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Celebrating 20 Years of STEM Education in Rhode Island with a Science Expo

Dr. Sara Sweetman, Caroline Stabile, Kelly Shea, and Stephanie Good, GEMS-Net; and Erica Beck Spencer, FOSS Curriculum Specialist
March 03, 2017 | FOSS in Schools

Science expo attendees and URI's mascot

URI's mascot joined the festivities and all volunteers wore the same shirt.

Across the country, events such as science fairs attempt to deepen students' knowledge and investment in science education. Research has demonstrated that science fairs can increase students' desire to go into the STEM fields (Sahin, 2013), but that the time-consuming process is not equitable for all students and does not reflect the work of scientists (Hampton & Licona, 2013). Most students do not have the time management, motivation, or resources needed to pull off a lengthy self-directed project. Some students get "help" from parents or other authority figures, who, in a perfect world, guide students but more often end up doing the majority of work for students. Science fairs can also lead to a false impression that science is a special event that happens occasionally and follows a lockstep set of practices, with requirements often referencing the "Scientific Method" (a one size-fits-all method that scientists don't prescribe to). So if this is true, how do we make visible to parents and to community members the science and engineering that students do every day? How do we come together to celebrate science? Some teachers host curriculum nights to showcase projects students have worked on. Some host something like a "Science Night" where parents can come to the school after hours to experience what students engage in during the school day.

In April 2016, the Guiding Education in Math and Science Network (GEMS-Net) from the University of Rhode Island (educators who partner with 47 public schools throughout the state) took this one gigantic step further. They held a GEMS-Net Family Science Expo on a Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Science Expo was free and open to the public and featured 27 activities that families could engage in together, based on the K–8 FOSS Curriculum. This expo was a big way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the URI GEMS-Net project. It was a way to showcase the work of teachers and students throughout the state and the progress STEM education has made locally in the past 20 years.

During the planning leading up to the event, the GEMS-Net staff, volunteers, and teachers didn't know what to expect and were amazed to see that over 2,000 guests—students and their families—arrived to experience multiple science and engineering investigations. The families enjoyed working together through activities students would do in school and connecting to environmental education field experiences that extend the classroom learning.

The goals of the event were to publicly celebrate the hard and productive work of teachers and students. The media often reports on the challenges and pitfalls of teaching and learning. GEMS-Net wanted to showcase the rigorous and relevant work in classrooms. This was one step in the direction to ultimately garner public support for elementary school science. An equally important goal of the event was to relate elementary school science to college and career choices. Parents and children had opportunities to investigate a variety of university majors in the STEM field and ask questions of the professors. The three-dimensional learning progressions from kindergarten though middle school were apparent. Moreover, the connections between the content, practices, and thinking that were happening in elementary and middle school were clearly aligned with the goals and activities of university science and engineering colleges. Additionally, the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA) member organizations provided a meaningful link between the active science done in school and science within the students' local community.

"We had several activities set up but two in particular drew a constant crowd: our Build a Wind Turbine and Ocean Acidification stations. There was bountiful enthusiasm from all attendees to participate, learn, and explore these science and engineering projects! Attendees were particularly excited to draw connections between the activities we provided and connections to Narragansett Bay. All in all, it was a delightful event."

—Kati Maginel, Environmental Educator

What Is GEMS-Net?

GEMS-Net, founded in 1996, is a K–16 STEM Pipeline working in partnership with 47 public schools throughout the state of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island's (URI) School of Education. Teachers in GEMS-Net districts receive ongoing professional development in STEM education through a multi-faceted approach. All teachers participate in contextualized workshops designed around the specific FOSS modules that are facilitated by GEMS-Net education specialists. University scientists, engineers, and informal educators from around the state join the workshops bringing expertise that help develop teachers' content knowledge. Classroom coaching and other supports available to teachers foster a continuous improvement in teacher practice and student learning.

Through a research study funded by the Rhode Island Foundation, GEMS-Net discovered that 77 percent of Rhode Island children surveyed in grades K–8 enjoy learning about science in school, yet only 25 percent of the same children would consider pursuing a career in science or engineering. Director Dr. Sara Sweetman and her team hypothesize that if we increase children's understanding of STEM career opportunities they may stay interested in science throughout schooling. By having URI departments provide information to students and parents about appropriate pathways, GEMS-Net hopes to connect the pipeline. The same research found that only 34 percent of children relate science from the classroom lessons to life outside of school. Through these activities and more, families and other community members will discover the rigorous learning opportunities that local public schoolchildren engage in through support from GEMS-Net.

2,000 Visitors, Staff of Four— How'd They Do It?

Even though the core GEMS-Net staff is made up of four full-time and one part-time university faculty and staff, they tapped into their much larger collaborative network to successfully meet the goals of the expo. The excitement around what is happening in the classrooms and the opportunity to share this with the public was the motivation for 200 volunteers on the day of the event, some of whom also worked behind the scenes before the event. The 50 teacher leaders collected student work and designed posters that were displayed during the event (see page 9 for a sample poster) and many of them spent the day running activities. Pre-service teachers enrolled at URI also learned the lessons and worked alongside the teacher leaders. Brittany Borkum, a preservice teacher from URI reflected on the experience, "I loved the experience of working at the GEMS-Net Expo because it was so much fun working with different and well-trained elementary school teachers as a networking experience, and working with so many students who were eager to explore science."

Science expo attendees and URI's mascot

Save the Bay brought animals and information about local habitats to share.

