USAARL hosts Fort Novosel SAC summer campers for STEM learning, fun

By Jim Hughes, Fort Novosel Public AffairsJune 15, 2023

1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A near-peer mentor helps a Fort Novosel School Age Center summer camper look at a hair sample under a microscope as part of a STEM event hosted by the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory June 8. Each year, the lab invites SAC summer campers to enjoy some science fun and learning as a forerunner to its annual Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science outreach program. (Photo Credit: Jim Hughes) VIEW ORIGINAL
2 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A near-peer mentor helps a summer camper make a fingerprint card. (Photo Credit: Jim Hughes) VIEW ORIGINAL
3 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A near-peer mentor walks summer campers through an experiment on reflexes. (Photo Credit: Jim Hughes) VIEW ORIGINAL
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A near-peer mentor runs an experiment with summer campers. This experiment has the student and mentor hook up electrodes to their arms, and then the youth can make movements with her arm that makes the mentor’s arm move similarly. (Photo Credit: Jim Hughes) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT NOVOSEL, Ala. -- The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory hosted more than 20 Fort Novosel School Age Center summer campers June 7-8 for science, technology, engineering and mathematics fun and learning.

USAARL invites the child and youth services members to the STEM event each year as a bit of a run-up to its annual outreach program, Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science, which started this week, according to Alane Williams, USAARL STEM education administrator.

The summer campers participated in each one of the modules that are part of GEMS this year, she added, which include simple machines, forensics, robotics and medical.

“The purpose is twofold, and it works well for both of us,” Williams said. “For the school age center, it supplements their summer activities. It gives the kids something fun to do and they are learning. For us, our mentors and our resource teachers are also learning.

“We have several new mentors this year, and this is a really great experience for them to learn and adjust their teaching for when GEMS begins,” she added. “They say that experience is the best teacher and that’s what we’re trying to provide for our new mentors.”

While providing fun opportunities is a great thing, USAARL’s hosting of the STEM event and GEMS each year is also important to its mission, Williams said.

“USAARL is focused on research and science – everything that STEM stands for,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to market STEM careers to our students and show them as many options as possible for them to choose something that interests them as a career in STEM. Ultimately, we would love to have as many students as possible move into a STEM career, but particularly to work for the Department of Defense and maybe even come back to USAARL.”

While learning during the break between school years may not sound like most children’s idea of the perfect summer, the reality is that the STEM event and GEMS are focused on fun, according to Williams.

“We want everyone to have fun – our mentors, our teachers and particularly the students,” she said. “What better way to hook students into an interest in STEM than to have fun? Everything that we do here is hands-on – it’s not a traditional school setting where kids come and sit and get. Instead, we encourage our mentors to teach through experimentation.

“One of the points that I stress (to the mentors) is don’t tell them the correct answer, help lead them there and let them discover it,” Williams added. “They learn it better that way -- they retain the information and have so much fun.”

The approach is highly successful, according to Hope Loyless, a GEMS near-peer mentor who just finished her junior year at Auburn University working towards becoming a speech pathologist.

Loyless is a GEMS veteran, participating in the program as a child five times, and this year marks her fourth time as a mentor.

“It was my favorite thing every summer,” she said. “I looked forward to it all year and I loved coming to learn about science. High school and middle school science classes were wonderful, but we didn’t get to do the experiment parts. When I came to GEMS, it supplemented what I was learning at school except that I got to do the experiment part of it. And as a mentor, it’s wonderful – the team bonding experience and leadership skills you learn here are incredible.”

GEMS certainly helped Loyless onto the STEM career field path she is on, as well.

“I didn’t realize that I had such a love for especially the science part of it until my first year as a student at GEMS and I did neuroscience – it was just incredible,” she said. “You can see that in the kids, too. Their first day, they may not be super excited, but when they come back Tuesday they are so excited and asking what we’re doing today – it is just the neatest thing.”

Another USAARL success story may be in the making during this year’s STEM event. Julissa Rose, a fourth grader who attended with the SAC and is returning later for GEMS, said her experience so far has opened her eyes to all kinds of possibilities.

“Yesterday we coded robots and made them move and talk,” she said, adding that she’s never done anything like this before. “Today we did medical stuff – looking at a brain and did a puzzle on brains.”

Rose added that she is now interested in “science stuff” and is considering becoming a doctor. She will participate in the simple machines module at GEMS and said she is “really looking forward to it.”

That’s music to the ears of Loyless, who encourages parents to get their children in the program.

“I think it really ignites that love for science in them and puts them on a path to maybe start a science career – that is something that a lot of people are really needing,” she said, adding that medical fields, in particular, have strong job markets. “It’s a really neat and interactive way to spark that love of science in them and watch them grow through it.”

For more on GEMS, visit