STARBASE MAXWELL - helping kids soar through math and science

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- For students experiencing STARBASE Maxwell, there is no such thing as a typical day. Mornings may find them hovering 3 inches above the ground in hovercraft, learning about air and atmospheric conditions such as low and high pressure.

STARBASE Maxwell helps local fifth-grade students pursue math- and science-related disciplines light years beyond what their grade level is expected to cover. On their five-day educational journey, they discover advanced concepts through hands-on learning experiences, including rocketry, hovercraft and simulator flight.

"There's a cliché in education about when the light bulb comes on," said Chip Haughton, director of STARBASE Maxwell. "We see it every day, every single day."
STARBASE is designed to maximize learning for at-risk youth by bringing seemingly difficult science, math, engineering and technology concepts down to earth by giving them real-world applications and, by making these concepts less intimidating, encouraging students to pursue engineering career fields.

Subjects highlighted include biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, computer-automated design, algebra, geometry and trigonometry. "Everything we do has hard applications," said Mr. Haughton. "They don't just arbitrarily do numbers. Everything is hands-on."

Children learn the math and science fundamentals key to the success of exciting projects. For instance, to launch model rockets, students must apply trigonometry, Newton's second law and physics.

Other core curriculum concepts include the four forces of flight, Bernoulli's Principle, properties of air, the development and use of technology, properties and states of matter, flight simulation, space exploration, goal setting, teamwork and avoiding substance abuse.

Classes meet one day a week for five weeks for a total of 25 intense contact hours. "In the five days the children are here, I want them to feel like they climbed Mount Everest to graduate," said Mr. Haughton. "Why should just the star athletes have a swagger when they walk down the hall? Why not the smart children?"

This year, STARBASE Maxwell will host 35 classes from 10 schools in five school systems - Montgomery County, Autauga County, Elmore County, Maxwell Elementary School (a DoD elementary school) and the Homeschool Association. Liaisons with the school's superintendents determine which classes they'll attend. Locally the program impacts, on average, more than 1,000 students a year.

Students targeted by the program include students who live in inner cities or rural locations, those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, low in academic performance or have a disability, according to STARBASE program information.

The outreach program has generated outstanding results that are reflected in their school's standardized testing data. "On the SAT, there's a 22-percent differential between STARBASE class attendants and non-STARBASE attendants," said Mr. Haughton. "We don't teach the SAT, but we do teach higher-level thinking skills."

Students enjoy the unique learning opportunities found at STARBASE. "It is one of the greatest things that's happened. It's really fun," said Chandler Truss, a Pine Level Elementary student. Of all the lessons he's learned, the tidbit of information he found most interesting relates to physics - finding out "what my weight is on other planets," said Chandler. He also noted that the program has helped him explore his career options. "I want to study fish or be an astronaut," he said.

A small, enthusiastic staff of teachers and administrators makes the STARBASE educational magic happen, including Mr. Haughton, an Air Force retiree, deputy director Lynn Myers and administrator Beth Moody, both dependent spouses of Air Force officers here at Maxwell.

The excitement of learning is contagious, admits Mrs. Moody. "I love it. It's the most rewarding job I've ever had. It's an amazing experience to watch this because they learn so much."

STARBASE Maxwell is the Department of Defense-funded program's only site in the state. "We have not even scratched the surface of private schools that want to come," said Mr. Haughton. "We've had inquiries from Mobile to Huntsville. The word has gotten out about what we do. Initially, we were targeting schools and selling the program. Now the program sells itself."

The program endeavors to address troubling statistics behind an erosion of engineering manpower numbers in America. American children are falling behind their global peers in math and science, according to a special analysis released recently by the National Center for Education Statistics.

To compensate for the related shortfall in the American engineering workforce, the U.S. has turned to foreign-born students. However, an over-reliance on foreign students represents a major potential weakness in the future competitiveness and vitality of the U.S. economy and workforce because of the increasing global competition for these workers, according to "Keeping America Competitive: Five Strategies to Improve Mathematics and Science Education." This 2005 report was prepared by Charles Coble and Michael Allen, Education Commission of the States.

"We're basically planting the seeds to grow our own engineers, mathematicians and scientists," said Mr. Haughton. "We address these hard subjects in a unique way to wipe away the stigma of these subjects being hard."

Nationally, the STARBASE program has grown from one woman's dream into a 60-site national DOD-supported program in classrooms in 34 states, the District of Columbia, Indian Reservations, and U.S. Territories.

Almost 20 years ago, educator Barb Kosack envisioned using aerospace to instill math and science concepts to children by having students observing the work of the men and women of the military to explain and demonstrate the use of science, math, engineering and technology in their careers.

This vision was first realized with the aid of the Air National Guard on Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich. In 1993, buoyed by Congressionally allocated funds, the program expanded to seven states, and it's been growing ever since, providing stimulating learning experiences to more than 450,000 students.

The initiative at Maxwell was adopted by Col. Joan Garbutt, a major and a mission support commander at the time, launched in the summer of 2004 for the 2004-2005 school year. "We like that there are people that were here at the beginning and can see how hard we've worked," said Mrs. Myers. "We've enjoyed success and overcome a lot of hurdles."

Mr. Haughton emphasized that although the Department of Defense funds the program, it is not meant as a military preparatory program. 

STARBASE Maxwell is the only STARBASE site on an active-duty Air Force Base, with other sites located at Navy, Marine, National Guard, Air Force Reserve and Army Reserve bases.