Bringing Choice and Connection to GEMS Middle School

This year, the Middle School at GEMS is starting a new initiative to increase opportunities to build relationships and connections during our lunch and wellness time. Each week, students will have choices for their recess or wellness with supervised activities like the walking path, team games, yoga, or dance. Then lunchtimes for groups and clubs to play and explore together just like Art Club, Technology Club, Student Council, and board games. Students will still have the option to choose a traditional cafeteria lunch and open recess in their choices. 

How does this work? Each Wednesday, students will have a menu of options to choose from for the following week. Students will select their preferred choices and opportunities to explore the following week. These groups are fluid so they can try different options each week.

This also enables us to reduce the size of students that are eating together which will hopefully help us stay safe and healthy.  Most clubs will meet in classrooms with groups far less than a normal classroom size.

We are excited about bringing more options to our students and see how they connect with others and find new interests and opportunities to explore! 

This blog was written by:

Julie Conrad is currently Principal of Georgia Middle School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow her on Twitter @JulieConradVT

THE FWSU Story: GEMS Students Use STEM Problem Solving Methods

STEM is an interdisciplinary and applied approach that keeps students engaged and learning through a “plan, design, and improve” method of solving a problem. Throughout this flow students apply their current knowledge, build and test their thinking, and then make improvements from information they’ve attained. 

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The incorporation of these content areas along with “problem-solving” questions provides a great learning opportunity for students that becomes engaging, collaborative, and thought-provoking.

In Georgia, teachers work exclusively with their STEM coach to plan and collaborate on the implementation and cross cutting approach to embedding all disciplines. 

Here, 4th graders work to answer the question, “How to create an earthquake resistant building incurring the least amount of damage.”

To test their thoughts…..Their structures will undergo this earthquake test:

Many modifications to existing structures occurred as students discussed why structures failed and how they could make improvements. 

Steve Emery is the Elementary Principal of Georgia Elementary Middle School. He is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY.

The FWSU Story: Do you Mindstorm? We do!

In fifth grade at BFA Fairfax, every student completes a 6-7 week Lego Mindstorms robots unit. This opportunity grew from the makerspace that was created by Rhonda Siemons, Kendra Myers, Victoria Reynolds and Sandy Brown in 2016 with the encouragement and support from then FWSU Superintendent, Ned Kirsch and current elementary principal, Tom Walsh. The makerspace was designed to meet the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) standards for all students in grades 3-5. One of the resources used to help students learn were Lego Mindstorms EV3’s. We are fortunate to have enough kits available so that students can work in pairs with one kit. The kits were obtained through grants, one of them being the STEM Challenge Initiative, Inc. abbreviated as SCI. The goal of the SCI board is to provide affordable and meaningful STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) educational opportunities for the communities in Franklin and Grand Isle Counties. It is a great resource for educators.

By working with the robots, from building to programming them, the students learn to investigate problems and find possible solutions. In addition to content specific skills, essential transferable skills such as collaborating and communicating are learned and practiced. From the first lesson on through to the end, students have to understand and interpret two-dimensional learning to create three-dimensional robots. Troubleshooting and perseverance is the name of the game. Mathematical concepts such as estimating and measuring distance, time, and speed are practiced. Fifth grade students will also be programming using Mindstorm EV3’s as part of their Starbase program in the Spring.

Each trimester, one class works with the Mindstorms for an hour a week for 6-7 weeks. Lessons are co-taught by both Sandy Brown and Rhonda Siemons. Students are excited for the “Mindstorm Day” to come. They assemble the robot together and by the end of the unit are programming it to do their bidding (within reason). The hour goes by quickly because students are engaged and challenged. 

In the new configuration of grades 5-8, we are grateful to Sandy Brown for growing this wonderful opportunity and expanding it into BFA Fairfax Middle School. When I asked Ms. Brown to to share a little about herself, she offered the following (next time you see her, please thank Sandy for all that she does-and has done for students over the years): 

“Over a 24 year time span, I have taught in grades 3-8, with 5th grade being the one I have taught the longest. I have a  master’s degree in science education. I lived in Fairfax with my husband and two daughters for 30 years, both daughters graduated from BFA. Our family has grown to include 2 son-in-laws and 2 grandchildren with one on the way. My husband and I now live in Winooski. I am so glad I can still be in Fairfax five days a week. Teaching has provided me with the special opportunity to be with children and work in science and social studies, two subjects that I absolutely love.”

Justin Brown is the Principal at BFA Fairfax Middle School is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY.

