FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Child and youth services summer campers stopped by the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory for some science, technology, engineering and mathematics fun and learning June 8-9.
While the CYS visit proved to be a memorable and valuable experience for the Fort Rucker youths, it also served as a bit of a trial run and train-up for USAARL staff, resource teachers and near-peer mentors who will be hosting the lab’s annual Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program this summer, according to Loraine St. Onge, USAARL research administration manager and GEMS laboratory champion.
“We try to host CYS every year,” she said, adding that this is the first time in two years USAARL has offered the program because of the pandemic. “It’s great because we can add in some STEM components to what CYS offers students in their summer camps, and at the same time, our GEMS mentors have the opportunity to teach in advance of GEMS students coming to us.
“It’s a win-win for both groups,” St. Onge added. “The school age center kids get some STEM learning, do some experiments and have fun, and our staff gets a chance to practice teaching. They get to see what it is really like when they have a classroom full of students before GEMS starts.”
USAARL is hosting its annual GEMS program this week, June 21-24, June 27-July 1 and July 11-15, and after two years in a virtual setting, this year area youth will once again physically grace the halls of the laboratory, she added.
Subjects include planetary, neuroscience, biochemistry and agriscience GEMS. Because of the shorter nature of the CYS visit, those students received scaled down versions of what the GEMS visitors will experience, St. Onge said.
“It’s important for us to build the STEM pipeline – we know that we have scientists and engineers who are nearing retirement, and we need to start early with building our bench of scientists and engineers,” she said. “We also know that there are demographics of students who are underserved and underrepresented in those STEM fields, so we try to target those students to give them early exposure to science, engineering and mathematics. Our hope is they will become interested in those subjects and learn that there are opportunities for them to pursue as careers.”
It’s working, as evidenced by several graduates of the GEMS program, which began in 2011, are now serving as interns in military labs, according to St. Onge. Also, many of the near-peer mentors who will be teaching GEMS this year began their STEM paths in the USAARL program, such as Julie Strickland and Malik Bolaji.
Strickland, who will begin the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s optometry school this fall, attended the first GEMS as a fifth grader in 2011, and this is the sixth year she has taught as a near-peer mentor. This year, she is instructing in the biochemistry program.
“It’s definitely an experience. I always come back because it’s a good way to spend your summer – not only for you to grow personally and professionally, but also to give back to other students that are interested in STEM,” she said. “The best part is seeing how the kids grow through the years.”
Bolaji, who is instructing in the neuroscience program, also has an extensive GEMS background.
“I’ve been here a long time – 10 years total,” he said. “I attended as a student for three years, and then they recruited me to become a mentor. I’ve been a near-peer mentor for seven years.
“I love it – that’s why I keep coming back,” he said. “The kids make me laugh all of the time and I get to help educate the community’s youth. They’re our future, and the more they know the more able they’ll be to develop better technologies, better practices in medicine, and take better care of their elders when the time comes. We’re helping to make everyone’s future better.”
Bolaji, whose father is retired military and worked at Fort Rucker, recommends that all parents get their children involved in STEM programs, especially GEMS.
“It’s a great learning experience for them – a great opportunity to meet different people from different backgrounds and different career fields,” the UAB graduate who will be attending pharmacy school in the near future said. “They get a lot of opportunities to learn and maybe get an idea of what they might want to do in the future.
“Working as a GEMS near-peer mentor is a great opportunity, as well – we’re like a family, and everyone wants everyone to succeed and we all do our best to get each other there,” Bolaji added.
For more information on GEMS, visit https://www.usaarl.army.mil/index.cfm/stem/gems.