STARBASE: The student becomes the scientist

Minnesota-Duluth chapter launches interest in STEM careers

A fifth-grade teacher was moved to tears at the closing ceremony of the week-long STEM program for budding scientists and engineers at STARBASE Minnesota-Duluth.

One of her students, a little girl, was normally withdrawn, reluctant to participate, and unlikely to engage with classroom material. But over the course of her week at STARBASE, something changed. She raised her hand. She asked questions. She sat in the front row.

She enjoyed learning.

And now, in front of her classmates, their parents, STARBASE educators, and STEM professionals, she spoke these words aloud for all to hear: “I want to be an engineer.”

“I never thought I would see this happen,” her teacher whispered to Charity Johnson, director of STARBASE Minnesota-Duluth. Johnson said her eyes filled with tears, too, knowing that the non-profit organization’s free, hands-on program might have changed the course of this child’s life.

“Stories like that happen over and over again,” Johnson says. “Teachers tell us they see a transformation in their students.”

More than 2,000 fifth-grade students from the Duluth region are invited to spend a week at STARBASE, learning what it really means to work in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—fields.

“For a week, students are able to become that scientist, become that engineer, through engaging, hands-on challenges,” Johnson explains.

The organization gives priority to schools with higher populations of students who face economic instability, as well as those that represent racially and culturally diverse backgrounds.

Like all 78 STARBASE programs in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Guam, the Duluth contingency is a program of the Department of Defense. The Minnesota National Guard provides facilities, equipment and access to professionals to work with the kids to demonstrate what it’s really like to work in STEM.

“Students receive the impact of what doing math and science in the professional world looks like,” Johnson says. “They see the real-world applications of why they’re learning decimals, multiplication, medians.

“When they see how they would use these skills in the future, it helps them feel vested in what they’re learning,” she adds. “Our organization prides itself on being cutting-edge when it comes to offering students the opportunity to experience innovative technology, whether that’s scientific equipment like a turbidity meter or the latest in virtual reality.”

The organization recently moved into an expanded facility on the Duluth Air National Guard Base. Previously, Johnson and her team of licensed educators operated in two classes, serving 1,400 students a year.

In the new 7,000 square-foot space, more than 2,300 students a year experience the program, says Johnson, although financial needs have increased along with the volume of space and number of students.

Enbridge recently supported STARBASE Duluth with a grant of $25,000 to outfit the new classrooms with technology, equipment, and supplies that help bring STEM careers to life for the students. Enbridge staff also volunteered as guest speakers at the STARBASE graduation ceremonies, sharing inspiring words about the opportunities available for kids pursuing STEM education.

“These experiences make STEM real. They allow the students to see themselves in a different way,” says Johnson. “Kids find their inspiration, and realize that a future in STEM can be for anyone.”