1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A forensics GEMS student examining his fingerprints to determine if the patterns are characterized as loops, whorls, or arches. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A forensics GEMS student measuring density using his graduated cylinder to analyze the differences between plastics and glass. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
3 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A forensics GEMS student launching her parachute during the egg drop experiment to determine if her design was effective. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A forensics GEMS student preparing to test the blood spatter experiment using biology, physics and mathematics. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory held its Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program in June and July in the virtual world for the second straight year, but improved it even more by taking participant feedback to heart.

While GEMS’ first foray into the virtual world last year was a resounding success, many participants said they missed that face-to-face interaction they had in-person, so USAARL organizers incorporated live courses instead of last year’s mostly pre-recorded courses, according to Amy Baker, GEMS program coordinator, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education administrator at USAARL.

GEMS is a science, technology, engineering and math education outreach program hosted by the Army Education Outreach Program, she added.

“It is an opportunity for us to provide extracurricular STEM opportunities for students in our area here,” Baker said. “Its purpose is to engage students in hands-on experiments to help them focus on STEM career fields and help them understand all of the opportunities that are out there for them.”

The annual GEMS program is open to fourth-11th grade students as participants, and near-peer mentor positions are available for high school seniors and college-aged students, she said, adding that this year more than 200 students took part – about 15% of them were from Fort Rucker, and the rest from the Wiregrass area.

“Last year we did a lot of pre-recorded videos because we weren’t sure how we were going to be able to teach the content,” Baker said. “The students, mentors and teachers all said that they missed the connection, the mentoring and the teambuilding that happens when we’re all face to face.”

So Baker and the USAARL staff went to work figuring out how to bring some aspect of that back for the 2021 version, she added.

“Our goal this year was to provide, as best we could, those extra pieces that are so important and so critical in our program – knowing that we have to have a screen in front of us,” Baker said. “So, we did live instruction in three sessions every day, Mondays-Fridays, and it was spectacular because students could log on, utilize Google Classroom, and have that time with the mentors and teachers to walk through their experiments, step by step.

And it paid off, Baker said.

“It was awesome,” she said. “Everyone commented about just how much fun it was this year because we had that piece back, that interaction, that connectivity – it was great. We could feel the energy from the students. It was very successful, we were all pleased and thrilled, and yet a little sad when it was over because of how much fun we had.”

During GEMS, fourth and fifth graders took part in the simple machines program to learn about basic engineering and conduct experiments with screws, pulleys, inclined planes and more, Baker said.

Sixth and seventh graders took part in a forensics program where they had the opportunity to help solve crimes, learn about fingerprints and obtain information from simulated blood spatter, Baker said.

Eighth and ninth graders took part in robotics by utilizing mBots to learn about coding, as, for the second straight year, GEMS staff decided not to offer its course that turns cockroaches into robots because of concerns about what parents might think of roaches being in the students take-home kits, Baker said, adding that students were able to keep the robots they created.

While they drew the line at roaches, the GEMS staff were able to provide sheep organs for the 10th and 11th graders to use in the medical module, she said. “They did blood typing, they learned how to do phlebotomy, and they did some dissections on sheep hearts, kidneys and brains.”

Students were also given fake arms to practice phlebotomy on to ensure younger siblings did not become test subjects, Baker said. “There were kits in the home supply bag set up for teaching using fake blood with a fake arm. We stressed to the students to not use their on brothers or sisters!

“Medical students also learned about suturing and after they did their dissections they were able to practice on those organs, so it was really cool,” she added.

Medical students also were treated to four guest speakers, two from the Navy, who spoke about aerospace medicine, according to Baker.

Feedback was overwhelmingly positive from students, mentors and teacher, she added.

“They loved it. Most of them said they can’t wait for the next one and hope they’re face to face next year – we hope we are too, but the reality is we don’t know,” Baker said. “But we’re encouraged because conducting a very successful virtual program for two years in a row tells us that we can deliver a phenomenal product either way we end up going.”

That decision for 2022 will need to be made this fall, she added.

People interested in GEMS for 2022 can visit the USAARL web site at, and also sign up for news on the program by sending an email to