THE FWSU STORY: BFA Fairfax’s Sandy Brown Honored as a Statewide Leader in STEM Education

This week, across the nation, schools and communities are celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week. At BFA Fairfax, we are also celebrating and today we want to honor our very own Sandy Brown. For those of you who know Sandy, you know how much she loves teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Recently, her love and commitment to teaching were recognized both locally and nationally. She received two honors for her implementation of STEM work in her fifth-grade classroom at BFA.   Sandy was recognized at the STEM Challenge Initiative (SCI) Third Annual STEM Recognition Night in St. Albans.

In addition, she was also featured in a recently published book, Engineering in Elementary STEM Education. The book features teachers from New England and builds on the work of the Boston Museum of Science team that has spent 15 years developing elementary engineering curricula.  Sandy’s work is part of a comprehensive introduction for elementary educators on how to integrate engineering into their classroom, school, or district in age-appropriate, inclusive, and engaging way.


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Sandy Brown, STEM Educator


Sandy’s work also continues to evolve. Earlier this year, Sandy applied for and received a STEM Challenge Initiative (SCI) grant to purchase Mindstorm EV3 Robot kits for her classroom. The kits allowed her to facilitate the development of computational thinking skills with her students.  Through a series of challenges, students applied their newly acquired skills for to learn how to program.  Here is a link to a previous blog post, THE FWSU STORY: Innovation with Lego Mindstorm EV3’s featuring her work with her students.


Sandy and her students presented the class’s accomplishments, including a demonstration of their programming skills, at the SCI award ceremony mentioned above. You can read more about the presentation in an article featured in the Saint Albans Messenger: Budding Scientists, Teachers Recognized.

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Congratulations, Sandy Brown!!!!

THE FWSU STORY: BFA Preschoolers Engage in STEM

Every day in preschool we work to integrate academic content and skills into our classroom. We believe that every interaction with our students is an opportunity for learning. Students are constantly learning through guided play, group activities, and one-to-one interactions with staff members. Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) activities are particularly engaging to our young learners. Recently, our class participated in a STEM lesson. The task was for students to identify, count, draw, and build a home so that all of their family could fit inside.

Recently, our class participated in a STEM lesson. The task was for students to identify, count, draw, and build a home so that all of their family could fit inside.

The activity prompted the children to think about their family individually and identify similarities/differences among their peers as we begin to build our classroom community. Guided conversations gave students time to share, reflect, and organize their ideas. We used Popsicle sticks to represent individual family members and help children work on counting skills.

Many of the children initially built long rows of blocks or tall tower. The people could fit beside or on top but not inside. The children were prompted again to build a home that could fit all of their family. Some children knew right away and set to work on building a structure that was tall and had an open center, while others tried multiple times or even make the decision to come back or revisit it later. Problem-solving, knowledge of spatial relationships, and the ability to attend and persist all played a role in the support each student required. Working in small groups created opportunities for flexible learning pathways and allowed students time to conceptualize at their own pace.

The Vermont Early Learning standards guide curriculum decisions. Data is collected to meet assessment objectives from Teaching Strategies Gold, an observation based assessment, are used to provide students with a rigorous curriculum that is both engaging and challenging. A play-based embedded learning approach gives students multiple opportunities to work towards meeting objective at a developmentally appropriate and individual pace. This multi-step activity presented many opportunities to observe and document student work. The project-based activity overlapped in eight developmental and academic domains and set the stage for future individual learning opportunities.

Kristie French

Kristie French is an Early Childhood Educator at BFA Fairfax

BFA Fairfax Students Participate in Manufacturing Day


On Wednesday, five Grade 9 students participated in National Manufacturing Day (MFG) with their teacher Gabe Grant. The students joined peers from three other area high schools and spent the day at Global Foundries in Essex (former IBM facility). Global Foundries manufactures integrated circuits in high volume.

The students were exposed to a variety of experiences while attending MFG. The day began with a tour of the Fab. A Fab is the what the microelectronics industry calls a semiconductor fabrication plant where devices such as integrated circuits are manufactured. This tour was the first time students under 18 were allowed to visit the clean room areas in the Essex plant.

