STARBASE Duluth celebrates expansion – Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — The STARBASE education program based at the 148th Fighter Wing is celebrating new horizons, with an expanded space that allows more kids from across the Northland to get hands-on experience with science and engineering.

The Minnesota Starbase emblem.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

“Even in year one, we saw that there was far more interest in the program than we were able to handle in our old space with our two classrooms,” said Charity Johnson, director of STARBASE Duluth. With the program’s limited capacity, it was primarily serving students from the immediate Duluth area.

Now, STARBASE is able to serve more students from across Minnesota, including from tribal schools. “(Fond du Lac) Ojibwe School has been one of our partners from the very beginning,” said Johnson. “We’re hoping, with our expansion, that we can reach up to schools in the Nett Lake area and things like that — reaching these populations that are very underserved and underrepresented.”

The 7,000-square-foot expansion was actually completed in 2020, but Johnson said the program hasn’t been able to properly celebrate until now due to pandemic restrictions. On May 3, media representatives and other community members were invited to the facility to take a look at how kids are using the new space for activities like robotics.

“It’s not just going to a website and doing research,” said Johnson, reached by phone after the event. “They’re all very tech-savvy, and they all use iPads or tablets in school now — but we take that to the next level.”

Learning STEM.

An Ozobot robot moves along a black line toward a three-color command May 3.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

Conceived as an acronym for Science and Technology Academies Reinforcing Basic Aviation and Space Exploration, the STARBASE program was launched in 1991 as a Department of Defense youth program. A STARBASE facility opened at the 133rd Airlift Wing in St. Paul two years later, and in 2017 the program expanded to Duluth.

“We have a really unique mission here in partnership with the 148th,” said Johnson. At STARBASE, students plan missions to Mars and adopt “call signs,” or nicknames, in the style of fighter pilots. A student who had an interest in geology, said Johnson, by way of example, took the call sign “Agate.” (Other call signs, like “Hockey Player,” may not roll off the tongue quite so easily, but represent “something that they love.”)

At the event May 3, young alumni of the program delivered statements about their experiences. Zoe Pierson (call sign “Evergreen”), now a ninth grader, said she has the space race to thank for the technology that helped keep her alive when she and her twin sister were born prematurely.

Learning STEM.

Kianna “Sunset” Stolp, left, and Laura “Summer” Carlson work with an Ozobot robot to learn how to command it May 3. Stolp is holding the lit robot.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

At STARBASE, Pierson said, she was able to explore the possibility of a career in science and technology. “We made parachutes,” she said, “we did liquid experiments, we explored the planet Mars and learned about rovers, we got to play and learn with small robots, and so much more.”

Over 7,000 students have attended STARBASE Duluth since its founding. With programs offered both during the school year and during the summer, STARBASE focuses on students in or around fifth grade: an age range targeted because that’s where kids’ youthful enthusiasm about science often starts to taper off.

“We show them how STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) can really be in the real world, and I think giving it a real-world application really creates a lot of buy-in,” said Johnson. For “those who have confidence problems in STEM, (the experience) really changes their mindset and gives them the confidence to keep moving forward.”

Learning STEM.

Students and a teacher watch a F-16C Fighting Falcon jet fighter of the 148th Fighter Wing bank over the Starbase building, located on the Duluth Air National Guard Base, on May 3.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

Funding for STARBASE comes primarily from the federal government, said Johnson, with additional funds from the state and private donors. The program draws on science and technology professionals working in the area, who come to engage with the students who might pick up the torch.

“If you take (an) organization like Cirrus, a lot of these students have no idea this international organization is right here in our own backyard,” said Johnson. “We want to let students know those those careers exist here, and they don’t have to leave our region or our state to have a very successful career in STEM.”

Learning STEM.

Ten robots sit on chargers in the Duluth Starbase’s Bravo classroom May 3.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

For Pierson, picking up the torch meant literally picking up a windmill blade that she designed and created using a 3D printer. “What really intrigued me about this was when I realized that creativity and design fit into STEM,” she said.

“This is probably one of the most meaningful positions that I’ve ever held,” said Johnson, who’s led STARBASE Duluth since its founding. “The gratification that I get from this program is really the transformational events we see happening with the students every day … seeing students gain confidence in STEM and discover a skill set that they may not realize they had they had.”

Does Johnson have his own call sign?

“I do actually!” she laughed. “I don’t use it very often, but my call sign is ‘Galileo.’ My middle name is Star, and Galileo was a famous astronomer and philosopher. So that’s why I picked that name: I have an affinity for the stars.”

Star base 5

Scientific and exploration-themed murals line a hall in the Duluth Starbase.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

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