FORT NOVOSEL, Ala. -- From robo-roaches to blood splatter to virtual reality to Rube Goldberg machines to eggs parachuting to the ground, the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory flexed its scientific muscles to help area children in grades 4-11 learn, have a ton of fun and, most importantly, get excited about science.
USAARL hosted four weeklong sessions of its annual Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program, part of the Army Educational Outreach Program, in June and July, according to Alane Williams, USAARL science, technology, engineering and mathematics education administrator.
“It is a really great opportunity for us to reach young minds and hook their interest into STEM,” she said of GEMS. “We want to give them every bit of knowledge that we can on what types of STEM career opportunities are available for them.”
The Army, and USAARL in particular, is home to many of those opportunities. GEMS seeks to ignite a love for STEM in the nation’s young minds to hopefully lead students into an interest in science-related fields and maybe eventually work for the Army to help keep it on the cutting edge of scientific achievement, according to Williams.
“We have lots of guest speakers from around the community who hold careers in STEM, and they can talk at length to our students about what they do and also answer questions about other opportunities that they are aware of besides their own,” she added. “In the long run, we want to bring the kids on post and show them how fun and interesting science can be – and also about opportunities for STEM careers within the Department of Defense and possibly even right here at the lab.”
And it’s working, according to Samuel Haglund, a robotics mentor for this year’s GEMS who attended the program as a child numerous times and is in his second year as a mentor. He credits the program with influencing him to study in a STEM field – mechanical engineering – at Auburn University.
“The DOD is a leading pursuer of modern technology and science technology – you really see the cutting edge here at this research facility and it is an incredible resource,” he said. “Having the ability to come to this lab opens you up to ideas and possibilities you weren’t aware of – that is what it did for me.”
Furthermore, Haglund said, he is interested in maybe obtaining an internship at the lab in the future, and maybe even in becoming an employee at USAARL.
This year’s GEMS featured four topics, according to Williams. Each weeklong session, which hosted about 85 children each, included simple machines for grades 4-5, forensics for grades 6-7, robotics for grades 8-9 and medical for grades 10-11.
While GEMS’ focus is to help students learn, it’s also designed to keep fun at the forefront to ensure that interest in STEM ignites, she added. Experiments in simple machines included building catapults, pulley systems, small cars and Rube Goldberg machines, and also analyzing the simple machines that make up a bicycle. While forensics students studied blood splatter, various fingerprinting techniques, solving crimes and parachute systems for eggs that were dropped off the extended ladder of the Fort Novosel Fire Department’s biggest firetruck.
Students in robotics built and coded robots to maneuver through a room avoiding obstacles, played virtual reality games and created robo-roaches they could control using Bluetooth.
In the medical module, students performed a little dissection, discovered their blood types, looked at their blood in a microscope, and drew blood and sutured wounds on a training device.
The GEMS program is a big hit with Noah Frazier and Owen Cooley, both 10, who attended the simple machines module.
“I can’t believe they pay us to have this much fun,” Frazier said, alluding to the $125 stipend each student receives to make up for travel and food expenses while attending GEMS. “We use (building block kits) and we build stuff with them – like flagpoles, balancers and Rube Goldberg machines. It’s really awesome and you get paid money.”
Both said they would recommend the program to their friends and would welcome a chance to return for GEMS in the future.
“You get to do a lot of fun projects, play a lot of fun games with the teachers and also have mentor moments where you get to learn a little more about your mentors,” Cooley said, adding that GEMs definitely opened his eyes to the possibilities of a STEM career. “It’s fun and something I’m interested in.”
Haglund said the students in robotics were fully engaged, as well.
“It’s been fantastic – above and beyond expectations,” he said. “The kids are super engaged, enjoying the program and always excited to come in and learn new stuff. They went so above and beyond that we took them a step further than what we prepared for – they’re having a great time.
“GEMS is a place where kids can truly find what they want to do,” Haglund added. “Certain things that might be of interest to a student are kind of lost in the sea of information that they have to learn as they grow up. Students interested in medical, or something not traditionally found in a school, like robotics, they’re able to come to GEMS and explore that and find something they might really enjoy. GEMS enriches a child’s learning and their exposure to STEM as a whole. It’s a fun environment – tons of fun.”
Williams said GEMS wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it has proven to be without all of the help the program receives from within USAARL, Lyster Army Health Clinic, the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, Fort Novosel, and all of its guest speakers from those organizations and even others from off post.
To find out more about GEMS, visit the USAARL website at https://usaarl.health.mil/index.cfm/stem/gems and the unit’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAARL/. Parents interested in signing their children up for the 2024 program should start looking for news in February.