Summer Science for the Fun of It

GEMS students posing with model of chemical compound

Each summer, over 500 middle and high school students from the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area participate in the hands-on science programs Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. GEMS aims to galvanize students’ interest in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields; promote diversity in STEM careers and curb the summer slide, defined by Scholastic as the loss of significant knowledge in reading and math over summer break and a subsequent skill loss each year. WRAIR, now one of fourteen involved locations nationwide, was the home of the GEMS program 17 years ago.

“There’s nothing worse than not having the students ready for their [school] programs…GEMS represents our local demographic and has a special emphasis in underrepresented populations in STEM,” said Dr. Debra Yourick, director of science education and strategic communications.

Demographics of the GEMS program approach those found in the greater D.C. area – 49% of participants identify as African American, 8% as Hispanic and 43% as other ethnicities.  

African Americans only make up 9% of STEM workers, with Hispanics comprising 7%, according to Pew Research Center. “Students can picture themselves as scientists and engineers when you let them have access to these opportunities and provide mentors who look like them and grew up in the same communities,” said Dr. Emily Kuehn, a GEMS program leader. Broader inclusion in STEM fields brings the benefit of novel ideas and approaches to entrenched scientific and societal problems, spurring innovation and technological progress.  

Arriving at 8:30, students have a day full of STEM-centered programming provided by college-aged mentors before they depart for the day around 3:30. Students and their mentors have fun despite the busy schedule; reinforcing STEM is difficult but enjoyable.

Activities range from simulations and computer applications to laboratory experiments. All students gain experience in science, the scientific method, performing experiments and recording and synthesizing data to formulate their own conclusions. Students earn a $100 stipend as part for their weeklong participation in hands-on learning.

“He seems very happy; he learned about blood cells and atoms, and [many] cool experiments,” said a parent whose child with special needs participated in GEMS. “I can’t thank [you] enough. I do not know if they will take him next year but it’s a tremendous learning experience. Any kid would be very lucky to have that opportunity.”

One unique aspect of GEMS is the involvement of near-peer mentors, young scientists and engineers who are currently pursuing or recently finished their degrees in STEM. NPMs serve as teachers and mentors to the students. The proximity in age between NPMs and GEMS students allows them to connect in ways that traditional teachers may not. “The leadership and enthusiasm of my mentors helped me gain confidence and learn new skills,” said a GEMS student.

“[NPM] involvement not only directly benefits the interns by providing them teaching and mentoring experience, but it most certainly equips the GEMS students with knowledge, tools, and skills that are vital for their personal, professional and academic success,” said Boris Ngouajio, research assistant at WRAIR and former NPM. “Mentors have freedom to teach STEM topics that are of interest to them which allows their passion for the material at hand to become infectious…This is proven by the fact that upon completion of the program, several students return either as a student once more, an assistant, or a mentor.” Available for rising 7th to 12th grade, many students return year after year, making up 30-50% of WRAIR's GEMS participants each summer.

The NPMs experience positive outcomes as well.  In a recently published survey 98% of former NPMs, respondents largely persisted in STEM careers or further education.  Furthermore, NPMs reported improved skills in outreach, team building and communication skills as a result of their participation.  

The GEMS program is one of a range of science education and professional development programs offered at WRAIR, including undergraduate and post-graduate (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral) research fellowships, to help develop the next generation of American scientists.  

If you or someone you know are interested, more information on all science education and professional development programs at WRAIR is available here; information about the GEMS program in particular can be found here; the application process for the next class of GEMS will start sometime in mid-January 2020.