The FWSU Story: Fletcher Students Experience “Out of this World” Learning at STARBASE

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning just doesn’t get any more exciting than watching a pair of sleek F-35 jets thunder off into the horizon. Or, does it? How about building flatulence molecules (yes, that’s a fart!) to learn about the periodic table of elements or designing actual working rockets that travel more than 200 feet into the air to accelerate one’s knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion? These adventures, and more, are being experienced by Fletcher’s fifth and sixth grade students.

The class has been on the Vermont Air National Guard base in Colchester as part of a five-day program called STARBASE. An affiliate of the U.S. Department of Defense, STARBASE focuses on teaching students about physics, chemistry, technology, engineering, and math, with an emphasis on possible careers in those fields. Students spend 25 hours in the STARBASE facility and the instructors also teach lessons at the school.

“Programs like STARBASE are important because it gives learners opportunities to see how science, technology, engineering, and math can be applied to everyday life,” Fletcher’s fifth and six grade teacher, Lorrene Palermo, said. “Since STARBASE is located at the Air National Guard base it also allows for students to see these important life skills in everyday careers. We had the opportunity to visit the Fire Department on base and made many great connections to student learning that we experienced at STARBASE.”

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 jet technology in the hanger and flying planes using flight simulators, to studying gravity through cooperative games and learning about air pressure by experimenting on marshmallows.

But, the program teaches much more than science. Its 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.

“STARBASE has been my favorite part of the year. The science is just really fun to do. They teach it to you in creative and fun ways like designing a space shuttle that protects an egg when launched,” fifth grader, Collin Lucci, said. 

“They explain the lessons in a way that is fun and interesting,” sixth grader, Sabrina Nadeau, said. “They go over everything step by step to make it easier and it’s just fun to do things like design space vehicles on the computer and doing coding. It’s a fun place to be.”

STARBASE opened its doors in 1994 and reaches more than 1,300 Vermont students annually. There is no fee for schools to participate. The program even offers schools financial support with transportation. 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. 

“I liked building different shapes on the computer that helped me design my own space shuttle,” fifth grader,, Fletcher Simonds, said. “Math and literacy are still part of STARBASE, but with explosions in a tube and other cool stuff it’s very exciting.”

“It was really cool to get to see planes taking off right outside the window. The whole time we’re there it’s about science and testing out our theories and learning about the work that scientists do,” fifth grader, Maddie Weaver, said. 

Students also had the opportunity to meet and speak with Brigadier General Greg Knight, the Adjutant General for the State of Vermont, who is responsible for the recruiting, administration, equipping, training, maintenance, and readiness of the 3400 Vermont National Guard soldiers. Knight spoke about the importance of school and taking every educational opportunity they were given. 

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.

​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.

“Place-based experiences such as STARBASE spark memorable learning opportunities for our young students,” Fletcher’s Instructional Coach, Denette Locke, said. “From these experiences we are apt to be in the presence of the future chemist or scientist who creates the next great cure or helps to come up with the solution to global warming. Perhaps the community partners on the base inspired a future firefighter, pilot or the next general. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematical learning will transfer back to their in class learning and that of future dreams, inspirations and careers.”

Students’ last STARBASE experience is scheduled for early February, when they will launch their homemade rockets at the school.  Read more about STARBASE Vermont here.

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

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