Blast off! Into education...

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Josh Mead
  • Public Affairs, 103rd Airlift Wing
At Brainard Airport, it is normal to see planes take to the skies along with rockets. Rockets? Yes, rockets. The airport, which is also home to STARBASE, has a lot more going on than just planes. At STARBASE, a U.S. Department of Defense run program, children's futures are being jump started by hands-on experiments with rockets, computers, and science.

"STARBASE is an experiential program designed to help kids be excited by and understand a little bit more about the STEM field, science, technology, engineering and math. We typically work with fifth graders throughout the school year, basically from day one until the last day. They come for a five-day program with us and we walk them through a lot of activities. Engineering on computers-- we do a lot of science experiments-- we try to get them involved in their learning as mush as possible, all hands-on. Rather than just sitting up their telling them about something, we want them to experience it," explained Melissa Vanek, director of STARBASE, Connecticut.

Being a department run program, STARBASE is nation-wide with about 60 facilities. There are two facilities in Conn., one located at Brainard Airport in Hartford, the other in Waterbury next to Naugatuck Valley Community College.

Students participate in projects including construction of their own paper rockets that they then launch into the air. Using Alka-Seltzer propulsion, they experiment with various catalysts such as hot water, cold water and lemon juice to see which variable will propel them farther into the sky.

STARBASE also teaches the kids about Bernoulli's Principle, Newton's Law, the four forces of flight and properties and states of matter. This year, the children were able to go out and see the planes on the airfield, giving them a taste of what being in an airplane is like.

Recently, a directive has come from the DoD issuing a revision to the curriculum used at STARBASE.

"We'll still be doing the STEM processes, but we're concentrating more on the hard sciences. We'll be doing more with physics and chemistry now. We're going to be doing more of the engineering, that's why the computer program we have is a little more involved," said Vanek.

The computer program used is called Pro Engineer. It is a 3D computer aided drafting program that uses solid modeling to give a design substance and attempts to capture product behavior. Essentially, the students learn to create a module on the computer, learn how to give it automation on the screen and then send the designed product to a 3D printer. The 3D printer builds the designed module layer by layer by exuding acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS plastic. The final result is a real, tangible product that started in the minds of the children.

"We try and touch on things that are happening, that are real and tangible, and this is why it makes sense in your life. I can remember being in sixth grade learning computer programs and all we kept doing was, of course this was when computers just came out, making circles on a screen. I was like, well this is great, I can make a circle, but what does it mean? What am I doing?" said Vanek.

Building plastic modules may not be along the lines of shooting rockets into the air, but with the move to create a national standard, Starbase has had to shift its curriculum to mirror what is being taught in schools.

"If we can tie in as much as possible to what they are doing and what those national standards are, then they can say, Starbase! This is wonderful! I can check this off and I've done this and they introduced this and I can actually do more of this in the classroom and benefit the kids that way," said Vanek. "Now instead of the teachers saying, yes, STARBASE is a great program, I enjoy coming, I'll fit it in. It's more, wow, Starbase is a part of my curriculum and I cannot wait to go."

In addition to hands-on and minds-on approaches, STARBASE teaches other vital skills that will help the students utilize the sciences and technologies learned during their week-long stay.

"We also do a lot with team building. We do a lot with self-esteem, we've done a lot with drug issues as well," explained Vanek. "When we had DEA officers, for example, come in here, you'll see the kids asking those questions and they are connecting it to their life and they are understanding what's happening. And you hope to catch them at a young age so, as they get older, they can really make those tough decisions. They will have that background to say, you know I remember something about that and I do have choices. "

STARBASE appears to be addressing a shortfall in children's educations within the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
According to the STARBASE Web site, during this decade, employment in science and engineering occupations is expected to increase at almost four times the rate for all occupations.

Additionally, an over-reliance on the math and science talent of foreign students represents a major potential weakness in the future competitiveness and vitality of the U.S. economy and workforce (Keeping America Competitive, Education Commission of the States).

There is an apparent increased demand for education in STEM fields.

"Nowadays, the way to reach kids is through technology. They don't have their heads outside playing with sticks anymore. They have their heads in Gameboys," Vanek said.