By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterJuly 6, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- From dissecting animals to robotic roaches, one program on Fort Rucker has teens thinking outside of the box when it comes to learning.
The Gains in Education of Mathematics and Science program returned to the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory for a four-week program during the summer allowing students to get the chance to get their hands dirty by tackling robotics, coding, dissection and even a bit of entomology.
This year's program offers four different curricula of learning, including a medical module, robotics module, simple machines module and forensics module, and some of the lessons the students were taking on in the robotics module, June 28, seemed like something out of science fiction.
"What the students were doing was basically performing surgery on a roach," said Kyle Latson, GEMS mentor. "They got the chance to anesthetize them by putting them in ice water … then they had to puncture the muscles and put certain electrodes into the muscle and certain ones into the antennae, so it's basically like roach brain surgery."
After the mini surgery session and the electrodes were attached, a "backpack" was attached to the roaches that connect to the electrodes to allow a student to control the roach's movement using a phone app.
The students had to work together with the mentors in order to achieve their goals, and the activity proved to be a learning experience for both students and mentors.
"We are their teachers, friends and, most importantly, there to ensure that they're learning to the best of their abilities," said Makayla Brown, fellow mentor.
In addition to the robotic roaches, which were limited to basic movements, such as left and right, students also got the chance to code and control a robot with a bit more complexity during another session June 29.
The students began the session learning how to code their robots to perform each of the movements they wanted, which included not only moving forward, backward and side to side, but also controlling a robotic arm with a claw that they could move up and down, as well as grip to grasp items.
For Alexander Nelson, military family member, the module was a lesson that he'll be able to take with him as he continues his education through school.
Although only 14 years old, Nelson said he hopes to one day pursue a degree in aerospace mechanical or software engineering, and GEMS is helping him on his way to reaching his goals.
"I've always like engineering and robotics, and I've taken [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] classes the last two years, so I thought this would be fun to do and help further my knowledge," he said. "I think this helps in the career field I want to get into.
"We got to learn about coding, and the coding was fun because we got to learn how to make robots, but it was more about the coding," he continued. "We had to connect the controllers to them, and code them to make them do whatever we want and not just program them to do one specific task only."
"The most difficult thing about coding is typing [the proper codes]," added Brynna Smith, fellow student. "If you get one thing wrong, it messes the whole thing up."
That's where the mentors come in, to make sure the students stay on the right track. But as much of a learning experience as the program is for the students, it's just as much a learning experience for the mentors, as well.
Brown hopes to seek a degree in psychology and she said that becoming a mentor in the GEMS program will help her to build the skills needed to pursue her degree.
"I thought this would be an amazing opportunity to practice social skills because I want to be a psychologist when I get older," she said. "Learning about people and talking to them interests me, and just the overall opportunity is great."
In addition to the experiments and hands-on learning, the students and mentors got the chance to meet and talk with medical professionals from Lyster Army Health Clinic, who visited the students to offer presentations and lectures in their respective fields, something students and mentors alike were able to benefit from.
"We have guests coming in … and we had one [gentleman] come in who works in the labs at Lyster," said Latson, who has a Bachelor's degree in biology. "I've always wanted to work in a lab, but his presentation on working in a lab has cemented that path for me. I would really love to follow the career that he has and go further with it if possible. This has really helped me find what I want to do for myself.
"This program is getting so much bigger," she added. "I really think we need to get the word out about this program because it just has so much to offer and they learn so much. It's such a great program."