Maxwell STARBASE attracts attention of NORAD commander's wife

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- On a scale-model Martian landscape riddled with boulders, robotic rovers rolled in response to the students' careful programming. The excited students cheered, laughed and applauded the programmed behavior of the robots they created as the voyagers explored the equivalent of 1,600 square miles of rocky, other-worldly terrain.

Students from Maxwell Elementary School's gifted class displayed their programming savvy at the basement home of STARBASE Maxwell. Watching their robotic triumphs were special guests Jill Renuart, the wife of North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command Commander Gen. Victor Renuart; Lynn Peck, the wife of Air University Commander Lt. Gen. Allen G. Peck; and Deborah Beasley, the wife of 42nd Air Base Wing Commander Col. Kris D. Beasley.

The Department of Defense's STARBASE program brings the excitement of hands-on learning to at-risk and DoD students at 60 similar sites in 34 states, and has made a difference to thousands of students in its nearly 20-year lifespan. Much to Ms. Renuart's disappointment, though, there is no STARBASE available for elementary students in Colorado, a disparity she's been trying to correct for two years. This visit to STARBASE Maxwell is part of a fact-finding tour to help her better understand how individual STARBASE sites operate.

Although Ms. Renuart would be happy with a STARBASE program anywhere in Colorado, she thinks a STARBASE site would be most effective in Colorado Springs, Colo., since it has both the educational aerospace and technological possibilities, as well as a target audience that would benefit greatly from the program's science, math, engineering and technology lessons.

"Colorado Springs is home to the Air Force Academy and Fort Carson. In the summer, kids from Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy could attend the STARBASE program so we would reach not only students from [Colorado Springs School] District 11, but military dependents from 3 locations - Peterson, AFA, and Fort Carson. That is why I think that the program should be in Colorado Springs instead of Denver," she said. Peterson is the home of NORAD, the U.S. Northern Command and the Air Force Space Command, giving a STARBASE located there optimum educational resources upon which to draw. "I live at a base with rocket scientists, literally," she said.

Funding has been the biggest obstacle, said Ms. Renuart. "The programs that are already in existence are underfunded. I'm trying hard to shake the tree," she said. Congress recently voted supplemental funding to maintain the existing programs, she noted, and she's trying to convince members of Congress to increase the funding so that more sites can be launched and more kids can experience the educational enhancement of STARBASE activities.

The results make the program worth fighting for, noted Chip Haughton, the STARBASE Maxwell director. He said, "On the SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test], there's a 22-percent differential between STARBASE class attendants and non-STARBASE attendants." He also noted that teachers involved in the program continue STARBASE's hands-on techniques and high standards long after the course's 5-day timeframe has ended. "This program has tentacles that you wouldn't believe," he said.

Ms. Renuart was introduced to the educational possibilities of STARBASE at a CORONA, an Air Force senior leader conference held three times a year. She and other generals' wives were briefed on the program and participated in a hands-on experiment, combining chemicals to heat up a bag. "Imagine a bunch of general's wives sitting there playing with chemicals," she mused.

At that initial briefing, she learned that Colorado was expected to get a program. However, because of a funding shortfall, that plan fell through. Thus began her two-year quest.

STARBASE Maxwell is currently 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. 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. By making these concepts less intimidating, STARBASE encourages students to pursue engineering career fields. According to STARBASE program information, 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.

The concept was started almost 20 years ago by educator Barb Koscak, who envisioned using aerospace as a way of bringing math and science down to earth by having students observe the work of the men and women of the military, who would explain and demonstrate the use of science, math, engineering and technology in their careers.