Starbase academy inspires future scientists using ... fun?

Students enjoy science in Department of Defense-funded Starbase academy

Staff writerJuly 27, 2013 

It’s not long after 0900 hours at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and the members of Alpha, Bravo and Charlie teams are ready for action. So are the Delta, Echo and Foxtrot squads.

Two dozen members of the Evergreen Starbase Summer Academy have assembled in their classroom on the grounds of McChord Airfield. Their mission: program a Lego robot and make it move along a designated path.

“It’s not going to think on its own,” teacher Kim Williams tells the class of young scientists in training.

“So, we basically have to tell it what to do?” questions one boy.

That’s affirmative.

Computer mice in hand, the kids are all ears as teacher Kristin Tarabochia , who team-teaches with Williams, coaches them through the software that will propel their robots.

Soon, teams of students are testing their programming theories to see if they can successfully complete the course.

The Starbase summer program, funded by the Department of Defense and free to students, is a fast-paced, four-day experience aimed at encouraging interest in science and technology among elementary school students.

Evergreen Starbase is hosted by the 194th Wing of the Washington Air National Guard. A similar program operates out of Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor. They’re among the more than 70 Starbase locations that served almost 70,000 students throughout the country in 2012. The average academy program costs a little more than $300,000 annually.

Starbase, which is just completing its first year at JBLM, runs year-round, offering classes for students from surrounding school districts who visit weekly over several weeks. The summer program operates two weeks, offering four six-hour days of learning.

The first group of summer Starbase kids at JBLM this year was from Stafford Elementary School in Tacoma. The second session included a mix of students, many from military families.

The curriculum covers a variety of topics, from fundamental math skills to applied science. But the attraction is simple: It’s loads of fun.

“It isn’t just learning, it’s mostly games,” said 10-year-old Anna Antin from Renton. “But a little learning grows into a lot of learning. You can relate it to life. And it’s fun.”

Not every Starbase student is a science geek. Simon Cognasso, an 11-year-old from Olympia, said his favorite thing in life is baseball. But he said Starbase is “not all work. It’s having fun, mixed up with learning new stuff.”

Kate Milligan, an 11-year-old from Yelm, said the best thing about Starbase is that “you get to experience it.”

The emphasis is on hands-on learning. This week, students were able to program robots, shoot rockets made of straws and build bridges using lasagna noodles, foam packing peanuts and other materials.

By far the favorite of many students was an assignment to crash a raw egg (codename: Eggbert) into a solid wall without breaking the egg. Students experiment with various materials — cotton balls, rubber bands, pipe cleaners — to cushion the blow.

Engineering an egg’s protective apparatus is a science teacher staple. But the Starbase added a twist.

“You have a budget,” said 9-year-old Alex Forstrom, who lives in Battle Ground but is staying with his grandparents in Tumwater during Starbase. “You choose what you buy.”

That includes cotton balls that go for a fictional $200, and a $900 spending cap.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635


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