USAARL makes move to virtual realm for its annual GEMS outreach program

By Jim Hughes, Fort Rucker Public AffairsJuly 2, 2020

1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Jessa McEntire, U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory near-peer mentor, films a video in which she teaches biochemistry to Gains in the Educational of Mathematics and Science students – eighth and ninth graders – by explaining the elephant toothpaste experiment they are going to do. (Photo Credit: Photo by Scott Childress) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Jacob Trimm, USAARL near-peer mentor, films a video in which he teaches nanotechnology to GEMS Students – 10th and 11th graders – about an experiment with Bucky Balls they are going to do. (Photo Credit: Photo by Scott Childress) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- The staff of the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory is ready to run the 10th iteration of its annual Gains in the Educational of Mathematics and Science program in July to more than 400 school-aged youth as part of the Army Educational Outreach program.

Working in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic creates the need to do just about everything differently this year, said Loraine St. Onge, USAARL research administration manager and GEMS laboratory champion, adding that the program is entirely virtual this year rather than taking place inside the lab.

“Our shift to a virtual setting started back when our local community was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “As we received guidance from USAACE and Fort Rucker leadership on what our future was looking like on the installation, we started making adjustments to shift to a virtual, or at-home program.

“The Army Educational Outreach Program has supported that move,” St. Onge added. “There are 20 GEMS programs across the country, and of those nine have shifted to a virtual platform for this summer. The other 11 have cancelled their programs because they have different circumstances in their communities.”

GEMS is a science, technology, engineering and mathematics outreach program that the Army Educational Outreach Program offers through its research laboratories, St. Onge said. USAARL has hosted a GEMS program at Fort Rucker since 2011.

“The goal of the program is to provide hands-on STEM experiments and exposure to the Army laboratory setting for students,” she added. “We primarily try to reach students who are underserved and underrepresented in STEM – children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children who are minorities, students who would be first-generation college students in their families, and we also try to reach students who are dependents of active-duty military. We really have a broad spectrum of participants from urban and rural backgrounds, and from different socio-economic statuses and different cultural backgrounds, as well.”

Following in the footsteps of Fort Rucker Schools, USAARL staff who make GEMS happen will use Google Classroom to make the big shift to at-home learning, said Amy Baker, STEM education administrator and GEMS program coordinator, adding that at-home kits would be issued to each child before the program starts.

While previous iterations of GEMS included making roaches into robots, parents don’t need to worry about children carting a box full of the pests home with them, St. Onge said, but added that all materials children need for the assignments and experiments, excepting traditional school supplies, are in the kits.

“For the most part, we’re able to provide them everything they need to conduct the experiments, so there shouldn’t be a major impact on them shifting to a home setting,” she said. “We’re trying to implement GEMS to as close as normal as possible, with the only difference being the students are at home.

“We see this as a great opportunity for younger siblings, or even older siblings who wouldn’t be participating in a certain module to be able to participate with their siblings, which is something we couldn’t do in the laboratory,” St. Onge added. “It really creates a wonderful opportunity to broaden our reach of who can participate in GEMS, and it sets up a great opportunity for parents to experience firsthand the experiments that the students do in GEMS.”

The 24 mentors, who are high school and college students from surrounding areas, and seven teachers, who teach at Wiregrass schools, who teach the students the various GEMS topics, have already pre-recorded videos on the subjects and then will teach from home over Google Classroom, Baker said.

“The modules that we are offering this summer for our rising fourth- and fifth-grade students is our planetary GEMS module, and in that they are going to be exploring many things like solar systems, oceanography and also incorporating pulleys to see how they apply to planetary components,” she said. “The neuroscience GEMS is for our sixth- and seventh-grade students, and they are going to be exploring in-depth the five senses.”

Other modules include biochemistry for rising eighth and ninth graders, and nanotechnology for 10th and 11th graders, she added.

“We’ll be providing each student with the items they need in their at-home kits that will give them a really good idea of the topic, just as if they were here,” Baker said. “Hopefully the program will give them the opportunity to explore what each of those topics are and perhaps get their interest in pointed that way as a career choice, or a hobby of some sort.”

GEMS will be broken up, as usual, into two sessions: July 6-10 and July 13-17, with kit pickups held July 2 for the first session and July 10 for the second, she said.

“This is a great opportunity for us to continue to offer GEMS to the students here in our area and we are so excited to be able to do it virtually,” Baker added. “The shift doesn’t come without challenges, but I do think there will be more positives that come out of it than negatives. This is an opportunity for our STEM education footprint to be greater in this area. I think we’re going to see that as part of our silver lining for this at-home program.”

But it will be much quieter this year in the halls of USAARL without the students in-house, both Baker and St. Onge said, and the students will be dearly missed.

“I am going to miss seeing the kids – the hustle and bustle of GEMS is spectacular,” St. Onge said. “Seeing how excited and enthusiastic they are when they finish one of the experiments, and seeing them challenge themselves and think creatively – it is really fun to watch.”

This year’s graduation ceremonies will be held at home, as well, featuring a pre-recorded video from William G. Kidd, deputy to the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence commanding general.

“With so many end-of-year school events and summer activities being cancelled across our community, our students are looking forward to being able to participate in GEMS even though it is at home,” St. Onge said. “I know that many of them wish it could be in the laboratory, but they’re still thrilled to get to participate.

“It’s only fitting that in our 10th year of GEMS we are presented with the challenge thrown at us by COVID 19,” she added. “GEMS has challenges every year, and every year we eagerly take on those challenges with enthusiasm and positivity because we know that what we offer to the students helps them grow and develop, and offers them opportunities they might not afforded otherwise. If we can inspire them to pursue a STEM career within the Army or the Department of Defense, then that makes all the effort worthwhile.”

People interested in signing up for GEMS for 2021, can send an email to for information and application instructions.