Matthew Gray originally had considered pursuing a professional sports career, but dissecting animals and classifying microscopic organisms have given him reason to reconsider his future.
In his junior year, Gray, 16, is among about 70 students at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville enrolled in the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research “Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Sciences,” or GEMS, program that provides an additional hands-on outlet to boost student interest in science fields. This is Northwestern’s first year with the semester-long program that Walter Reed facilitates by providing curriculum, equipment and staffing twice per week.
This semester, students will focus on classifying organisms and the scientific kingdoms of life. Last semester, students focused on anatomy and physical adaptations.
“I needed a science elective in my schedule, and my adviser told me about this program, so I thought I would try it,” Gray of Mount Rainier said. “This is helping me. We’re looking at different world problems where each subject is realistic and really relates to everything.”
Walter Reed, in Silver Spring, is the largest biomedical research facility serving the Defense Department.
The program’s staple feature is its “near-peer mentors” — college students or recent graduates who lead classes of about 35 high-schoolers on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Margery Anderson, a Walter Reed science educator facilitating Northwestern’s program, said the mentors make it easier for students to learn because they are being taught by people close in age. In addition, she said, the students constantly talk to the mentors about college.
Aldo Nascimento, 23, of Silver Spring is a recent Harvard University graduate who is considering becoming a teacher. He thought the Walter Reed mentor program would be a great opportunity to gain teaching experience.
“This gets the students to see what they’re capable of doing,” he said. “It gets them to see that science isn’t just problem sets. It’s a lot of hands-on experience.”
Walter Reed was given the ability to run the program through a five-year grant from the Science Education Partnership Award, a funding award given by the National Institutes of Health.
Eight schools — Northwestern and Bladensburg high schools in Prince George’s County and six in the District — are recipients of the GEMS program and will continue to be so for five years.
All materials for experiments and lessons including specimens, chemicals, organism samples, microscopes and other laboratory equipment are provided by Walter Reed.
Northwestern assistant principal Jennifer Love said some equipment is not in the school’s budget, so the school is fortunate to have their students experience such lessons.
“This collaboration allows so many more opportunities to extend their everyday learning,” she said.
Late last month, Northwestern staged a signing ceremony to formalize the partnership with Walter Reed and included Col. Ralph Erickson, the institute’s commander.
Erickson said he was honored to have so many students at Northwestern interested in science, and said he thinks the program helps put a hands-on learning experience to their everyday curriculum.
“These students are our future problem-solvers,” he said, noting the focus Walter Reed puts on youths.
Erickson said Walter Reed is looking for more schools in the area to extend the program.
The program’s goal, Anderson said, is not to get every student to go into a science field. Instead, it is for students to get involved in enrichment opportunities and for them to leave the program feeling they have the ability to take on challenges.
“This program teaches them basic science literacy, critical thinking, how to make connections, and gives them a better understanding and appreciation of sciences,” she said.
Gray said the continuous hands-on experiments might impact his career decisions.
“My perspective could change,” he said. “I’m certainly more intrigued after being in this program.”