After the tour of the Fab, students worked together on a design challenge led by Global Foundries engineers. The challenge was less about engineering and more about the skills needed to work in the high-tech industry, or in any industry after high school. These skills, known as transferable skills in our schools, are:

  • Clear and Effective Communication
  • Creative and Practical Problem-Solving
  • Informed and Integrative Thinking
  • Responsible and Involved Citizenship
  • Self Directions Scoring Criteria


Our students then had the good fortune of attending a “science fair” that included engineers from Global Foundries in both VT and NY, as well engineers from other local manufacturing companies. The theme of the event was built on the Global Foundries philosophy that leading-edge manufacturing operations must be both highly efficient and extremely flexible to deliver optimal results. The concepts of providing differentiated manufacturing services rooted in the values of speed, accuracy, and agility were highlighted. Lessons for all of students and schools that change occurs and occurs quickly in the world outside of schools. Preparing our students for this world is essential.


During lunch, BFA students also had the opportunity to meet and speak with young engineers about careers. And they heard a presentation from Vermont Technical College about how they could access VTC programs beginning in high school. FWSU schools have been working hard over the last six years to improve our focus on STEM. We now have STEM programs in all of our elementary schools. This year we launched innovation labs in all of our buildings. FWSU has again been designated an Apple Distinguished Program and we have developed a new partnership with the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematics Sciences.


There are some early signs that our efforts are paying off, but we still have lots of work in front of us. This visit by our students is a continued step in our process to address the skills our students need to be successful after graduation.

“The most important point from the visit is the idea that science is for everyone. We hope kids saw that problems come in all shapes and sizes, but the common theme is solving all of them with the scientific method. We need to make clear that science isn’t just for scientists…it’s for anyone, and the basic pattern of the scientific method can be used on almost any problem. This is basically identical to the process we use to solve all kinds of problems…from the simplest problems of creating efficient manufacturing environments all the way up to the tough ones like moving from an electronic world to a photonic one. I like to summarize it like this…fits on one hand!:

1) Observe Problem
2) Develop Hypothesis
3) Conduct Experiment
4) Analyze Results
5) Take Action”
Jeff Mailing
Process Integration Engineering RF Technology Development Team

Target 4 – Engaged Community Partners  – FWSU staff and students engage in authentic learning opportunities with local, regional, state, and global partners to make a difference in their community, state, and world.

Indicators of Success for this Goal – Students pursue interests and opportunities, challenge convention, and make positive contributions in their community, state, and world.

Action Step -Develop global partnerships for innovative learning opportunities.

BFA Fairfax’s Innovation Lab to Spark Authentic Learning Challenges

By Rhonda Siemons, Sandy Brown, Kendra Myers, and Victoria Minor


Science and technology spaces (classrooms, labs, maker spaces, design studios, and project spaces) need to be designed to prepare future generations of integrative problem-solvers with the purpose of inspiring students to learn, explore, and discover in order to develop a deep understanding and appreciation of how to solve authentic problems.

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Starbase 2

Our current Science and Social Studies teachers in Grades 3, 4 and 5 have been challenged with redesigning their three classrooms to support our BFA Innovative initiative. These spaces will include a Digital & Thinking/Creating Space, Engineering Construction/Deconstruction Space and a Prototype Testing & Whole Group Activity Space.   

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Vision:  In society, scientific literacy and technical competency are essential for every citizen to have in order to understand the problems facing the planet and to participate successfully in the work world.  BFA’s Elementary Innovation Space is an exciting initiative where students will develop their communication, problem solving, creativity, perseverance and collaboration skills through authentic learning challenges.

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The teachers along with support from Rhonda Siemons, our Technology Integration Specialist,  have been actively researching what other successful institutions have done. They recently visited Woodstock Elementary’s STEM Lab, Starbase, and the UVM FABLAB.  These teachers along with the new BFA Ninth Grade Academy teachers are in the early stages of forming a partnership with UVM’s Engineering Department where members of their staff have agreed to support our initiative.  In addition to supporting our team of teachers, college students will serve as mentors to our BFA students.

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To borrow UVM’s philosophy around their new STEM building: “The (grades 3-5 space) needs to be highly flexible, rapidly adaptable, and infinitely reconfigurable – to accommodate changing needs, evolving priorities, and new opportunities.”  It is our belief that we will become an even more successful school by making science, engineering, math, technology the foundation for learning history and literacy.

UVM, The Case for STEM –  “The STEM Complex we envision is not extravagant, it is essential. It is not isolating, it is engaging. It is not boastful, it is optimistic.”

Fletcher Students Engineer Creativity at STEM Night

Students in Fletcher had an opportunity to showcase their skills in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math last week at STEM Night 2016. The annual event, coordinated by STEM Teacher Leader Denette Locke, included presentations and displays by students, instant engineering challenges before a live audience, and exhibits by community partners. STEM Night also served as a showcase for the school’s work on communication proficiencies this year.

