Rediscovering STEM Through the Eyes of My GEMS Students

By Jordan Edmond

Every summer, students in fifth through 11th grade come from varying regions, with varying levels of experience and unique interests to spend an entire week on a military base. For this week, they are all scientists and engineers, experiencing firsthand what a military-grade laboratory has to offer. Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science (GEMS) is an Army-sponsored, summer STEM enrichment program for middle and high school students that sparks and develops interest in STEM among young people who otherwise might not give serious thought to these careers. With access to the latest technology and professional STEM practices, the GEMS student experience is completely different from what most students see in an average classroom setting.

I know this from experience, because I was once one of those excited students. When I was in fifth grade, I participated in GEMS at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory in Fort Rucker, Ala. Now, all these years later, I’m experiencing that excitement again through the eyes of my students. As a GEMS Near Peer Mentor (NPM) at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, I can relive the wonder of a student witnessing amazing science in practice.

Back when I was a fifth-grade student at Fort Rucker’s military air base, the curriculum was geared toward engineering and robotics. I remember how I would lose track of time while coding programs for our robots, running to watch the code in action as the robots moved and climbed. Our mentors, who were all college students or recent graduates, would give talks during lunch, giving us all a glimpse into college life. Hearing from peers who were a little wiser but still our contemporaries made those college prep talks exciting. They helped us consider our options, showing us what we could look forward to in classes, introducing us to the different majors we could consider, from dentistry to mechanical engineering to biology.

Years later, here I am at the Alabama School of Math and Science, preparing to go into the field of computer programming, taking classes like Advanced Placement Computer Science, Data Analysis and Python. I was excited when I arrived at Fort Sam Houston this summer and saw the types of robots the students would get to work with. As an NPM, I’m able to teach those students and further my learning at the same time. I remember watching one of my first groups of middle schoolers as they nervously gathered for their first tour of the facility, their classrooms suddenly transformed from rows of desks and chairs to massive machines. There’s a constant motion of scientists flocking back and forth. It’s not what they’re used to seeing in their typical classroom setting, but that is the beauty of a GEMS experience.

I see myself in the students that I mentor. I can see the gleam in their eyes as they learn about what the scientists are creating. Different GEMS campuses offer unique curriculum bases, and at this building students were focused primarily on the human body, its functions and how we work to repair it. Whether we’re studying animal cells in hopes of finding a cure for diseases or sitting in the dentist’s chair working on molars, students are naturally curious about how things are applied in “real life.” GEMS harnesses this curiosity and turns it into a passion and focus for students who are eager to learn, while connecting them to professionals.

Beyond the reward of inspiring students, NPMs have so much to gain. School teachers work with one class each year, but while I’m here, I get to bond with four groups in a month’s time, which allows for plenty of experience with a variety of kids at an accelerated pace. Like a teaching assistant in college, NPMs can work with students and develop curricula for courses.

The best way to learn is through experience, and that is what the GEMS program creates. Whether it’s studying cures to diseases or working on molars, there is constant motion and growth. In small groups, students get to perform and seek answers to everyday tasks. In larger groups, teachers and NPMs alike work with professionals in their fields, connecting with individuals who are accomplishing incredible things in careers they are passionate about. At the end of the week, on graduation day, I can guarantee the students are already planning to apply again for next year. I know I was.

NPM and resource teacher applications are now open for GEMS. Visit www.usaeop.com/programs.