HAFB STEM program ‘reaching for the stars’

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HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — A team of educators at Hill AFB are reaching nearly 1,800 local elementary students every year with an exciting course aimed at opening young minds to possible careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The STARBASE program is part of a nationwide Department of Defense effort to excite elementary school children in STEM. There are 65 STARBASE sites around the country, but only a handful on military installations.

“Studies have shown that the United States is graduating fewer and fewer kids into STEM careers. Many students lose interest in science and math in the later years of elementary school. That’s why we host 6th graders,” said Frances Bradshaw, who runs the STARBASE program at Hill.

At Hill Air Force Base the program is campus-based. Entire 6th grade classes from schools across Davis County spend one full day per week for five weeks. Funded entirely by the DOD through an annual appropriation, it is completely free for schools and students.

About 60-70 students per day rotate through different discovery-based activities – from robotics and rocket building to three-dimensional modeling and chemistry – each rooted in a compelling narrative meant to spark their interest. The children may be ‘fixing’ the international space station’s electrical problems one day, and ‘securing’ the national mall with an automated robot the next.

“The old-school way of teaching science was mapped out. If you followed the instructions, you know what the outcome would be. But, we’re more interested in discovery and problem-solving,” Bradshaw said.

During the program the children are also challenged to design a fix for a specific problem. They have time, funding and resource constraints and need to work together. Because of this approach, children are also learning communication and collaboration skills.

“Pencil and paper is boring. Here, they’re able to get hands on experience and put things into real-life perspective. They come back to school excited,” said Jeri Thomas, principal of Adelaide Elementary in Bountiful. “It’s great because there’s so much variety they come back excited about different things – some about robotics, some about chemistry.”

Bradshaw, who has worked in education for more than 30 years and is an educational consultant for schools in several states, was initially drawn to STARBASE because of the potential to reach every child at participating schools, many of whom for family, cultural, or economic reasons, may never have been exposed to the possibility of a STEM career.

“You can’t reach for a star you don’t know is there,” Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw has crafted the program to be all-inclusive. It’s during the school day so everyone in class comes, not just those who are available after school, or are “mathletes,” or who can get a ride from an available parent. It’s not limited to specific teachers’ schedules, because the entire grade participates, including special-needs classes. There is an open enrollment camp for private schools, home-schools, and children who go to schools that have not signed up to participate in STARBASE.

While the children are learning principles of design and engineering – even using the same software as Boeing and NASA – there is also a portion of the curriculum designed to expose children to hands-on careers in STEM, like technicians, electricians and mechanics.

“We’re not here to make the children learn how to follow instructions. We’re here to expose, excite and inspire children.”

The STARBASE program runs from August to June every year and educates 1,700-1,800 children.