NATICK, Mass. (July 22, 2020) – The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine is offering a virtual version of its Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program, better known as GEMS, to students this summer.
GEMS is an extracurricular science education summer program that enables middle-school-aged students to experience science in a laboratory setting. The program has a multidisciplinary educational agenda, and students participate in grade-appropriate activities related to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
GEMS is open to the public and is aimed to reach students who are historically underserved or underrepresented in STEM. The program provides a platform for students to get involved in hands-on science activities that are also applicable to real-life STEM careers. This is the tenth year USARIEM has held the GEMS program.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in late January, Sgt. Gabriel Sharples and Maj. Robin Cushing, this year’s Natick site program coordinators, were faced with uncertainty regarding this summer’s program.
“During these unprecedented times, it was a struggle to decide when to make the call on either converting GEMS into a virtual program or cancelling for this summer, especially since it’s so exciting for the students to conduct lab experiments and meet scientists,” Sharples said. “No matter how circumstances change, the students’ health will always be our top priority.”
Sharples and Cushing finally decided around the beginning of April to convert GEMS into a virtual program. The USARIEM Soldiers, partnered with Dan Eggers, the Natick GEMS resource teacher, set out on the daunting task of developing a course curriculum that was as engaging and encompassing as previous years.
“Our goal with this virtual program, e-GEMS, is to give students the opportunity to actively engage with near-peer mentors and STEM professionals at Natick in a manner that is hands-on, educational and fun,” Sharples said.
“We also had to take into account that the kids would probably be performing experiments on their own with limited supervision. The students will be conducting age-appropriate lab activities, with an emphasis on safety, that align with Next Generation Science Standards.”
As part of the course curriculum, students will be teleconferencing with the e-GEMS team from various labs across the Natick Soldier Systems Center using Google Classroom and Google Meet thanks to cameras Sharples and Cushing were able to purchase with this year’s supply budget. The students will also be receiving a supply kit the week prior to the beginning of the program with supplies for a number of different lab modules.
Every day will offer something new and exciting for the e-GEMS students. Students will perform activities such as chemistry experiments with common household items, testing scaled-down parachutes, learning about forensic science, and conducting various engineering experiments including air drop packaging, simple machines, and towers.
The USARIEM GEMS program has three sessions, GEMS I, II and III. Each GEMS session allows students to return the following summer, slowly building on the lessons learned the summer before, and encourages the growth of future scientific leaders. Students may participate in only one session each year.
High school and college-aged students who have graduated from the program are also able to come back as near-peer or assistant near-peer mentors to assist the resource teacher and mentor the students each week.
GEMS is part of the U.S. Army Educational Outreach Program. 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. The program has grown to 14 sites in 10 states across major U.S. Army research installations, including USARIEM.
All sites are impacted by COVID-19 and have decided not to conduct their normal day camps, with only six sites converting to virtual camps. The Natick site, run in collaboration between USARIEM and NSSC, is the largest, averaging with over 200 participants yearly, with approximately 20 near-peer and assistant near-peer mentors.
Sharples and Cushing hope that by offering e-GEMS, a high number of students will return the following year when GEMS can be safely held on the Army installation. They have also been thankful for the support they have received from the parents and scientists.
“We have been fortunate that we were able to find some room in our supply budget for the cameras, and we have had a lot of support from everyone at NSSC, such as USARIEM’s Military Nutrition Division donating empty Meal, Ready-to-Eat boxes for us to put supplies in for the students,” Sharples said.
The best part? “So far, the best part is how excited and supportive the parents have been about GEMS continuing this year, but I’m really looking forward to working with the kids and seeing how excited they are. I think that will be the most rewarding part.”