Imagine yourself an F16 pilot, suited up and thundering past the Green Mountains at more than 1,500 miles per hour. Or, as Amelia Earhart, the first American aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Then again, you might prefer to be the wizard behind the curtain and design aircraft using state-of-the-art computer-aided technology.


Fifth grade students at Fletcher Elementary did all of these things and more during their recent five-day participation in Starbase. An affiliate of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Starbase Vermont educational program is located on the Air National Guard base in South Burlington and focuses on teaching students about physics, chemistry, technology, engineering and math, with a focus on possible careers in those fields. Students spend 25 hours in the Starbase facility and the instructors also teach lessons at the school.

It was Amelia Earhart herself who once said, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” In many ways, this has become the teaching mantra at Starbase Vermont, where the lessons are hands-on and include everything from exploring an F16 jet in the hanger and flying planes using flight simulators, to studying gravity through cooperative games and learning about air pressure by experimenting on marshmallows.


“The teachers made it really exciting to learn about. They were all dramatic and excited. When we were learning about the molecules they pretended to be one of the molecules and made us laugh,” fifth grader Ava Place said. “My favorite part was when we pumped air in and out of a marshmallow. We learned that air actually has weight but we don’t ever think about that. Who knew?”

But, the program teaches much more than science. It’s mission includes fostering collaboration and healthy choices, exposing children to cutting-edge technology and building a sense of community. Each “Starbaser,” as they are called, selects a “call sign” like a pilot. The call sign represents them personally and they are referred to by that name throughout the Starbase experience.


“It made us more engaged and wanting to learn more,” fifth grader Zachary Bushey said. “The projects are super fun to do. You are learning a lot. We learned about teamwork. You had to work as a team because if you worked in different directions it would not go well,” Bushey said of one game where students were tasked with working together to place a can of “lunaranium” attached to strings onto a target.


“The experience that students participate in at Starbase continues the learning that we have given them here in STEM,” fifth and sixth grade teacher Tracey Godin said. “The teachers at Starbase really relate the learning back to actual real-world problems and professions.”

Starbase opened its doors in 1994 and reaches more than 1,300 Vermont students annually. There is no fee for schools to participate.


During the program’s physics component, students learn Newton’s Laws of Motion through hands-on experiments that include building and launching model rockets. Other topics include fluid mechanics and aerodynamics, much of which is learned through experiments and observations of military planes that enter and exit the base on which Starbase is housed. Exploring the base hanger, which housed two F16s, was a highlight for students this year.

“We learned a lot but it didn’t feel like we were learning. It was so much fun that I had no clue that we were actually learning all of this new stuff. I just thought that we were doing something really fun. Right after we did it I realized that we just learned a whole lot,” fifth grader Kaila Sheltra said.


Her classmate agreed. “I realized how much I learned once I got home and told my parents about all of the stuff we had explored. Then, I was like, whoa, we have learned a lot,” fifth grader Melissa Hall said.

Building blocks of matter, physical and chemical changes and atmospheric properties are all taught as part of the program’s chemistry strand. Additionally, technology innovations including the latest in mapping, nanotechnology, robotics and chromatography (a method for separating organic and inorganic compounds to determine their composition) are features.


“We learned about Newton’s three laws of motion. Especially the law ‘An object in motion stays in motion’ and that is why we need seatbelts. It you stopped suddenly in a car your body would keep moving if you didn’t have a seatbelt,” Bushey said.

Three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD), along with information about the engineering and design processes, comprise the engineering elements of the program, while number relationships, measurement, geometry and data analysis bring in the math. Among other projects, students used computers to design unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Every minute of the Starbase experience is rich with both academic and social skills,” Fletcher’s STEM Teacher Leader Denette Locke said. “At the same time that the students are exploring an F16 jet and learning about aerodynamics they are also being taught the social skills necessary to be part of a group and to be a guest outside of school. It’s a well-rounded experience that not only creates better, more excited scientists, but also more successful community members.”

Read more about Starbase Vermont here.

Target 3 – Flexible Learning Environments – FWSU maximizes flexible learning environments by redefining the school day, promoting learning experiences that extend beyond the classroom, and fostering creativity, innovation and personalized learning opportunities for all.

Action Steps – (1) Increase access to resources for all students. (2) Provide students with access to content, resources and methods for learning beyond the school day and beyond the school walls. (3) Develop opportunities for students to demonstrate transferable skills in authentic settings.

Indicators of Success – Staff, students and the community embrace digital, social, mobile learning styles. (2) The school calendar and definition of the school day is flexible and responsive to the needs of students. (3) Students engage in answering authentic questions and solving problems in collaborative settings. (4) Flexible learning environments are the context for collaboration and extend beyond the classroom.




Christopher Dodge is the Principal of Fletcher Elementary School and is a regular contributor to the FWSU Blog. You can follow him on Twitter @FletcherFalcon


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