As exemplified by its motto, “Hands On, Minds On,” the STARBASE Oregon program is founded on the philosophy that young students absorb more knowledge when they are immersed in experiential learning to explore the world around them.

“The kids learn a little bit better and they just enjoy it more,” said Jeremy Hand, a training development specialist for the STARBASE STEM Academy at Camp Rilea.

Between mid-September through the beginning of December, the fifth-grade classes at The Heights and Gearhart elementary schools will be cycling through a succession of five-week programs at the Camp Rilea STARBASE STEM Academy. Each class of students is attending the academy for five hours once per week for a five-week period, which culminates into about 25 hours of robust instruction in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects.

Making STEM accessible

Throughout their time at STARBASE Camp Rilea, the fifth-graders are being led by Hand and training development specialist Mike Yager — known to the students as Mr. Electric and Professor Plankton, respectively — through a variety of experiments that introduce them to chemistry, physics, computer-aided design, coding, and programming. Mathematics and engineering processes are woven throughout the curriculum, as the students use estimation, metric measurement, data analysis, and calculation geometry.

Fifth-grade teacher Brett Deur said he appreciates the collaborative aspect of the program and the ability for students to partake in experiments and then make modifications after gathering one set of results.

“The instructors take time to do it right,” he said. “They’ve already done all the planning, gathered all these materials.”

In Yager’s experience, the program supports “growth mindset.” It challenges students in a way that’s empowering and allows themselves to excel in subjects that might have felt intimidating before. Often, students begin “to see themselves as technologists or scientists, when they might not have ever done so before.” Yager added.

Bringing STARBASE to the Coast

The goal of STARBASE Oregon, which is funded by the Department of Defense but administered by the state, is to reach students who live in inner cities or rural locations and are under-represented in STEM fields. The state runs three STARBASE academies in Portland, Klamath Falls, and Camp Riles, the most recent addition. All three academies only invite students from Title I school districts, which includes Seaside School District.

The schools need only to be within a 40-minute bus ride of Camp Rilea to partake in the program, which makes it accessible schools in the Long Beach Peninsula, as well. Although the STARBASE academies must be established at and supported by military sites, there is nothing militaristic in the curriculum and no recruitment aspect to the program.

Retired Col. Todd Farmer, the training site manager, was instrumental in bringing STARBASE to Camp Rilea, although the program had previously expressed interest in establishing a North Coast location. After visiting the STARBASE academy in Portland, he recognized how the program could benefit students in the community. They have an opportunity to touch and work with materials they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, because the individual school districts “simply can’t afford some of the materials and the equipment,” Farmer said.

The students get spend concentrated amounts of time on experiments, there are no tests, and the environment is fun and interactive, creating an experience that engenders interest in STEM subjects “in a very positive manner,” Farmer added.

The STARBASE program started operating at Camp Rilea during the 2018-19 school year, but only 10 classes could attend before the academy transitioned into camps for the summer. The Seaside elementary classes were able to get into the rotation for the first time this fall.

“This is a pretty big deal and an example of a wonderful partnership to make learning real for students,” curriculum director Sande Brown said.

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