Above and beyond

Elizabeth Miller, deputy director at Starbase Academy in Winchester, engages with a student after averaging the data from their recent rocket experiment. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — Susan Corrigan has said that hers is the best teaching job there is.

The program director at Winchester STARBASE Academy teaches elementary school students who love what they’re learning and can’t wait to come back for more.

At the end of each week, she often hears a common refrain: “Why can’t school be like this?”

This week fifth grade students in Sarah Erickson’s class at Frederick County’s Apple Pie Ridge Elementary School were learning engineering, atmospheric properties, fluid mechanics and aerodynamics, data analysis, geometry, chemistry and nanotechnology.

And that’s only the half of it.

Ellie Nichols, 10, left, pours an Alka-Seltzer and water cocktail to fuel a rocket experiment while classmates Kaylin Whitacre, 12, center, and Lisette Hernandez, 11, right, look on. The Winchester students were comparing how far the rocket would go with various amounts of fuel and then averaging and graphing their results. Rich Cooley/Daily

They learned global positioning systems and search and rescue tactics. They launched rockets and planned to build rockets later in the week. They learned about computer-aided design, and even at lunch passed up free time to watch videos of Bill Nye “The Science Guy.”

“This program is something they would never get anywhere else,” Corrigan said.

One of dozens of locations run through the Department of Defense, STARBASE Academy is free for students and their school districts because it’s federally funded and sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs.

STARBASE stands for Science and Technology Academies Reinforcing Basic Aviation and Space Exploration.

Only the cost of transportation and a bag lunch is required for students to attend for a week of hands-on learning experiences in STEM education.

Michael Parker, 11, of Winchester, uses his calculator as he averages data from the smartboard in class at Starbase Academy in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily

But when STARBASE opened in Winchester three years ago in the city’s National Guard Armory at 181 Pendleton Drive, Corrigan remembered it was met with skepticism.

Nobody really knew what it was, fearing it had something to do with military recruitment, and school divisions were hesitant to send their students for fear of them losing a week of instruction.

But 25 hours at STARBASE wins them all over, Corrigan assured. Far from losing instruction time, teachers are pleased to discover their students enjoy the challenge of learning math and science in ways they never have before. Even better, these lessons apply to their Standards of Learning curriculum.

New to Frederick County Public Schools, Erickson admitted the five-day requirement left her slightly terrified.

To lose a whole week, she said, “It makes you nervous, but then coming here … . It doesn’t really feel like losing a week of instruction. You’re gaining so much more.”

Halfway through the week, 11-year-old Emily Rios said her favorite part so far was using a GPS to locate prizes in a treasure hunt. Different from the sort of GPS she’s experienced in cars or on cell phones, she said this one didn’t have a touch screen, so it took some time for her and a partner to navigate toward the end result.

Madison McDonald, 11, enjoyed the opportunity of launching a rocket and learning about Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion.

“I think it’s really fun, and I think it’s really nice of them to give us the privilege of doing this,” she said.

A self-proclaimed science fan, she said she wasn’t that big into math before.

“It’s a lot easier now,” she said.

STARBASE mostly draws from schools in Frederick, Clarke and Winchester, though Corrigan said Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal plans to come later this spring, and Signal Knob Middle School in Strasburg has attended a couple of times.

The academy also recently secured its first workshop for Clarke County teachers who asked how they might integrate STARBASE lessons into classrooms.

In particular, STARBASE benefits Title 1 schools which, with vast populations of children from low income households, can’t afford the sort of equipment needed to supply lessons they can use for free at STARBASE.

STARBASE runs 28 to 31 sessions a year and three to four each summer; two-thirds of the sessions are for Title 1 schools, and Corrigan said there’s space to add a second teacher and double that number, but funding has been a challenge.

For the third year in a row, she said, President Barack Obama has signed a presidential request not to fund STARBASE academies with federal money anymore. Funding was restored last year and again this year, but a 2016 fiscal year budget estimate for civil military programs operation and maintenance, defense-wide, posted at http://comptroller.defense.gov, has tagged the Department of Defense STARBASE program as terminated for the upcoming year.

Three years ago when Winchester STARBASE opened, others around the country started closing after a governmental sequestration interrupted funding, Corrigan said. Since the closing of Norfolk’s location, Winchester is the only one left in Virginia.

Still, Corrigan said she was surprised to learn the program was in danger again of not being funded and encourages the community to contact state and local lawmakers to save STARBASE.

“[It’s] shocking,” she said, “to take away funding of a proven program.”

Contact Winchester STARBASE Academy at 540-686-4964 or http://starbasewinchester.webs.com.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com