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USAARL hosts area youth in summer program

Paola Capo, GEMS mentor, works with students on an experiment where they test the elasticity of rubber bands after being submerged in hot and cold water during the GEMS program June 12. (Photo by Nathan Pfau)

Paola Capo, GEMS mentor, works with students on an experiment where they test the elasticity of rubber bands after being submerged in hot and cold water during the GEMS program June 12. (Photo by Nathan Pfau)

Published: June 19, 2014

FORT RUCKER, Ala. (June 19, 2014) -- There are many ways for children to learn, whether it’s in the classroom or at home, but the Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory provides a platform for children to learn through interaction and hands-on experience.

GEMS has two separate programs within itself for different age groups: neuroscience GEMS for fifth and sixth graders, during which participants use their five senses to learn about the brain and neurological processes; and biochemistry GEMS for seventh and eighth graders, during which participants learn by challenging themselves with experiments that focus on chemistry, biology and biochemistry, according to Jessica Cumbee, GEMS assistant program coordinator.

Throughout the ongoing program, participants will do experiments ranging from combining certain combinations of chemicals and materials to study different chemical reactions, to forensic science, like fingerprinting, she said.

For Libby Hvarven, 13-year-old GEMS student, forensics was her favorite part of the program, which she did last year, but said she had so much fun she wanted to return to the program this year for the biochemistry session.

“I really like that kind of stuff, the crime investigation-type stuff,” she said. “We did fingerprinting and things like that, and I thought that was a lot of fun. I’d never done anything like that before and they don’t teach things like that in school, so coming here and learning about it was a great experience.

“I had a lot of fun last year, so I wanted to come back this year and it’s been a lot of fun, so far,” Hvarven continued. “We’ve done a lot more experiments this year.”

One of those experiments included making “elephant toothpaste,” which is what is made when hydrogen peroxide is combined with yeast to produce a foamy substance that resembles toothpaste fit for the world’s largest land mammal.

Currently, the program is in its biochemistry session, which runs until June 20, with the neuroscience session running from July 7 to Aug. 1., and is all meant to challenge students and get them ready for where they want to go in life, said Cumbee.

“The students are led through a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics experiments that are really hands on and engaging,” she said. “The overall goal of the program is to bring in someone close to their age as their mentor to guide them through career questions, majors, colleges, and teach them ways of the road that they’ve experienced. It’s a professional enrichment experience.”

For many students, like Bryan Whitehurst, the learning experience isn’t only about learning about science and mathematics, but learning how to work together as a team.

“We’ve done some group activities where we combined straws together to see who can make the highest tower using only straws and tape,” said Whitehurst, whose team came in second with a 5-foot, 8-inch tower. “That (experiment) taught us not only about how to build a structure as high as we can, but how to work as a team and how to cooperate and work together in a group.”

“Working in groups allows us to learn from other people around you,” added Hvarven. “Others might have ideas that you don’t come up with, so it’s like you’re learning by being with other people, as well as the mentors rather than just doing something by yourself.”

In addition to the elephant toothpaste and straw towers, the participants learned about polymer chemistry, and performed experiments using different brands of diapers to see how the specific polymers vary.

“All of this is to teach the children about the science behind things – to get them involved and engaged in the science, as well as explore different career pathways,” said Cumbee. “That’s kind of where the mentor comes in – to tie things together, introduce major concepts and to get them thinking of STEM outside of school.”

The program has enjoyed such success that it’s had to extend both the biochemistry and neuroscience sessions by an additional week, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid a waitlist, on which Cumbee said nearly 80 students are waiting.

“This year we’ve just had an overwhelming response,” she said. “The amount of interest has been so incredible, and we’ve added weeks to keep up with the groups, but we can only do so much.”

With all the added interest and the amount of children and teens going through the program, the No. 1 priority is the safety of all the participants, and steps were taken to make sure that everyone who goes through the program is safe.

That attention to safety allows participants to learn in an environment where they can focus on what they’re doing – learning life lessons, said Cumbee.

“Whether these kids pursue a STEM career is not the point, regardless of how much we would really like them to,” she said. “As you get older, if something doesn’t necessarily come easy, people tend to lose interest. I think that the most important thing for these kids to learn is that it’s not always easy. You have to work so hard for everything that comes your way, and I think that that’s a life lesson.”

This article was originally published at

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