GEMS-Net: A STEM Pipeline from Kindergarten to the University

Erica Beck Spencer, FOSS Project Curriculum Specialist, The Lawrence Hall of Science, and Sara Sweetman, Director of GEMS-Net, University of Rhode Island
March 05, 2014 | FOSS Partnerships

Over the lifespan of GEMS-Net, the program has coordinated opportunities for more than 70 University of Rhode Island and community scientists and engineers to collaborate with teachers and schools.

Top image: Student notebook entries are the product of systematic observation, focused discourse, reflection, and writing (text production). This notebook sample of kindergarten expository writing from the FOSS Animals Two by Two Module starts with the focus question: What do you notice about the body of a goldfish?

The Guiding Education in Math and Science Network (GEMS-Net) is an outreach project that develops partnerships with K–8 teachers and administrators from nine school districts throughout the state of Rhode Island. Working together with scientists and educators from the University of Rhode Island (URI), GEMS-Net engages with every K–8 teacher of science, advises districts on curriculum, monitors effectiveness, stays current on effective practices, and works to build teacher leadership. The nine GEMS-Net districts are currently using FOSS and other hands-on science programs. Recently, GEMS-Net districts have made plans to move in the direction of FOSS Third Edition adoption.

The purpose of this article is to share more about this partnership program as an example of a large-scale FOSS implementation with quantifiable evidence of improving student understanding and higher test scores. We also hope to share details of this implementation that all teachers can learn from and can implement on a teacher to student level or on a larger scale. We hope all can benefit from the monumental work being done in our smallest state.

The overarching goal for GEMS-Net is to marshal the resources of the local districts and the University to create an effective STEM pipeline encouraging all citizens to become critical consumers of scientific information, to engage in public discourse on science related issues, and to become lifelong learners. The organization has been in existence for over 15 years starting with a National Science Foundation systemic reform grant awarded in 1996 and is one of the longest sustained science education projects in the country.

Professional Development Plan

Over the past 15 years, GEMS-Net has provided professional development for 2,251 teachers, principals, and administrators. Superintendents agree to send their teachers for a set number of PD days annually. New teachers, or teachers who switch grade levels, must attend three full days of PD, one day per module. Substitute coverage is an expense supported by districts. Most other teachers attend one PD day per year. Superintendents and principals are also offered two days of professional development annually. These trainings are not mandatory but are well attended. In addition to providing daylong PD sessions to hundreds of educators, they conduct coaching sessions in classrooms of nearly all of their 53 schools yearly.

Caroline Stabile, a science education specialist for GEMS-Net describes the unique features of their professional development model:
Our professional development is grounded in the context of the classroom. Our teachers really value this aspect of our program. We know from experience and research that the most effective professional development is professional development that is specifically relevant to the curriculum that teachers will teach. In all of our sessions we engage teachers with the instructional materials that they will be using. This affords them the opportunity to become familiar and confident with the physical components of the curriculum. We also provide teachers time to develop their content knowledge in conjunction with the instructional strategies they’ll be using in the classroom. One of the ways that we ensure the quality of our professional development is by involving scientists and engineers in the sessions. This helps us show the accuracy of the curriculum’s conceptual development and also gives teachers a glimpse into the practices of scientists and engineers. Part of our leadership team for every session is a practicing teacher leader who is very familiar with the curriculum. This brings credibility and practicality that our teachers really appreciate.

University professors help the program in numerous ways. They join the curriculum trainings for an hour or two to lend the scientist perspective. They support the content knowledge development and also can lend advice about the application of any lessons to current local practices in science. Over the last 15 years and again recently, the partnering scientists worked with GEMS-Net staff to review potential new curricular materials. The most recent review was to find a program that best supports the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The partner scientists focused on the strength of the science for each program under consideration. Ultimately their professional opinion helped GEMS-Net staff advocate that all nine districts adopt FOSS Third Edition and to move away from their current hybrid program that includes FOSS and other resources.

This partnership is mutually beneficial. At every training the URI scientists are seeing excellent pedagogy modeled and as a result, many of the URI professors have confirmed that GEMS-Net educators have directly influenced their practice. They are incorporating more hands-on science and sense-making strategies into their own class structure at the university level.

