USAARL GEMS makes real-world impact on area youth through virtual setting

By Jim Hughes, Fort Rucker Public AffairsAugust 20, 2020

1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A biochemistry GEMS student conducts a gummy bear osmosis experiment showing what happens when varying liquids (tap water, distilled water, salt water) flow through a semi-permeable membrane. (Photo Credit: USAARL photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A biochemistry GEMS student conducts an experiment on understanding pH levels and indicators to determine the differences between acids and bases.
(Photo Credit: USAARL photo)

FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory held its Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program in the virtual world for the first time in July to help leave a lasting real-world impact on area youth in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was incredibly successful despite all of the challenges,” said Amy Baker, GEMS program coordinator, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education administrator at USAARL.

“It was absolutely amazing,” she said of the virtual GEMS program held over two sessions in July for more than 400 participants. “The feedback I received from parents and students was very positive and very appreciative, so I would say it was an overall success.”

That success was achieved with a lot of planning, preparation, and GEMS teachers’ skillset of adapting and overcoming.

“I think one thing that was very beneficial for us was our teachers and mentors did the prep work on the front end – loading all of the content, and having it set up and ready to go before the sessions started,” Baker said. “Also their ability to be flexible during GEMS. As teachers, they are familiar with that – that is how their day rolls. On the pieces that we may have been worried on how it was going to go, they were like, ‘Nah, don’t worry – it will be fine.’”

Students picked up the supply kits they would need to take part in their respective session at USAARL just prior to their session starting, along with printed copies of their module plans that they could use as a step-by-step guide to the various activities and experiments, according to Baker.

While the great majority of students watched module videos on Google Classroom, and interacted with teachers and mentors while online to showcase their results, some had to resort to emailing in their results for whatever reasons prevented them from logging onto the system, she added.

The GEMS move to the virtual world did not come without issues, though, as complications from the pandemic did cause some delays in getting in planned supplies for some of the modules, causing students, mentors and teachers to find workarounds, which they did masterfully, according to Loraine St. Onge, USAARL research administration manager and GEMS laboratory champion

“That was the benefit and the value of all of the preplanning that the lab, as well as the teachers and mentors, put into the development of the materials for the classes,” she said. “When those few supplies didn’t come in, they did not have any trouble adjusting and adapting, and offering to their students solutions or challenging the students to come up with their own solutions.

“Of course we wanted everything to be perfect, but it didn’t really negatively impact the material we delivered or the content of the program because the teachers and mentors were so adaptable and prepared in offering alternative solutions to the students,” St. Onge added.

The program also succeeded in mitigating the loss of face-to-face interaction between teachers, mentors and students, she said.

“With our virtual classrooms, we did not do a live stream or meet in a teleconference, the content was pre-loaded each morning and then we had mentors available throughout the day – sometimes well into the night – to answer the students’ questions,” St. Onge said. “Some students weren’t able to participate until after parents got home from work, and for those students we still had staff available to answer their questions.

“It was nice to step back and watch that dialogue unfold between the teachers and students, and to see how our mentors and teachers were challenging the students to think scientifically and come up with creative solutions to problems they were encountering when trying to do the activities,” she added. “I was honestly blown away how well it seemed to unfold in an environment where our instructors were not face to face with the students.”

While it’s impossible at this time to tell what direction future GEMS programs will take, Baker and St. Onge feel there are takeaways from the virtual program.

“Personally, the virtual piece allows me, from a planning, organizing and administrative standpoint, to think outside of the box a bit and to push beyond what we typically have done to incorporate more technology into the program,” Baker said. “I think this helped take the blinders off a bit to think about what we can do creatively to keep GEMS fresh, new and exciting for students.

“I think that our reach has the potential to be bigger, as well, as some of the students who participated have younger siblings who were also able to experience GEMS because their sibling was participating,” she added. “Many parents were also able to experience firsthand what goes on at GEMS rather than just hearing about it from their children.”

St. Onge said those and other takeaways from the other labs hosting virtual GEMS this year will probably be discussed at the Army Educational Outreach Program GEMS program review meeting in September.

“My hope is that in that meeting we will be able to have an open discussion on the pros and cons of having the virtual option available, and I can already foresee that some of the GEMS programs that ran this summer with the virtual program will be eager to try to adopt that in future years,” she said.

“I think it’s a time of transformation for the program as a whole,” St. Onge added. “I look forward to the opportunity to discuss with AEOP and the other laboratories how we can strengthen GEMS across the country, as well as expand our reach by continuing to transform the program in unique ways that are required for us to adapt to the times.”

But for 2020, virtual GEMS did what it was supposed to do, she said.

“We exceeded my expectations,” St. Onge said. “I’m happy with what our team accomplished. It helped so much to have the support of our command team at USAARL and Fort Rucker. We’re fortunate that we have the support and engagement of so many people and all of our leadership who help us whenever we needed it. We’re so grateful for that.”