What could make at-risk fifth-graders in some of America’s most academically challenged schools develop an interest in science, mathematics and engineering?
For Duval County students, it’s participating in the Starbase Florida educational program, said Greg Stritch, the program’s director who was the guest speaker at Monday’s meeting of the Rotary Club of Jacksonville.
He said the Starbase program began 17 years ago in Detroit, funded by a grant from Kellogg’s. It has since been taken under the wing of the Department of Defense.
It provides at-risk students with 20-25 hours of experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at more than 60 National Guard, Navy, Marine, Air Force and Air Force reserve bases in the United States and Puerto Rico.
“Most of our students have never been to the beach or a movie theater or had pizza delivered to their house. Most have never been to an airport,” said Stritch.
Local students attend the program at the headquarters of the Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Group at Jacksonville International Airport.
Students receive 25 hours of instruction over five days. More than 1,100 students from challenged schools will be enrolled in 30 Starbase classes this year.
The target group for Starbase is fifth-graders because it’s a benchmark in education.
Stritch said the program is paying dividends. While enrolling only students from D and failing public schools, last year every school that participated in the program met its yearly progress goals.
“If a student arrives in middle school and he’s not excited about math and science, there’s a good chance that student won’t graduate from high school,” said Stritch.
He said the science and mathematics education is “disguised” as planning cross-country flights where they calculate speed, distance and fuel consumption.
In another element, students use computer software to design wings and then test their designs on a computerized simulator.
“It teaches the students how an airplane gets off the ground and gets them deep into an understanding of why we use mathematics,” said Stritch.
The students also study mapping and navigation and use GPS equipment for a scavenger hunt on the Florida Air National Guard base.
Model rocketry also is part of the curriculum.
“Kids love to blow things up. We do it safely,” Stritch said.
Students have the opportunity to experience the guard’s flight simulators – the same ones used for training by National Guard fighter pilots.
Stritch said some of the Starbase alumni enter the Civil Air Patrol cadet program and “they make really good pilots after training on the simulators.”
Another advantage of holding the classes on the base is the mentoring the students receive from the military officers.
Stritch told of one student who made a presentation to his classmates and the teacher from his public school.
The student explained an experiment about takeoff speeds of F-15 jets. At one point, the student displayed a graph and said that analyzing it was calculus because “that’s how you explain curvy things.”
At that point, Stritch said, the student’s teacher said to the youngster in front of his classmates and a group of Air National Guard pilots in the back of the room that he would never be able to understand calculus.
“You could see him deflate. His shoulders slumped,” said Stritch.
After the presentation, one of the pilots took the student aside, said Stritch. The officer told the fifth-grader he believed the teacher was misguided.
“Don’t you ever listen to anything she says when she tells you you can’t do something,” the officer told the student.
James Agee, chairman of Starbase Florida’s board of directors and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, said funding from the Department of Defense covers only instructor salaries.
He said the organization conducts fundraising campaigns to cover the cost of equipment and student transportation.
“Starbase needs the community to get behind it,” he said.