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Despite substantial challenges presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command’s (USAMRDC) annual “Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science” (GEMS) program saw a marked increase in attendance in 2020, eclipsing last year’s mark by nearly 100 students.

More than 1,960 students participated in this year’s iteration of the program – which is designed to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education to children across the country – as compared to 1,870 students in 2019. That level of success is perhaps even more remarkable given that program administrators were forced to adapt course materials to an “online-only” learning model in the face of the current pandemic.

"We are incredibly pleased with the success of 2020 virtual GEMS,” said Taylor O'Guinn, USAMRDC STEM Program Coordinator. “The feedback we have received from students and parents is very positive and showcases the time, effort, and ingenuity our MRDC staff at all Commands have put into converting their programs to virtual execution; all while being able to maintain the hands-on, collaborative and educational nature of the program."

Notably, the attendance spike occurred even as two of the six USAMRDC labs were forced to shutter their GEMS programs completely due to the current pandemic. Both the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR) were affected in this manner. Efforts at USAMRDC headquarters, the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory (USAARL), the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), and the Walter Reed Institute of Army Research (WRAIR) all continued virtually as planned.

Regardless, this year’s GEMS program – which aims to reach students in grades four through twelve who are historically underrepresented in STEM areas – was able to maintain its tradition of excellence through the continuation of a slew of popular and thought-provoking experiments and activities. Participants were issued supply kits prior to the beginning of the program, then attended virtual classes via Zoom or Google Classroom to engage directly with their teachers; the prime goal being to keep learning sessions as direct and hands-on as possible.

To that end, specific instructional modules varied by location and were designed to dovetail as much as possible with each lab’s respective mission. For instance, students at the USARIEM location tested scaled-down parachutes and conducted various engineering experiments involving air drop packaging and the development of simple machines. At the WRAIR location, students studied such varied topics as genomics, dental hygiene, and climate change, and also gained practice in general application of the scientific method. The USAARL location offered learning modules related to solar systems, oceanography, and nanotechnology. Lastly, at the USAMRDC headquarters location, participants studied computer coding, maze navigation, and even a crime scene investigation (CSI) course – which is routinely judged a student favorite across all lab locations due to its combination of blood splatter analysis, DNA analysis and fiber analysis techniques.

“Packing the thousands of blood bottles, fingerprinting supplies and DNA models was a huge task, but it was completely worth it to see the students excited about the labs and the positive feedback we received from parents,” said Cicely Smith, a Resource Teacher participating in the program based out of USAMRDC headquarters.

Veteran teachers such as Smith were further complemented by dozens of local college students serving as near-peer mentors (NPM) for the purpose of facilitating laboratory investigations and discussing the importance of STEM research with participating students.

“This is going to sound weird,” said Sarah Martin, an NPM working with USAMRDC headquarters in the CSI module, “but you’ve never experienced pure joy until you’re in an [online] call with 20 students begging for clues on a simulated murder case. Their passion was so uplifting to see.”

As the Army's medical materiel developer, the USAMRDC has a keen and enduring interest in developing the talent required to ensure the U.S. military has the medical capabilities to fight and win on the battlefield. The USAMRDC is committed to fostering interest in STEM fields to facilitate the development of the Nation's future scientists as an investment in the students’ future, but also the Command's future. To that end, and regardless of the various changes to the program’s structure, both teachers and student mentors alike were quick to note the excitement on behalf of the participating children across all USAMRDC labs and locations.

Said Loraine St. Onge, research administration manager at USAARL, “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.”

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