range of scientific knowledge can be daunting for many elementary teachers, who may, like Tuoni, cover eight other curriculum areas as well. Then there are the problems non-scientists encounter collecting the equipment and materials needed and conducting experiments safely in classrooms that were not designed as laboratories.

Teacher friendly

That random approach, however, has had effects far beyond the walls of elementary classrooms. Teachers in junior and senior high schools, where science is a required subject for most pupils, had no idea what science education their students had in the lower grades–and all too often found that it was very little. Often they had to teach the most elementary facts to some students in the class, while others with more extensive backgrounds grew restless and bored.

That changed when the GEMS-NET Science Education Alliance was established to develop the hands-on, investigative teaching method that is now being introduced in public schools here. The alliance which involves 14 URI scientists and engineers from seven different disciplines, as well as professional educators, has adopted a curriculum based on science kits, each of which contains all the information and equipment and most of the materials needed to teach a particular topic at a particular grade level.

Other supplies are easily obtainable. As Tuoni explained how the curriculum is structured, teacher Diane Kern used a knife to cut flaps from cardboard cartons that would become "houses" for her students to wine for electricity as their final projects in a unit on Electric Circuits."

The kits are all teacher-friendly," Tuoni commented. "It's important to supply something to elementary teachers that they can teach well."

And they're not given the kits without hands-on training in how to use them. That's provided at periodic staff development workshops, such as one held this week at the Coastal Institute on URl's Bay Campus in Narragansett. Funding for the training comes from the five school districts and a grant from the Eisenhower Higher Education Fund to the university's departments of Education, Natural Resource Sciences, and Oceanography.

The kits themselves are designed by educational supply companies, and are designed to leach both content - such as the fact that heavy drops of water roll faster - and process, which engages students in developing hypotheses about what might happen and then testing their ideas.

A single classroom kit may cost as much as $500, so they arc reused. The GEMS-NET Alliance's goal is to have as little downtime between uses as possible, but because some materials are used up in the course of teaching each unit — the D batteries used to discover the principles of electric circuits, for example — it's mot possible to just hand the materials to the teacher in the next room. The Alliance currently has a contract with the KITES materials refurbishment center to resupply each kit and send it on to the next classroom.

"Scheduling usage is still kind of a bear, commented Tuoni, who will begin a unit on sound with her class on January 5. She also noted that as the curriculum becomes more widely used, providing kits for mixed-grade c1assrooms like the one she has this year will become a problem for the alliance in the future.

Amazing water

Back in the classroom Shanley is checking to be sure that the young scientists at each table have entered their observations in their lab books. Then she has all of them bring their water to a single table for a demonstration. The students line up the vials and settle themselves comfortably on the carpet.

Most vials are identified in pencil on their labels, but Ethan Edwards' is boldly labeled 'toilet water' in black marker, provoking many giggles.

Shanley patiently quiets them and explains that the tablets she's adding to each sample will change the color of the water, turning it pink if it contains a high percentage of minerals and salt (hard) or blue of it doesn't (soft).

The class reads each label aloud as Shanley drops in a tablet and a volunteer stirs cautiously.

"Kitchen sink," they chorus. "Bathroom sink."

They're not sure with the first one but when it blossoms into a pale pink they catch on fast: kitchen, bathroom and toilet bowl water is all hard. Dan Burke's is hard though it came from the hot water tap; Allan Wang's is hard even after his dog drank from it.

They note that some water is harder than the rest, turning a bright pink. One specimen is bluish, almost purple. and they volunteer possible explanations.

Then Celia Olsen's sample of dishwater and Dan Asher's catch from the washing machine discharge come as a surprise: both of them turn bright blue. What makes the difference Shanley asks, and it doesn't take long to identify the detergents they contain as the cause.

The students are alert, they're interested, they're learning, and they're having a good time. What more could you possibly want from school?

Kid tested

Tuoni's students were unanimous in their enthusiasm for the activities in the curriculum.

"I like it because it's interesting to do the experiments " commented Cheryl Lau and classmate Rachael Washington agreed. "They're really fun experiments."

Some students seemed to enjoy the equipment as much as the activities. Hannah Burroughs said she likes using a syringe to measure water: "I never did that before she said, while Seth Kulman liked using eyedroppers as well as syringes.

But even though they were having fun, learning was the best par, they agreed.

"It caused me to start noticing water and how it moves and stuff," said Molly Johnson.

"I'm learning about things I don't know," commented student Jeffrey Lord.

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