The event was held at the Ryan Center, an arena for public events located on the University of Rhode Island's Kingston Campus and seemed like the perfect venue for our celebration because it connected to the goal for families to see the pathway towards STEM careers and university science and engineering programs.

Having a discounted fee for the venue from the university helped keep the event free and open to the public. The event also received funding and sponsorship from a variety of sources; for example, the Dean of the School of Education from URI provided lunch for all 200 volunteers, and the Rhode Island Foundation provided transportation from the capitol city in order to increase access to the expo. Food was available for purchase for event goers through the Ryan Center food court. The GEMS-Net team will be looking for sponsorship from local businesses in the future in order to continue this as an event that is open and free for all families.

"For young students to be able to look at something in their everyday life, like [the] Sun, with new eyes, up close, and see its flaws and motion, it sparks questions and ignites the imagination. Even for the adults, it is hard to suppress that childhood joy of something new and unusual when looking at [the] Sun, directly, for the first time. If nothing else, reflecting on something 93 million miles away, a distance that takes light over eight minutes to travel, can give you pause to your everyday life. That light outside… is over eight minutes old. Add a second if it is bouncing off of [the] Moon."

—Doug Gobeille, Ph.D., Director of the URI Observatory, Department of Physics

Lynn Dougherty, principal of Wakefield Elementary School, reflected upon the event. She said,

I didn't know exactly what to expect as I walked into the Ryan Center for the GEMS-Net Science Expo. Upon entering, I was amazed at the size of the exhibit hall and the number of students and families who were there participating. I was also in awe of the staff and teachers who volunteered their time and expertise to make this event so special. As I walked from station to station, I was impressed with the level of engagement and excitement at each of the tabletop activities. I saw many families from Wakefield School there and they had such high praise for this type of community event. As I made my way outside to leave, I made sure to stop at the telescope station to take a look at the Sun, which was an amazing way to spend my time at this event.

The large open space seemed to hold the number of people really well. The layout of the event was organized by grade level. There were four large and long tables for each grade level with a life, earth, and a physical science activity from each module. Also in each grade-specific cluster of tables was a table for an environmental education organization that connected to the grade-level module. Save the Bay was one such organization that presented with touch tanks—a direct extension of the Structures of Life Module. During the school year various environmental education resources throughout the state work with GEMS-Net students on a regular basis to make connections between in-school and out-of-school experiences and opportunities.

This event truly ran without a hitch due to the collaborative nature of the program and the organization from GEMS-Net staff and interns. Weekly meetings with the staff and student interns helped to ensure tasks were covered and completed. Getting funding from businesses will allow the GEMS-Net staff to work on marketing and dissemination of information ensuring that the event is covered by local news.

As a school leader and advocate for science in school communities the GEMS-Net Expo provided a space for families to actively engage in science that students are experiencing every day in our schools. It allowed our student scientists to share their learning, interact with professionals, make connections, and ultimately have fun! The Expo elevated GEMSNet and science in our community. The only disappointment of the day was that it had to end."

Steven Morrone, Assistant Principal of Teaching and Learning, Chariho Middle School Save the Bay brought animals and information about local habitats to share.

Science expo attendee dressed up

Students could dress up in funky lab coats and other fun science attire while holding the correct sign in the photo booth area.

Nuts and Bolts

Advertising for the event happened through social media venues like Facebook and Twitter, and also through free local newspaper calendar listings. All of the students in GEMS-Net schools, approximately 16,000 students, brought home an invitation via school websites or backpack mail. The Rhode Island Foundation funded a school bus to provide Providence students transportation to the event, about a 45-minute drive away. GEMS-Net impacts approximately 16,000 students each year; many of these students came to the one-day event. Students from districts outside of GEMS-Net—and even from beyond Rhode Island's borders—also attended this event.

The university faculty were impressed by the expo and have asked for the event to become a regular occurrence. We have heard from more science departments that they would like to be a part of the event. The connection between the in-service and preservice teachers was an unexpected benefit. The in-service teachers were impressed by the involvement and enthusiasm of the preservice teachers and the preservice teachers felt that the expo afforded them a unique learning experience.

In conclusion, getting volunteers and engaged teachers was key to pulling off an event of this size. Teachers were excited to be given an opportunity to share their hard work and to show the public the work their students engage in daily. Having a committee to organize the numerous details and giving teachers specific tasks that do not take a lot of time (teachers have a lot to do!) makes the event less overwhelming and created more buy-in from teachers. This celebration was not mandatory for our teacher leaders and yet we had approximately 80% participation from this leadership group. We had one lesson from each course at each grade level, which was specific and easy to tackle. Reaching out to partners or collaborators and including all stakeholders builds community for all.

For more information about GEMS-Net, see this article.

Poster at science expo

Each life, earth, or physical science table included a poster highlighting the NGSS connections and showcasing student work or classroom photos. This poster features the FOSS Earth History Course.


  • Hampton, E., & Licona, M. (2006). Examining the Impact of Science Fairs in a Mexican-American Community. Journal of Border Educational Research, 5(1), 99–112.
  • Sahin, A. (2013). STEM clubs and science fair competitions: Effects on post-secondary matriculation. Journal of STEM Education: Innovations and Research, 14(1), 5–11. Retrieved from
  • Tortop, H. S. (2013). Science Teachers' Views about the Science Fair at Primary Education Level. Online Submission, 4(2), 56–64. Chicago.