FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory welcomed 111 youth into its facility June 24-28 in an effort to "build the bench" for the Army, the Department of Defense and the nation with its Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program.

GEMS is a science, technology, engineering and math program sponsored by the Army Educational Outreach Program, and USAARL hosts it every year since 2011, according to Lori St. Onge, USAARL research administration manager and GEMS laboratory champion.

"We try to reach the active-duty military children populations, minorities, girls, students who would be first-year college students, English-as-a-second-language students -- we target students who might not get exposed to opportunities in STEM careers," she said. "And in doing so, it opens up to these students the avenues for a career within STEM by showing them what the Department of Defense and the Army have to offer in STEM career fields."

And with two of this year's four sessions all wrapped up, all signs point to another successful year, St. Onge added.

"Building the bench is one of the best things that we can do for the Army," she said. "By getting them interested in STEM subjects, we help grow more scientists and mentor them into becoming better than we are at what we do."

USAARL typically runs four sessions each summer, with this year's dates being June 17-21 and 24-28, and July 8-12 and 15-19, St. Onge said, with activities in different fields for four age groups.

This year's subjects included simple machines for fourth and fifth graders, forensics for sixth and seventh graders, robotics for eighth and ninth graders, and medical for 10th and 11th graders, said Amy Baker, USAARL STEM education administrator and GEMS program coordinator.

In between the Rube Goldberg machine building, DNA and hair sampling, programming of robots, experimenting with physiology and taking part in a multitude of other activities, feedback from organizers and participants alike claim success in interesting youth, like Alden Jipson, an eighth grader working on coding a robot to perform simple tasks, in STEM.

"I wasn't sure about robotics, but it's really cool once you get to know how to do it," said Jipson, who's going through GEMS for the third time. "At first, when you look at what we're doing, you're like, 'Whoa!' But then once you are taught how to do it, it's not that hard."

And the GEMS veteran said she would definitely recommend the program to her friends.

"It's really fun and you're learning, but you don't have tests like at school -- it's like a fun educational thing to do without any pressure," she said.

Jipson isn't the only participant giving GEMS a thumbs up, as Jonathan Taylor, a sixth grader and son of former USAARL commander Col. Jonathan Craig Taylor, said, "you just learn so much interesting stuff."

"A lot of things we've learned, I had no idea you would even use them for things like detective work," he said. "Like putting fabrics over fire to see different reactions, and that one dye could make a piece of clothing multiple different colors if it was made out of multiple different types of fabric."

Gabrielle Dukes, Dauphin Junior High School mathematics teacher in Enterprise and GEMS instructor, said GEMS excels at both piquing the participants' interest in a subject and teaching them useful information.

"Even the ones who really weren't super excited about robotics and struggled at the beginning, by the end, they were really excited to drive that robot around and complete tasks with it -- they really enjoyed it," she said, adding that the coding she taught had applications outside the realm of robotics. "I majored in math and I've taken computer programming classes. The robot C program we're using is really similar to C++, which is what a lot of programs use, so it gives them experience with the programming part and just seeing all the different things it takes to make a robot perform."

While USAARL is the driving force behind making GEMS happen year after year, it takes a Fort Rucker-wide team effort to make the program a success, Baker said, citing Lyster Army Health Clinic, the military police working dog section and the fire department as primary contributors to the cause.

"Our partnerships make it special, and make the USAARL and Fort Rucker GEMS program unique," she said.

One thing unique to 2019 is the GEMS program getting to use the old band building behind the USAARL building as a space of its own, and that truly made this year special, Baker said.

"It's so wonderful to have our own space this summer, so that we can truly spread out, be loud and have fun while learning -- it's just dedicated to GEMS, to STEM outreach, dedicated to who we are and what we do," she said. "The building certainly allows us to reach our goal, which is to continue to educate students from that STEM perspective. It's been amazing -- it's the first time we've had our own space for this on the USAARL campus. It's going to help with the continuation of the program and growing it if we get the space again -- it will just get better and better."

St. Onge agreed, adding that if they can keep using the space it might allow the STEM outreach effort to offer more opportunities throughout the school year.

"It's been nice because it's helped us have a dedicated space to tell students, 'OK, this is your space to innovate, this is your space to dream, to learn, to grow, to ask questions.' It's not constrained by any professional workplace parameters, and that really helps kids to be able to communicate in the way they know how to communicate and just be themselves.

"We're fortunate to have the support of so many people at USAARL and across Fort Rucker to make the program possible," St. Onge said. "It's definitely a team effort."

And that team effort is paying off, according to Baker.

"If it changes one child's life, it's worth it," she said. "I can speak confidently that it's more than one, but even if it's one, then it's absolutely worth it."