Bringing science to life

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 5:45pm
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On a perfect summer’s day, a consortium of teachers from school systems on the mainland visited Block Island to learn from its natural environment, while sharing information and ideas about science through the practice of computational thinking.

“Every time we can go, and learn, it’s important to bring what we learn back to the kids,” said Kym Bontempo, a third grade teacher at the Dunn’s Corners School in Westerly, while standing on the shoreline of the Great Salt Pond. “I came to Block Island to look at things with a fresh eye. I thought: what experience can I bring back to the classroom?”

Bontempo was one of 35 teachers from 22 schools, including two professors from the University of Rhode Island, who congregated on the island as part of the GEMS-Net leadership program. GEMS-Net stands for the Guiding Education in Math and Science Network.

The program was hosted at the Block Island School library on June 26, where it began with some exercises and concluded with a Block Island Wind Farm tour. In between were stops at Settler’s Rock to learn about birds and geology, and Andy’s Way, where Diandra Verbeyst, The Nature Conservancy’s Scientist for the Great Salt Pond, conducted a show-and-tell about marine life in the pond.

The GEMS-Net STEM plus C program, which the teachers participated in, stands for: science, technology, engineering and math. The C refers to the practice of computational thinking; using a set of problem-solving methods to arrive at solutions in the same manner as a computer. The teachers that attend GEMS-Net programs become so-called “leaders,” relaying what they learn to their colleagues in the state’s school system.

Caroline Stabile, Assistant Director of GEMS-Net at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus, said the program held on Block Island was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation. The program was founded in 1996.

“The Block Island School’s teachers make the haul across to visit with us, so I think it’s only right that we come out to Block Island,” said Stabile, who has been part of the program for 13 years. “We support teachers in science education. That’s the mission. We’re a conduit for the teachers.”

The program, she said, includes 53 Rhode Island schools in 13 districts, totaling 650 participating teachers, who serve 15,000 students. Stabile was joined by Christina Broomfield, a Teacher in Residence at URI, and a North Kingstown first-grade teacher, who helped facilitate the program.

B.I. School Principal Kristine Monje said it was the first time the program was hosted at the school, and is in keeping with its 100 year-old tradition of emphasizing science that began with the teachings of the late Elizabeth Dickens. Monje said it’s her hope that the GEMS-Net program becomes an annual routine.

“We’re hoping to promote the Block Island School” through this program, said Monje, who noted that she was “glad to show people the island,” and demonstrate how the school’s students learn about the natural environment. Monje has been employed at the school for 31 years, with the last six as principal.

Shannon Cotter Marsella, a sixth grade teacher, who helped coordinate the program’s schedule, said she was “the only middle grade science teacher” at the Block Island School. “My room is one big FOSS kit,” she said. FOSS stands for Full Option Science System, a research-based curriculum created for kindergarten through the eighth-grade.

Stabile, who informed the teachers that the program would emphasize “computational thinking” to arrive at solutions, began the forum with a PowerPoint presentation highlighting what would be discussed throughout the day’s activities. 

Stabile split the teachers into groups working on three problem-solving exercises: mirrors, towers, and a human heart model, before heading out into the field. Using four mirrors, the teachers attempted to connect a beam of light cast by a laser pointer pen. They built towers out of simple materials that could withstand a gentle breeze. And they used basic tools to construct a model of a functional human heart.

One of the highlights for the teachers was the journey down Andy’s Way to explore the marine life in the Great Salt Pond. Diandra Verbeyst and her staff cast a 130-foot long net into the water, and displayed what was caught in a bucket, which were small fish. They also netted a horseshoe crab that was tagged as part of Project Limulus, a study that is examining the crab’s ecology.

The teachers said it was a great learning experience, touring Block Island while congregating with their fellow educators. “It’s not hard to get people to come to Block Island,” said Stabile with a smile.

Jillian Potter, a preschool teacher in the Narragansett school system, said her reaction was: “Wahoo!” when she learned the GEMS-Net program would be held on Block Island. “I’ve clammed in the pond,” she said, standing at the edge of the pond. Potter noted the importance of forming a foundation rooted in the sciences for student learning at an early age.

Becca Dinerman, a preschool teacher in the North Kingstown school system, put it simply. “We’re striving to teach science lessons to students at an early age.” She said North Kingstown has a similar natural environment to Block Island, but “it’s much more beautiful out here.”

“I was so excited about the opportunity to come to Block Island,” said Cathy Knasas, a fourth-grade teacher at the Community School in Cumberland. “I’m so impressed with the Block Island School,” she said. “They get to utilize outside activities as a teaching tool. That brings biology to life.”