MRICD GEMS Program Focuses On The Technologies Of Chem-Bio Defense
Once again this summer, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense opened up its labs and administrative space to host elementary and middle school students participating in the Army Educational Outreach Program GEMS, or Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science.
Building on last summer's accomplishments and evaluating what worked well and didn't work in their first year, MRICD GEM's coordinator, Christina Weber, and resource teacher, Linda McDonough, created two fun-filled weeks packed with activities that the participants really enjoyed.
"The GEMS program was some of the coolest stuff I've seen and experienced in my life," said Bel Air sixth grader Sahil Menon in his group's final day slide presentation.
Steven Willats, a Fallston seventh grader, and a second year GEMS participant, found GEMS to be "an awesome program that everyone can have fun in," and Lauren Amodei, a Joppa sixth grader, "liked all the labs."
"I learned a lot of new things that were interesting," continued Amodei. "I enjoyed my time at GEMS!"
A goal this year for Weber and McDonough was to plan activities and experiments that related to MRICD's mission of developing medical countermeasures to chemical weapons and neurotoxins, specifically "to create a curriculum to revolve around the latest scientific methods in the chem-bio arena." Additionally, says Weber, they grouped the participants by grade, welcoming "beginning GEMS," students in the fifth and sixth grades the first week, 9-13 July, and "intermediate GEMS," seventh and eighth graders, the second week,16-20 July.
"The intention is to bring kids in at 5th grade and continue to promote them up the ladder year after year," explains Weber. "The hope is that they eventually 'graduate' to the Science and Engineering Apprentice Program for high school students, and then to the College Qualified Leaders program. Both programs are currently active at MRICD, and we hope to have a steady stream of students in the AEOP system that will one day generate a pool of qualified applicants for civilian jobs."
Twenty-two students participated in the program each week. Two students in week one had participated last year, whereas eight from week two were returning participants.
In this year's labs, the week-one GEMS students learned about extracting DNA from a strawberry and then from their own cheek cells. They colored, labeled and assembled a paper model of the brain, before dissecting and identifying parts of a sheep's brain. They were taught the principles of DNA fingerprinting and the use of restriction enzymes to identify DNA from crime scenes and suspects. The DNA lab gave students the opportunity to learn the techniques of micropipetting, gel electrophoresis, and gel analysis. Other labs focused on chromatography and the structure of proteins, as well as on light microscopy, which was used with yogurt cultures to demonstrate the presence of microorganisms and the principles of disease identification.
Seeing what her DNA looked like was a highlight for Havre de Grace fifth grader Tynia Scott, while fellow Havre de Grace fifth grader Darran Byrd preferred the chromatography lab, "because we got to split up the Hemoglobin and B12."
"My favorite lab was the microorganisms lab," said Casey Moore, a Havre de Grace sixth grader, "because I got to look at a bunch of different living organisms found in yogurt and got to look at E. coli."
During week two, the older GEMS students analyzed proteins using Bradsford reagent and spectrophotometry and learned to navigate through DNA sequences on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website in a lab on bioinformatics. Additionally, in the pGlo bacterial transformation lab they learned techniques of sterile methods, micropipetting, streak plating and incubation techniques while transforming a non-disease-causing strain of E. coli with a plasmid that contained the gene GFP (green fluorescent protein) from jellyfish, which made the E. coli glow green under ultraviolet light. Using the techniques of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and gel electrophoresis, students compared the DNA of plants that had been genetically modified with that of plants that had not been unmodified. The brain anatomy lab was also a part of the lab rotations for the older students, and its sheep brain dissection was selected by Kyle Shannon, Abingdon sixth grader, as his favorite experience for his group's final presentation. Edgewood seventh grader Paige Towne "enjoyed doing BIO-INFORMATICS!"
In addition to the labs, the students received a demonstration of electron microscopy from MRICD microscopist Tracey Hamilton and of three-dimensional computer modeling by Richard Sweeney. Members of the institute's Chemical Casualty Care Division, Laukton Rimpel, Angela Barrow and Staff Sgt. Gary Hall, showed off a training manikin, which is specially designed to exhibit several symptoms of nerve agent exposure, such as miosis, forehead sweating, lung sounds, oral cyanosis, heart rate changes and muscle twitching, and is used in the division's instructional courses to medical professionals and first responders.
"My favorite part of GEMS was looking at the manikin because I got to stick it with a fake needle," said Samantha Stafford, an elementary school student from Aberdeen. Dione Alston, from Bel Air, appreciated the manikin's ability to "sweat ,cry, and bleed." Josh Aarsen, on the other hand, preferred the 3-D modeling.
"It looked complicated," said Aarsen, an Edgewood fifth grader. "I liked the 3-D hemoglobin because it looked like a lava rock."
Again this year, the near peers, who mentor the GEMS students through their labs, activities and final presentations, were from the Science and Mathematics Academy (SMA) at Aberdeen High School, where McDonough is a teacher. Of the ten near peers, five had participated in MRICD's program last year.
"I feel very fortunate to be able to have students of that caliber helping to teach our GEMS participants for the second year in a row," said Weber. "I'm thrilled to maintain a strong relationship with the school."
New to the program this year was Jennifer Hamrick, a science teacher at Havre de Grace Middle School. Hamrick was hired to be the assistant resource teacher. In addition to observing the program, she helped to conduct the lab experiments.
Weber is already looking ahead to next summer and has been working with GEMS coordinators at the Army Research Laboratory at APG north to create an APG-wide GEMS initiative. The result, says Weber, will be one main application system, which she hopes will result in both sites being able to accept as many students as possible.
Given the success of this year's program, it's something the students can look forward to as well.
Roland Park seventh grader Jordan Jenkins not only found her experience to be "fun and educational," but added "I would like to come back next year!"
"The labs were very interesting and fun," concurred another student from Baltimore, seventh grader Zachary Clark. "I would definitely recommend [GEMS] to others."