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Pacific edition, Wednesday, August 8, 2007

CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Throughout this summer at Camp Zama, members of the GEMS program have been working hard to save an endangered species.

The species in question isn’t some type of rare spotted bird or cave-dwelling mouse. It is the American scientist.

GEMS, or Gains in the Education of Math and Science, is a weeklong summer program organized by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, Pacific (CHPPM- PAC) designed to inspire students to learn more about math and science in a fun, stress-free environment, GEMS officials say.

U.S. high school students are ranked 26th in the world in their math and science scores, said Grazyna Roy, a chemist volunteering as a science adviser for the program.

“We need to bring our country higher on the list,” she said.

Focusing on a variety of subjects — including chemistry, biology, physics, medicine and even entomology (the study of insects) — the program gives sixth- through ninth-grade students the opportunity to work with high school and college students called “near peers” and science professionals in a classroom and laboratory environment.

“It’s really fun,” said Tristan Bier, 12. He said he has been interested in science “on and off,” but he thinks the program will help him learn more about the subject he previously found “a little confusing.”

This is the first year the program has been offered in Japan, said Pfc. Marcus Johnson, a preventive medicine specialist with CHPPM-PAC and the near-peer supervisor for GEMS.

About 40 students have taken part in each of the four weeklong GEMS sessions at Camp Zama, the last of which began Monday, Johnson said.

Of the 40 students in Monday’s session, 18 were from local Japanese schools.

The diversity of the class means that students learn more than just science, said Roy, adding that in the scientific community, being able to work with professionals from other nations is key.

Aiko Abe, 14, a ninth-grader at Sobudai Junior High School, said she benefited from both the science and the diversity.

“I’m enjoying the class, gaining a lot of knowledge and having fun,” she said. “I’m not only learning science, but social studies as well.”

The program has gotten some good reviews from parents as well, said Crystle Pagarigan, a near peer who will be majoring in biology this fall at the University of Puget Sound in Washington state.

“We’ve heard from parents about kids going home all excited from the class, doing their own experiments out in the yard in their lab coats,” she said.

Zama High School principal Dr. Jerry Ashbysaid the base is hoping to bring GEMS back next summer, and plans already are in the works to improve the program.

“This program needs to be institutionalized,” he said. “Quickly.”

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