NATICK, Mass. (Sept. 19, 2017) -- School is back in session, and students are back to hitting the books as they learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, hopefully to develop a passion for it and pursue a job in a STEM field.The kids in the Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science, or GEMS, program at the Natick Soldier Systems Center, or NSSC, already got a head start this summer.The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, once again sponsored the GEMS program, an extracurricular summer science education program that enables students to experience science in a laboratory setting. GEMS has a multidisciplinary educational agenda, and students participate in grade-appropriate activities related to science, engineering, mathematics, computational sciences, computational biology, biomedical sciences, chemistry and biology.Maj. Joseph Kardouni, the GEMS program director for USARIEM, said one of his main goals in the GEMS program is to limit the reading and writing assignments that middle school students would typically do as part of their normal education. Budding scientists at GEMS got involved in hands-on science activities that were also applicable to real-life STEM careers."The primary goal of GEMS is to give students exposure to fun, hands-on activities centered on math and science," Kardouni said. "The hope is that the students might give stronger consideration to academic courses and careers in science, engineering and technology after their GEMS experience."In the conclusion of its seventh year, the GEMS program at USARIEM had grown to three programs -- GEMS I, II and III -- with 192 children in attendance. Each GEMS session allows students to return the following summer, slowly building on the lessons learned the summer before and encouraging the growth of future scientific leaders.Advanced high school- and college-age students called "near-peer mentors" led the GEMS programs and served as role models for the students. Prior to their arrival, near-peer mentors completed extensive training at a science boot camp, in which mentors learned how to conduct and teach GEMS experiments. "The near-peer mentors, who are high school seniors and college students, are closer in age to the GEMS students," Kardouni said. "That age proximity makes it easier for the mentors and the students to relate to one another. Plus, GEMS students may feel more at ease with younger mentors than they would with scientists similar in age to their parents or their school teachers."Kardouni mentioned that younger high school students who graduated from the GEMS program can also serve as assistant mentors. A typical day in the GEMS program consisted of such fun activities as creating chemical reactions like "elephant toothpaste;" smashing frozen gummy bears to learn about the properties of dry ice; using colorful candy in statistics problems (and trying not to eat them all); and visiting USARIEM's Bone Health Lab to learn how researchers are studying the causes of stress fractures in Soldiers and finding ways to prevent them.The kids even watched members of the Massachusetts National Guard land a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at NSSC and later toured the inside of the aircraft.Kardouni said that USARIEM continues to sponsor the GEMS program, which is part of the U.S. Army Educational Outreach Program, or USAEOP. The USAEOP has a long history of recognizing that having scientifically and technologically literate citizens is the country's best hope for a secure, rewarding and successful future.GEMS began in 2005 as a single program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The GEMS program has grown to 12 sites in eight states across major U.S. Army research installations, including USARIEM, which runs annually from July to August."The need for STEM literacy -- the ability to understand and apply concepts from STEM in order to solve our nation's most complex problems -- is growing exponentially," Kardouni said. "The GEMS program is part of USARIEM's effort to help educate the future workforce so they can positively contribute to our nation's science and technology that we use not just in hospitals, industries and universities, but also in our military."