Teacher leaders, practicing teachers who are very knowledgeable about specific modules, join every module training. They bring a lot of credibility to the trainings because they have expertise about the module and are currently classroom teachers in the trenches. GEMS-Net leaders know that after one full year out of the classroom they begin to loose touch with the pulse of the classroom. As professional development providers, they are aware that they’ve been out of the classroom for many years and sometimes may try to promote something that does not fit within the reality of the school day. Practicing teachers are in every workshop and are encouraged to speak about their direct experiences with things that work because they have tried them and can share effective strategies for dealing with how things will really work in the classroom.

Another component of the GEMS-Net program is that it has full-time Teachers in Residence. These teachers come out of the classroom for two years, receive extensive training, attend most teacher trainings in supportive roles, and help out in a variety of ways. They receive a thorough orientation to the K–8 curriculum and when they return to their schools, they become the “go-to” people in their districts. Several of the current superintendents, district leaders, and principals in the nine GEMS-Net districts served as Teachers in Residence at one time.

GEMS-Net team members emphasize research-based practices in everything they do. “Ongoing professional development” is promoted as essential in almost every research article about improving pedagogy. Although many tout the benefits of this approach, in reality this practice is virtually non-existent. It takes money, time, and commitment. The GEMS-Net organization is able to provide authentic ongoing PD to educators in multiple formats: summer institutes, workshops during the academic year, district learning communities, leadership sessions, and in-classroom coaching. A few weeks ago a GEMS-Net teacher came into a workshop and said, “This is the 27th full-day GEMS-Net PD I’ve been to and I am happy to be here and am ready to learn.” The organization receives almost daily emails from teachers and principals who see GEMS-Net staff as partners in education. PD is ongoing for all teachers whether they expected it or not. Many teachers are eager to come to PD sessions, they are confident that they are going to develop the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the context and reality of their own teaching situation.


GEMS-Net has had multiple opportunities to demonstrate its effectiveness and has shown success by tracking student scores on the state science assessment. Graph 1 and Graph 2 [see page 8] show how the students who receive support from the GEMS-Net project compare with students from similar socioeconomic schools on the state science test over the course of six years for grade four and grade eight. The results are statistically significant.

A URI research project assessed teachers’ science content knowledge and fidelity of inquiry practices. It found that teachers in GEMS-Net districts were more likely to teach accurate content and to use the practices recommended by educational policy and research. The project involved a 14-member expert panel of superintendents, principals, state education officers, and university professors and scientists who reviewed 81 videos of lessons. The comparison of data between teachers with kit materials and an ongoing professional development program versus those without were significant.

Graphs 3 and 4 show the percent accuracy of GEMS-Net teachers’ practices and content knowledge compared to teachers outside the GEMS-Net districts. Graph 3 is based on data published in the article titled, Factors influencing science content accuracy in elementary inquiry science lessons. (Nowicki, Sullivan-Watts, Shim, Young, & Pockalny 2013).

How did participating schools achieve these higher performance indicators? All stakeholders, including superintendents, principals, and teachers, make a commitment to supporting effective practices, such as teaching science four to five days per week. Guidance is provided to teachers about how the five days can be used. Most often two days are active hands-on sessions; another two days focus on teaching students to communicate their sense making and/or reading informational texts related to active learning; and the fifth day may be used for reflection and/or assessment.

Trends of Grade 4 Student Scoring Proficiency on the NECAP Test

Graph 1

Trends of Grade 8 Student Scoring Proficiency on the NECAP Test

Graph 2

Several years ago GEMS-Net principals requested information about how to look for evidence of effective practices as well as how to identify teachers who need additional support. GEMS-Net dedicated time during principal workshops to determine what to look for in classrooms that exemplified evidence of non-use, or educators who are slow to get started. Some indicators of educators who may need encouragement were listed, and included things such as unopened kits in the hallways, perfectly organized kit boxes, and science notebooks that all look the same—examples of simply copying down what the teacher said. GEMS-Net trainers help teachers to dig deeper to see independent thinking by incorporating the use of sentence frames such as, “I think this happens because…” or “It reminds me of…because…” These are examples of frames that lead to diverse notebook entries that help teachers see what students are thinking and are clues to leaders of excellent science pedagogy in action.

