Mass.-Based Military Program Brings Engineering to Low-Income Kids

Xavier Boss can hardly contain his zeal for explaining why one model stock car propelled by an eight-gram canister of CO2 won its race against a heavier car driven by a four-gram canister.

“Because it has more push,” exclaims the 11-year-old. “The one with the eight-gram force goes whoosh!”

It may not rank with the seminal moments in physics, but the fact that Boss has even learned to predict the general speed of these toys, by calculating mass and force, means he’s beaten the odds.

He’s taking part in a little-known program run by the Department of Defense to help public-school students, about 40 percent non-white and most from low-income areas, develop an interest in science, technology, math, and engineering.

Called STARBASE, the collection of science and technology classrooms are hidden behind the gates of 76 military and other government installations, including Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, where Boss and his classmates have come from the Longsjo Middle School in working-class Fitchburg.

Only a third of the students at Longsjo scored proficient on state assessment tests in math last year, and barely a quarter in science, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Eighty-five percent are low-income, and eight percent speak a native language other than English.

In the STARBASE (originally Science and Technology Academies Reinforcing Basic Aviation and Space Exploration) classroom at Hanscom the children are let loose in a blur of crew cuts and ponytails on wide-screen computer monitors and cutting-edge software, airplane models hanging from the ceiling, diagrams of the International Space Station on the walls, and carefully laid out trays of circuit boards and gleaming beakers for classroom experiments.

“We come into someplace like this—I mean, these are city schools and these are city kids, they don’t get this type of thing,” says Richard Maynard, one of Boss’s teachers.

The students name themselves the way pilots choose their call signs—Poseidon, Lion, Flash, Mars. It’s meant to help them leave their day-to-day identities back at school.

By the fifth day of the five-day program, the 10and 11-year-olds beg to play a math game and correctly recite Newton’s Third Law of action and reaction. Some cry when they get their graduation certificates and climb back into a big yellow school bus to pull back out the gate and leave for good.

Last year, students at this STARBASE improved the proportion of science and math questions they answered correctly from 44 percent to 62 percent from before they started to the day they finished.

“We’re just trying to get kids inspired before they check out, before they say science and math may be interesting, but it’s not for me, it’s only for those geeky kids,” says Cindy Bell, another teacher in the program.

It’s around fifth grade that students do check out, research has determined.

“Some turn off because they have elementary teachers that are themselves turned off,” says Peter Holden, the director of the Hanscom STARBASE. “There’s a big change between fifth and sixth grade. You’re suddenly going to be going from class to class, you’re being taught in subject areas. The content ramps up considerably. And if you’re not turned on already, suddenly it can be very intimidating.”

One result is that, by the time they graduate from high school, only 43 percent of students are prepared for college-level math—down 2 percentage points since 2012—and only 37 percent for college-level science, according to the organization that administers the ACT college-entrance exam.

Only 1.4 percent of high-school students take the Advanced Placement test in computer science, the College Board says, compared to 40 percent who take the AP test in English. If current trends continue, fewer than one percent of current elementary school students will seek advanced education in the sciences.

Even STARBASE reaches only about 70,000 students per year—just 700 per year at the Hanscom location. But it proves it’s possible to raise test scores and enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, and math, even among the least advantaged kids, say Holden, Bell, and others.

The program, whose funding was nearly cut in 2013, cost the Defense Department $24.3 million last year, or $343 per student, and boasts an enviable student-teacher ratio of 12:1.

But it’s not just money that makes learning possible, advocates say.

“There are things in here that you can buy at Walmart,” Holden says. It’s not the technology that’s holding [children] back.”

Instead, conventional schools are preoccupied with teaching students content for which they’re tested on assessment exams, and prefer that children stay in their seats rather than walk around a classroom, as they’re encouraged to do at STARBASE.

“These kids come from backgrounds where nobody ever gives them this kind of education,” Holden says.

They stand, cheer, and wave their clipboards as their “rocket cars”—wooden wedges with plastic wheels pushed by the kind of CO2 canisters cyclists use to refill tires—race along an aluminum track.

They don’t know they’re learning math or engineering, says Laurie Douglas, an administrator in the program, as she uses epoxy to join pieces of a model space station made in the classroom’s 3-D printer using computer-assisted design software.

“They’ll say, ‘What do you mean, that’s math?’” Douglas says.

When mechanical difficulties with the starting device slows the stock-car demonstration, the students learn another necessity of engineering: patience.

Not everyone is converted. “This game is stupid,” grumbles Viper.

But some are. Including Boss, whose STARBASE name is Horse.

“This is the best class ever,” he says during a break for lunch. “This is science. The whole thing is science. And science is one of my favorite subjects.”

Photo courtesy of STARBASE