Preschooler Gabriel Webb, and his mom, observe Red Wiggler Worms in a habitat created by the preschoolers. The preschoolers have been learning all about worms through literature and hands-on activities. Their STEM Night display included observation journals, clay worms, three live worm habitats, books, a (candy) worm tasting station, and a sensory table with rubber worms and coffee grounds.

“STEM Night is a fantastic celebration of the higher-order skills our students use in science, technology, engineering, math and communication. It is also jam-packed with student-centered learning and leadership, all rolled into one event,” STEM Teacher Leader Denette Locke said. 

Many lessons leading to STEM Night included the use of the Engineering Design Process, which focuses on starting with a question about the problems or constraints of the situation, imagining possible solutions, planning for the task, creating a solution and improving the solution.

“It is essential that our students know how to apply this process to a variety of problems,” Locke said. “When we focus on teaching students a consistent approach to engineering design, they learn the tools to face any situation. It’s different than solely focusing on content, which might limit their ability to tackle new and different situations. Here, they have a formula for any scenario.”


The event was also a culminating activity for this year’s school-wide work on communication proficiencies. Specifically, teachers have focused on supporting students in demonstrating proficiency in the area of clear and effective communication, including the use of organized and purposeful communication and using evidence and logic appropriately.

“The school’s year-long focus on the transferable skill of effective communication was evident at STEM Night,” FWSU Director of Curriculum Linda Keating said. “I was so impressed by students’ awareness of how important it is to communicate and apply content and skills in a way that really made their learning ‘visible.’ The students’ confidence, enthusiasm, and joy in presenting their projects was a clear testament to Fletcher’s commitment to STEM-based, student-centered learning and clear and effective communication.”

Displays throughout the school focused on civil engineering (force and motion), acoustical engineering (bird calls), bioengineering (nature and biology), aerospace engineering (designing a parachute and cleaning up an oil spill), agricultural engineering (sheep to shawl project) and chemical engineering (designing the perfect playdough).


Several engineering “instant challenges” took center stage in the gym during the evening event.

“The goal of the instant challenges was to have fun and think logically and reasonably on the fly,” Locke said. “We know they have the skills. This was their chance to apply them in a setting that involves just a little risk-taking.” The challenges were timed and student worked in teams.

“I like having fun and I like science,” fifth grader Elise Towle said of the reason she chose to sign up for the evening’s instant engineering challenge. “We had to create a structure that would hold fifty pennies three inches off the table using pipe cleaners and a cup. We had to work together as a team. We tried hard and we got it done, but it just didn’t work to hold the pennies. We learned what we would do differently next time. That’s what good engineers do. They redesign when something doesn’t work.”

Fifth grader Elise Towle participates in an engineering "instant challenge" in front of a live audience as part of STEM Night.
Fifth grader Elise Towle participates in an engineering “instant challenge” in front of a live audience as part of STEM Night.

Several community partners also set up displays at STEM Night. The Society of Women Engineers, StarBase, the Four Winds Nature Program, Pinbox 3000, a working pinball machine and drones were just a few.

Fifth grader David Reardon flies one of the school's five drones used in fifth and sixth grade science.
Fifth grader David Reardon flies one of the school’s five drones used in fifth and sixth grade science.

Families who attended the event left with a variety of free science and math materials to engage in STEM learning at home, including games, take home engineering challenges, and the Time For Kids Big Book of Science Experiments

Third grader Magnus Riggs and his dad, Tucker, complete a home engineering challenge together over the weekend.
Third grader Magnus Riggs and his dad, Tucker, complete a home engineering challenge together over the weekend.

Target: (1) Leadership – FWSU Students and staff lead innovative, personalized learning opportunities, both locally and globally. (2) Flexible Learning Environments – FWSU maximizes flexible learning environments by redefining the school day, promoting learning experiences that extend beyond the classroom, and fostering creativity, innovation, and personalized learning opportunities for all.

Indicators of Success: (1) Student and staff leaders innovate and take risks when faced with new challenges. (2) Students and staff design and implement plans together. (3) Students and staff lead as engaged and responsible citizens. (4) The school calendar and school day is flexible and responsive to the needs of students. (5) Students engage in answering authentic questions and solving problems in collaborative settings.