Rhode Island was the first state to adopt NGSS, and the integration of Common Core and NGSS makes a lot of sense. Reading and writing are information-centered activities. When students read and write about familiar science information they are invested. GEMS-Net trainers teach educators how to teach expository writing. Similar to the learning cycle of the investigation they have four phases of teaching students to communicate. Students begin by talking a lot, then teachers model the writing process, then some more talking and processing, and finally students write. Most of the expository writing that students do is in science, and teachers are finding the writing process to be so effective they are now using it in all subjects. Teachers are instructed to be thoughtful about what they ask students to write about and to make sure it is based on what they know about how children learn. The integration of writing throughout the whole FOSS Third Edition program aligns well with the goals and aspirations of the GEMS-Net team.

Teachers in GEMS-Net Districts Deliver Lessons with Greater Scientific Accuracy

Graph 3. Nowicki, B.L., & Sullivan-Watts, B.K., Shim, M.K., Young, B.J., & Pockalny, R. 2013. “Factors Influencing Science Content Accuracy in Elementary Inquiry Science Lessons.” Research in Science Education, 43(3):1135-1154.

Inservice and Preservice Teachers in GEMS-Net outscore non-GEMS-Net on Inquiry

Graph 4. Based on Figure 1 from Sullivan-Watts, B.K., Nowicki, B.L., Shim, M.K., & Young, B.J. 2013. “Sustaining Reform-Based Science Teaching of Preservice and Inservice Elementary School Teachers.” Journal of Science Teacher Education, 24(5):879-905.

FOSS in the Classroom

GEMS-Net staff coach their teachers to do certain things with every active FOSS session. Teachers help students analyze the focus question as it is introduced, asking the children questions such as, “Are there any special science terms that we need to make sure we understand before we answer the question?” They regularly ask, “How can we use these materials to find the answer to our question?” Teachers are also advised to not use the student sheets, but to instead ask students, “How can we organize our data in our notebooks so that another student or scientist can understand what we observed?” Science lessons differ from lesson to lesson but all lessons include engagement with a focus question, active exploration with materials, shared reflection to make meaning of data, and application to apply learning to a bigger picture. Staff encourage teachers to spend a second day with every active investigation, offering students more opportunity to think, talk, listen, and write about the lesson. Separating the days helps students adjust their expectations and behaviors so that they can get more activity on the first day and more focused talking and writing on the second day. The process of learning to communicate science and engineering understanding uses strategies developed by Betsy Fulwiler (Writing in Science, 2007).

Students exploring air pressure

Students explore the power of air pressure as they investigate the fountain system from the FOSS Air and Weather Module.


The districts generally have three expenses. The first is curriculum materials, including purchase and a refurbishment or lease plan. Second is the GEMS-Net membership fee, which includes all professional development for all teachers, principals, and other staff (such as music, art, physical, and special educators). It includes mandatory workshops and classroom coaching. Finally, the districts commit to mandatory workshops for all teachers and cover the cost of substitutes for participating teachers.

In conclusion, GEMS-Net and FOSS share many core beliefs. Most importantly we understand that implementation has a beginning but no end, nor does it have direction—neither top down nor bottom up. To be successful an implementation plan must be guided by all stakeholders. One sure sign of effective implementation in GEMS-Net districts is that the teachers come to mandatory PD sessions and so do the principals and even the superintendents. Some districts joined GEMS-Net because the superintendent thought it was the right thing to do, whereas other districts came in because the teachers advocated for it. Regardless, all the educators come to embrace the thoughtful well-designed curriculum and entire GEMS-Net program because partners are supported in understanding and utilizing the curriculum. Most GEMS-Net educators “buy in” when they see the effect on students, whether that effect is visible in test scores or in the students’ pure joy when they shout out, “I discovered something!” Implementation is hard work and is much more effective when the time frame is at least a five-year plan. School systems are in continual reform, teachers come and go, administrations come and go, policies come and go, new research informs our thinking about practice, and even science makes new discoveries. Implementation needs to be open-ended. Sara Sweetman reflects,

When I look back at 17 years of GEMS-Net implementation I see a snow ball rolling down an endless hill gathering snow in the form of expertise, experience, and knowledge as it goes. Looking downhill while riding the snowball can be scary. We are beginning to embrace NGSS which adds another color to our implementation spectrum. Together with the FOSS Third Edition, our village of dedicated educators, and our sturdy partnership with the university and the school districts, we will continue to bridge the gap between research and practice to reach our goal of a K–16 STEM pipeline.

The values embraced by GEMS-Net are ones that FOSS admires and hopes can be replicated in other states. FOSS is honored to be a part of the impact GEMS-Net continues to have on STEM education.