STEM program seeks second location in state

Shasta Jarmon of Starbase Arkansas illustrates a hallway and challenger board as part of the DoD Starbase experience proposed to southeast Arkansas school districts. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

A science, technology, engineering and mathematics program for youths is seeking to establish a second DoD Starbase in Arkansas.

DoD Starbase is the name of the youth education program developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. The program gives students an opportunity to learn STEM lessons and see how they are applied not only in the military realm but in other sectors of the workforce.

Starbase administrators from the Little Rock Air Force Base hope to receive a federal grant to install another such program at the Pine Bluff Arsenal. They visited with representatives from 15 southeast Arkansas school districts Wednesday at the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative to introduce Starbase.

"It is exposing them to STEM, but it's in a way that's hands-on, whereas a lot of times in school, it's reading, doing these worksheets, and that's everything we don't do," said Shasta Jarmon, deputy director of STARBASE Arkansas. "We teach a lesson, and then it's hands-on, and it's for every single student, and then it's exposing them to different careers with the military, so they know military is not just going into war and fighting, but it's people who are part of the fire department. It's people who are veterinarians. The traffic control centers. So, it's making military more real-world for students."

Starbase educates fifth-grade classes within a 1-hour radius of its classroom with a focus on Title I schools and students underrepresented in STEM. Title I schools serve a high percentage of students from low-income families and receive additional funding from the U.S. Department of Education.

Starbase's goal, however, is to expand its outreach to sixth to 12th grades.

"Once we have this program in place for a year, then we can advance inside the school districts, and that will be sixth through 12th grades," said Terri Williams, school liaison program manager with the Little Rock Air Force Base.

During the summer, Starbase offers a K-12 curriculum to youth camps and homeschoolers, among others.

Starbase requires letters of recommendation from school districts, public officials and/or other entities as part of the application process. If funded, the program will ask districts for 20 to 30 students to fill each class once per week for 25 total hours of STEM curriculum.

White Hall School District Superintendent Gary Williams sees a big benefit to adding the Starbase curriculum at a military installation right in his area.

"From our end, it's just a willingness to participate and get the kids to the locations," Williams said. "They're going to do the heavy lifting with the teachers, the resources, activities, so it's just a great opportunity for us. It's an easy consideration because of the proximity and access to great STEM quality education and exposure to all sorts of job opportunities. It's really an important thing not just for our kids but our region, as far as job development and workforce development."

Williams learned about Starbase with assistant superintendent Debbie Jones and fifth-grade science teacher Andi Lunsford during a visit to the Arsenal two weeks earlier.

"We were not sure what to expect or what to see but left with a lot of excitement because we could see all areas of math and science and ELA [English language arts] being implemented through this process," Jones said. "Our kids will get their hands on things they may not have been able to do before and see this as a great launching period before they get to sixth grade and middle school and get into the physical science realm."