After an unintended break due to sequestration, the Wisconsin Air National Guard's STARBASE Wisconsin program has resumed operations in Milwaukee.
STARBASE ó Science and Technology Academies Reinforcing Basic Aviation and Space Exploration ó is like a booster class in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for elementary students. Located in Building 301 in the Army Reserve Center at 5130 West Silver Spring Drive, STARBASE Wisconsin draws students from area Milwaukee Public School system classrooms.
According to Col. John Puttre, Wisconsin Air National Guard director of staff, once it became clear that a federal budget would not be approved by Oct. 1 of last year, the plug was reluctantly pulled on STARBASE. The STARBASE staff are state "project" employees ó meaning they are hired for a specific job for a specific duration ó but the state receives federal funds from the Department of Defense to pay them.
"We had to close the doors a little early, so we did that," Puttre said. "Packaged everything up, boxed everything up in case the program didn't come back, and then we waited.
"It really set our program back to square one, which is where we are now," he continued. "We had four instructors putting through about 1,500 students, maybe a little more than that per year."
When funding resumed, most of the original STARBASE Wisconsin staff had found other jobs. Dr. Charisse Sekyi (pronounced SAYchee), STARBASE Wisconsin director, returned and has been joined by two new instructors.
Sekyi anticipates that the program ó which started again in late February ó will work with approximately 250 students from 11 classes before the school year ends. STARBASE Wisconsin will also hold a five-week course during summer school, and will begin its fall session in mid-August with four year-round schools.
"We can't make up for lost time," Sekyi said.
While the number of students able to participate in the program may be reduced for now, the expectations have not.
"STARBASE remains focused on exposing children in MPS to engaging STEM activities to inspire a curiosity and love of science," Sekyi said, noting that reading and math often crowd out science lessons as elementary teachers often have limited experience teaching science ó particularly in schools and districts where achievement is lower.
"Elementary science curricula isn't particularly hands-on or engaging," Sekyi explained, "and schools don't tend to have the funds to purchase the kinds of things we make available to kids at STARBASE."
Puttre said the Department of Defense recognized years ago that they would be outsourcing more and more national defense products and requirements if the United States did not produce more of its own engineers, mathematicians and scientists in the coming years. That concern prompted the funding for STARBASE programs across the nation.
"The STARBASE program itself is one of the first steps in the education path for these kids," Puttre said. "This is the first time they're introduced to any of the STEM program categories where we actually do hands-on experiments."
Some of the lessons in STARBASE Wisconsin's five-week, 25-hour course include robotics programming, Newton's laws of motion, molecules, mapping and navigation with GPS, physics experiments, and 3-D computer-aided design software.
In addition, guest speakers from the 128th Air Refueling Wing, the Milwaukee Police Department bomb squad and a university professor who used to be a research scientist explain how STEM skills help them in their jobs.
"So they see it's not that hard to learn a STEM career because you break it down into the smaller segments," Puttre said. "The students learn that science, technology, engineering and math can be fun, and they learn there are good careers out there and we need that for our nation to be able to compete."
STARBASE Wisconsin is one of approximately 70 such programs nationwide. The program began as a collaborative venture between the Michigan Air National Guard and an elementary school teacher, and is now a Defense Department-funded initiative. The program is free to participating elementary schools.