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Starbase program faces budget cuts

A top-ranked and popular science program thousands of Miami Valley students, including Springfield students, have participated in could be torpedoed because of federal budget cuts impacting the Pentagon, area educators say.

Launched locally nine years ago, Starbase teaches science, technology, engineering and math skills to fifth graders on five-day field trips to the former Beverly Gardens Elementary School near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The Starbase academy, the only one in Ohio, has been ranked in the top three of 76 centers nationwide, officials said.

Across the nation, educators and advocates have urged a call to action on social media and started a petition drive on the White House blog urging people to ask the Obama administration and lawmakers to save Starbase.

The administration’s 2014 budget would cut funding for Starbase centers.

Locally, a letter was sent to educators that said the Department of Defense’s proposed 2014 budget did not include money for Starbase, and the program had not been transferred to the Department of Education with other STEM education initiatives, according to Peggy Van Oss, a Parkwood Elementary School teacher in the Beavercreek City School District.

The letter added it was “quite possible” the doors to Starbase could shut Sept. 30, but left open the possibility funding could be reinstated.

Students from the Springfield City School District have participated in the Starbase program, Superintendent David Estrop said.

“I would be very disappointed if that program fell victim to the funding cuts because it provides some additional opportunities for our students to explore science, technology, engineering and math,” he said.

Estrop pointed out that there has been a nationwide push to make sure students are ready for careers in those fields.

“We have a critical need for those skills in our country and we obviously have students interested in learning more about them,” he said. “The kind of activities that the kids engage in in the Starbase program build and encourage that interest. That’s got to benefit not only the students but Springfield, Ohio and ultimately, our nation.” At Wright-Patterson, Starbase started in 2004.

“In all of the nine years that I have been going to Starbase, this is as critical as it has ever been,” Van Oss said. “I’ve written letters on their behalf, but never before have they been told, ‘No, you’re done.’”

Students learn about topics ranging from nanotechnology to piloting flight simulators and using 3D printers to make parts for a miniature space station.

“The activities that they have and the training the staff has would be hard to duplicate,” said Karen Farwell, a Parkwood teacher who sent a letter to Congress to lobby for the program.

The Pentagon budgeted $26.3 million last year for Starbase academies in 40 states that taught more than 68,000 students, according to a Defense Department report. The program has taught about 750,000 students nationwide since it started in 1991 at a military base in southeast Michigan.

Despite repeated Springfield News-Sun requests, Pentagon, Wright-Patterson and White House Office of Management and Budget officials have not said specifically whether Starbase would be funded after Sept. 30.

The administration has proposed a reorganization and consolidation of federally funded STEM education in the next budget year, starting Oct. 1. Today, the government pays for 220 programs across 13 agencies at a cost of $3 billion.

“Under the president’s budget, the same amount of funding that currently supports K-12 STEM programs, including Starbase, would instead be invested in the Department of Education to implement an evidence-based initiative that will work with partners, such as universities, museums, the federal science agencies, and bases, to reach more teachers and students,” Jessica Santillo, press secretary at the White House Office of Management and Budget, wrote in an email. She added in an interview the changes are meant to reach more students.

The $315,000 local Starbase budget relies heavily on the Defense Department. The Pentagon pays 90 percent of the training. A Starbase foundation covers the remaining cost, according to Susan Schriver, plans and program chief of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Engineering Directorate, which has responsibility for the program.

The Pentagon-funded science and technology initiative is meant to inspire students to meet the nation’s need for future scientists, engineers and technicians, she said.

In an average year, the local Starbase teaches about 1,400 students, but many more want to attend, officials said.

“The demand is greater than what we can accommodate,” said Anne B. Krieder, chief of resources and force development at the AFLCMC Engineering Directorate.

When they return to their home schools, students often enter science fairs and ask teachers for tougher science classes, said Connie Jensen, Starbase’s local deputy director and one of 10 staff members who teach.

“We try to capture them at an early age to capture that enthusiasm,” she said. “They want to do hands-on, but they want to know more.”

In a recent visit, 80 students at Jane Chance Elementary School from the Miamisburg City Schools trekked between classrooms, or “hangars.” Each attendee had a pilot-like “call sign.”

Timothy Leblanc, 11, and a Jane Chance fifth grader with the call sign “Poseidon,” said he’s used to learning about science from books rather than hands-on learning, which fellow classmates had enjoyed more.

Fellow classmate Bailey Smith, 11, call sign “Bay Bay,” said Starbase expanded what career she may want to pursue from law to engineering.

“I used to want to be a lawyer, but the engineering part was really fun,” she said.

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