ADELPHI, Md. -- Amid the challenges of COVID-19, the Army’s corporate research laboratory found an innovative way to continue the learning experience for its summer students.
For the first time, the Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science summer program at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory converted to hosting in a virtual environment.
Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science, or GEMS, is an Army-sponsored, summer science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, enrichment program for middle and high school students that takes place in participating Army research laboratories and engineering centers.
The laboratory’s scientists, engineers and support staff members dedicated their time to volunteer and make this possible.
GEMS students signed up for the program originally to take place at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Adelphi Laboratory Center in Maryland, ARL South in Austin, Texas, and ARL West in Playa Vista, California.
“We always have remarkable support from our scientists and engineers for the GEMS program, and this year was no different,” said Katie Hall, CCDC ARL K12 outreach program coordinator. “When our sites determined that they wanted to develop virtual sessions, the teams just came together.”
Initially, the lab had a showstopper–it needed a virtual platform that would meet all the interactive classroom needs.
After exhausting several avenues, Cecil County Public Schools, who has worked with the lab for many years, came through and hosted the program on their Google Suite virtual platform for most sites. The schools provided each student, researcher, mentor and teacher an account in order to participate.
“This allowed full participation for the students, giving them the ability to fully interact that otherwise wasn’t possible,” Hall said. “Students could upload and share their work, share their screen and access all classroom files. GEMS was a huge success thanks to the support we received from CCPS.”
Along with chats with Command Sgt. Maj. Michael A. Crosby, senior enlisted leader of the Army Futures Command, ARL Director Dr. Patrick Baker, retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, the students participated in activities including a weather balloon activity and Onshape software system activities creating their own public service announcements (made possible by the Department of Defense Starbase program), circuit design, photoelectric chemistry, photovoltaics, language translation, cyber security, biotechnology, 3-D printing, robotics, Python programming, data science and artificial intelligence and the impact of technology on Soldiers.
“We at ARL West were originally leaning towards cancelling our GEMS program as our entire program was predicated on hands-on activities and lesson plans that require in-person interactions,” said Dr. Peter Khooshabeh, ARL West regional lead. “However, our outreach committee, led by Dr. Oluseyi Ayorinde, found it to be especially important to provide summer programming at a time when students have limited options for activities, and made the effort to completely redesign our GEMS program. While the experience was challenging, the committee learned a lot about online learning, and have more tools in our tool-belt for providing STEM programming for kids in the Los Angeles area. Doing the program online also allowed us to expand our reach - we had a student from the east coast participate this year."
During the life-changing pandemic, the world has faced many new challenges and uncertainties, said Dr. Debbie B. Conn, K-12 Outreach Adelphi Site coordinator.
“To adapt to these changes, in collaboration with the Army Educational Outreach Program, [CCDC] ARL has again displayed its ability to adapt to challenges by providing an unprecedented virtual GEMS program to the community,” Conn said. “This adaptability of ARL scientists, engineers and support staff has allowed the Outreach program to continue providing our youth with very important and enriching educational programs this summer.”
In the end, a virtual environment proved to be quite beneficial for the program and the attendees, and is something the laboratory will consider moving forward, she said.
“Even though we weren’t able to meet face-to-face for a conventional camp setting with the students, we saw so many camps canceling, and realized that we should provide an opportunity for our students,” said Heidi Maupin, ARL South regional lead. “Holding a virtual event allowed us to reach out to a wider pool of talented students since we weren't geographically bound. The event was so successful that we plan to hold at least one virtual event next year to enable those students in remote areas to participate and learn about STEM and how important technology is for our Army requirements.”
In the face of challenge and uncertainty, the resilience of the student participants, laboratory staff, teachers and mentors was evident and provides hope for the learning environment moving forward.
For information on the laboratory’s student programs, visit https://www.arl.army.mil/careers/students/.
CCDC Army Research Laboratory is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. As the Army’s corporate research laboratory, ARL discovers, innovates and transitions science and technology to ensure dominant strategic land power. Through collaboration across the command’s core technical competencies, CCDC leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more lethal to win the nation’s wars and come home safely. CCDC is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command.