NATICK, Mass. (Sept. 2, 2014) -- Oil spills, crime scene investigations and DNA sampling. Usually, these words would send an organization into a tailspin, but this is just another day of summer camp for Massachusetts middle school students.This summer the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine once again sponsored the Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science, or GEMS, program at Natick Soldier Systems Center here. The GEMS program is an extracurricular summer science education program that enables middle-school-aged students to experience science in a real laboratory setting.GEMS has a multidisciplinary educational agenda, and students take part in grade-appropriate, hands-on activities relating to science, engineering, mathematics, computational sciences, computational biology, biomedical sciences, chemistry and biology.Capt. Carrie Quinn, the GEMS lab champion for USARIEM, said her main goal for GEMS is to get students enthusiastic about science and math while fostering a sense of community."Our main objective was to take science and math out of the classroom and put it in a real-world setting," said Quinn, who is also a research physiologist for USARIEM. "The kids got to see things here that they wouldn't be able to experience anywhere else. They get to truly see how science and math are everywhere -- even in the Army."Now in its fourth year, the program has grown from four sessions with 100 children to six programs, GEMS I, II and III, with nearly 200 students in attendance. Each GEMS session allows students to return the following summer, slowly building on the lessons learned the summer before and encouraging future scientific leaders.
Advanced high school- and college-aged students called "Near-Peer Mentors" lead the GEMS programs, and serve as role models for the students. Near-Peer Mentors completed extensive training at a science boot camp prior to the student interns' arrival. The mentors learned how to conduct and teach the GEMS experiments."The Near-Peer Mentors are in charge of the curriculum and instruction for the summer GEMS program; they are the driving force behind this program," Quinn said.While exploring the GEMS program this year, the students investigated problem-solving, estimation, water properties, physics/forces of motion, forensics, and even got to see a helicopter land.Collin Newman, a middle school student, participated in the GEMS program. He said his favorite parts of GEMS were the hands-on experiments he doesn't normally get to do in the classroom."You get a big experience in science," Newman said. "Plus, it is really fun. I like the hands-on experiments it takes to do GEMS."The Army has a long history of recognizing that a scientifically and technologically literate citizenry is this country's best hope for a secure, rewarding and successful future."We created the GEMS program as part of this realization that science and mathematics (are) important to instill in the younger generations for future prosperity," Quinn said.GEMS began as a single program at then-Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in 2005, and has expanded to 12 programs across the major Army research installations, including the one at USARIEM, which runs annually in July and August.