Action Steps: (1) Design multiple avenues for students and staff to lead, advocate, and serve within the school and community. (2) Ensure students take a leadership role in their learning using rich, authentic questions, problems they identify, and diverse resources to formulate solutions. (3) Shift teacher roles from director of teaching to facilitator of learning. (4) Demonstrate learning habits, communication, and problem-solving skills necessary for collaborative learning and leadership. (5) Provide students with access to content, resources, and methods for learning beyond the school day and beyond the school walls. (6) Develop opportunities for students to demonstrate transferable skills in authentic settings.



Christopher Dodge is the Principal of Fletcher Elementary School and is a regular contributor to the FWSU Blog. You can follow him on Twitter @FletcherFalcon

STEM Learning Continues at GEMS

Target 1. Student Centered Learning: FWSU students will engage in personalize learning involving collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creative learning opportunities.

Action Step: Highlight, create and model innovative learning opportunities that promote collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creativity for students and staff.

Indicator of Success: Students and staff will apply existing knowledge to create original works as a means of personal or group expression.



STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.


GEMS-stem7STEM is an interdisciplinary and applied approach that keeps students engaged and learning through a “plan, design, and improve” method.




Teachers work exclusively with their STEM coach to plan and collaborate the implementation and cross-cutting approach to embedding all disciplines.


Students love STEM!  



For more information about STEM, read this article.

Engineering Science in Fletcher

Target 1. Student Centered Learning – FWSU students will engage in personalized learning involving collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creative learning opportunities.

Action Step – Highlight, create and model innovative learning opportunities that promote collaborative inquiry, problem solving and creativity for students and staff.

Indicators of Success – Students and staff will apply existing knowledge to create original works as a means of personal or group expression.

In June 2013, the Vermont Department of Education adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, commonly referred to as NGSS. Last year, teachers throughout Vermont familiarized themselves with the NGSS, which now represent the foundation of all science instruction in the state and beyond. Designed collaboratively by representatives from 26 states and a team of 42 writers, the NGSS have been adopted by a dozen states and the District of Columbia.


Prior to the NGSS, Vermont teachers used the Grade Expectations for Vermont’s Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities to guide science instruction and as the basis on which student assessments were created. With the transition to NGSS, student assessments will also change from the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, commonly referred to as SBAC. The SBAC assessments are completed online and require students and schools to be prepared with the skills and technology to be successful with this new testing format.

The transition from our State Standards to the NGSS represents several cultural shifts including a substantially increased interconnectedness between science and other subjects and concepts such as technology, engineering, mathematics, reading, writing, critical thinking and more. Previous standards have been less clear about the importance of this integration and helping students realize the relationships between subjects. Additionally, the NGSS aims to create a strong connection between science instruction and the real world. The NGSS also strongly emphasize engineering skills across grade levels and throughout content areas.


The NGSS are a set of standards and skills that children need to know and be able to do by the time they complete a particular grade level. They are not a curriculum. It is the job of skilled and trained teachers to design curriculum and instruction that supports students in their quest to achieve the rigorous NGSS and develop a love of science inquiry. In Fletcher, teachers have designed both curriculum maps and calendars that guide their implementation of the new standards at each grade level and inform families of the rigorous work happening in classrooms. These grade level documents are available on the Fletcher School website by clicking here.

The NGSS emphasize science as a coherent K-12 subject. While students learn varied content and details from year to year, they frequently revisit and build upon previous concepts in order to complete a progression that, by the end of high school, provides the overarching skills and knowledge to process complex material, gain an overall understanding of scientific literacy and apply content learning to real life.

unnamedEngineering and technology are receiving a new level of attention in the NGSS. The Engineering Design Process supports students in identifying and researching a real-life problem, brainstorming solutions, choosing and testing a model or prototype, communicating a solution and redesigning as necessary. Technology resources allow students to research and interact with global resources in countless new and exciting ways.

“Science and engineering are needed to address major world challenges such as generating sufficient clean energy, preventing and treating diseases, maintaining supplies of food and clean water, and solving the problems of global environmental change that confront society today. These important challenges will motivate many students to continue or initiate their study of science and engineering,” the NGSS authors wrote.

Vermont’s adoption of the NGSS also aligns with the ongoing implementation of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English Language Arts, providing opportunities for students and teachers to integrate and develop comprehensive learning across content areas.

Fletcher teachers continue to dedicate professional development time to the use of the NGSS. Most recently, Teacher Leader Denette Locke facilitated staff meetings that helped teachers understand the links between science and the other various content areas.


“The idea is integration,” Locke said. “Math class should not just be 10:00 to 11:00. Students have a natural curiosity that blends subjects and that curiosity is just naturally there. We’re really teaching everything all day long and kids love that.”