FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- After hosting its Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program virtually the past two years, the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory welcomed youth from the surrounding areas into its halls once again this summer.
“It was wonderful to have the students back on-site at USAARL and Fort Rucker,” said Loraine St. Onge, USAARL research administration manager and GEMS laboratory champion. “They engaged with a number of our scientists, engineers and employees, as well as people from across the installation and the community, which was phenomenal.”
USAARL seamlessly transitioned back into in-person instruction and activities, St. Onge said, adding that the staff much prefers in-person GEMS to virtual.
“Hands-down – it’s much better, much more dynamic,” she said. “Hosting it virtually was certainly valuable to the students, but it is not the same as in-person. The students are engaged in a different way – I think the mentorship is more enriching for the students, being able to engage with their mentors in a one-on-one or small group setting.”
USAARL hosted three week-long sessions of GEMS, with the final session July 11-15. Topics this year included planetary, neuroscience, biochemistry and agriscience.
GEMS is a U.S. Army-sponsored, summer science, technology, engineering and mathematics enrichment program for elementary, middle and high school students that takes place in participating U.S. Army research laboratories and engineering centers. The goal of GEMS is to reach students who are historically underserved or underrepresented in STEM fields, including girls, students whose parents are Active-Duty military, students whose second language is English and students who are first-generation college students, St. Onge said.
“We want to expose them to STEM and spark their interest in it early, so that they keep coming back every summer and learn about different career pathways to STEM fields,” she added. “We host engagements with other scientists and engineers, so the students know what job and career options are available to them with the ultimate goal of continuing to build the bench of scientists and engineers in the U.S., particularly within the Department of Defense.”
After hosting the event for the past 11 years, the evidence points to GEMS working as intended, St. Onge said, adding that while the program hasn’t existed long enough to see students moving into STEM career fields, officials are seeing it with mentors, many of whom are past students of the program.
“We have a number of mentors who have entered STEM careers or who have gone on to more advanced degrees in STEM fields, and even some who have moved into federal laboratories,” she said. “But we do see former GEMS students who are in college and pursuing STEM careers – it’s reassuring that we’re doing the right thing.”
One of those former students is Jacob Trimm, who is in his fifth year as a near-peer mentor in this year’s GEMS program and who also spent five years as a student in the program.
“I went to school originally to be an aerospace engineer, but I’m studying electrical engineering now at Troy University,” said Trimm, who mentored in Planetary GEMS. “GEMS is really what gave me my spark to start pursing STEM and engineering. That’s why I love being able to come back and connect with the kids, and try to give them that same spark and see what they enjoy. I’ve really fallen in love with engineering and (GEMS) is what originally introduced me to that. It’s been great to be able to share my experience with the kids, and get them interested and excited, as well.”
He said he’d definitely recommend parents sign their children up for GEMS.
“It’s a really great experience,” Trimm said. “The kids come out here and have a lot of fun – meet new people, build friendships and continue learning over the summer. It’s just like school, but a lot more fun. They will learn exciting things, do exciting experiments and get engaged – it’s really a great opportunity for any kid. It might open their eyes to a future career, future opportunities or new subjects that interest them.”
Alana Chestnut, a student participating in Neuroscience GEMS, said the experiments were her favorite part of the program.
“We’re learning about our sense of touch,” she said of an experiment where students were blindfolded and given wooden letters. Their task was to, as a group, figure out words the letters made up. “We were able to figure it out – the first word was dogs. We always have pretty fun experiments. My favorite one was when we learned about eyesight. We made this pinhole camera, and it flipped the trees and the sky – it flipped the images.
“I wish regular school was like this. The mentors aren’t as serious as teachers – as long as you follow directions, you’re fine,” said Chestnut, adding that she considered a career in science until she found out she’d probably have to dissect a cow’s eye. “That ended it for me.”
She said she is still considering becoming a veterinarian, though, adding that she plans to come back to GEMS next year.
That’s music to the ears of all of those who work hard year-round to make GEMS a success, including St. Onge, who said she feels the program is set up to engage the students during their week at the lab.
“It’s set up so that we have those near-peer mentors, people who are close in age to the students, in a small-group environment with the students. I think having someone like that to look up to and who leads them through the subjects helps keep them engaged,” she said. “We also try really hard to ensure that when we do activities that each individual child can do the activity him or herself, as opposed to one person doing the activity while everyone else watches.”
St. Onge added that she receives a lot of positive feedback from parents. “They like to share with us what their students have shared with them when they get home each day.”
This year also marked the first summer where USAARL could recognize students who participated in all of the eight years of GEMS available to them, St. Onge said, adding that at first the program was limited to just four topics, but eventually grew to add more topics and more age groups.
“We recognized two students – it was exciting to be able to do that,” she said, adding the two received a 3D-printed octahedron. “That really is the STEM pipeline at work. Those students have been with us all eight years – they’re entering their junior year – and hopefully they’ll come back as mentors next summer.”
“We’re right at that transition point where we’re starting to see the STEM pipeline really start to grow,” St. Onge added. “It’s fantastic to see them be here for their first year as a fourth grader, and watch their growth, development, maturity and personality evolve into their last year of GEMS as a rising 11th grader.”
For more on GEMS, visit https://usaarl.health.mil/index.cfm/stem.