FORT RUCKER, Ala. (June 30, 2016) -- Designing, building and launching rockets isn't a normal activity for fifth and sixth graders, but the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory had students shooting for the stars and expanding their minds.

Thousands of tons of rocket fuel might not have fueled the rockets, but the feelings were just as explosive for students who got the chance to take part in USAARL's Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program as they launched their makeshift rockets on the final day of the first week of the program at Fort Rucker Elementary School June 24.

This year's program is offered in four different curricula: planetary GEMS for fourth and fifth graders; neuroscience GEMS for sixth and seventh graders; biochemistry GEMS for eighth and ninth graders; and nanotechnology GEMS for 10th and 11th graders, according to Lori St. Onge, GEMS program coordinator.

"We bring GEMS to the community to offer extracurricular (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) outreach to children in the community," she said. "Hopefully we're able to expose the students and get them to engage in hands-on experiments that they might not be able to experience in the classroom through an open learning environment."

During the first week of GEMS, the students got the chance to learn about Earth and space science.

The children used everything from graham crackers and frosting to simulate plate tectonics, to using circuits and electronic building blocks to simulate communication between ground control and satellites.

But for many, like Kara Drilhet and Armond Loiseau, both fifth graders, it was the hands-on experiences that left them hungry for more.

"I really like science," said Drilhet. "I did this last year and it was really fun, so I wanted to do it again."

Drilhet, who aspires to be a detective when she grows up, said the process of building and launching her rocket was one of the highlights of the program.

"We had to make our rockets and we're trying to see whose can fly the highest," she said, dubbing her rocket Little Italy. "The hardest part has been putting on the fins -- it's tough to get them on there."

After the students designed and built their rockets, they were ready to be launched outside where an air pump was used to build pressure to shoot the rockets straight up into the air. This is where the students also got a lesson in trial and error, because not all designs got off the ground.

"Some of the students who got their rockets done quickly had the chance to go through the prototyping process to test and improve their rockets," said Jeanne Davis, resource teacher. "We talked about the center of gravity and pressure, and how they have to be in relation to each other to have a straight rocket path, so they take that information and try to make sure their designs are airtight."

Loiseau said he wasn't happy with his initial rocket launch, so he went back to make some tweaks.

"I needed to make changes because sometimes it wasn't working," said the aspiring engineer. "I had more fins on it so I took the extra ones off. The first time it went up, but it didn't go as high as I wanted and I think it was because of the wings on it, so I'm taking them off and hopefully it will go higher."

Rockets weren't the only things being launched through the week, as the program is designed to pique the student's interest in other STEM curricula, said St. Onge.

"We want these students to have a love of math and science," she said. "We want the children to know that engaging in different STEM activities is fun and that they can have a career in those fields if they wish to pursue that. We want to open their minds."