FORT POLK, La. — A thirst for knowledge and the ability to satisfy that need is a worthy goal for everyone, but especially military children. That’s one of the reasons Fort Polk applied for entrance into the Department of Defense STARBASE Youth Program and has recently been chosen as a participant in the program, a boon to Fort Polk’s quality of life for parents and their school-age children.
DoD STARBASE is sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. The program offers students opportunities to participate in challenging “hands-on, minds-on” activities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Students interact with military personnel to explore careers and observe STEM applications in the “real world.” The program provides students with 25 hours of stimulating experiences at National Guard, Marine, Air Force Reserve, Army and Air Force bases across the nation,
Tiffany Koch, Fort Polk’s school liaison officer, said the program is a state of the art STEM program.
“Exposure to this type of technology tends to spark creativity, problem solving and higher order of thinking in kids because they begin to realize how often things are changing in the fields of science and technology every day,” she said.
Koch said students might have only seen those kinds of changes in the STEM fields on television and it probably looks surreal or maybe even a bit like science fiction to them.
“Getting them to experience this curriculum first hand can spark interest in STEM fields, which can lead to an influx in STEM careers,” she said. “Hopefully, in their generation, this kind of education could lead to a renaissance or change of thinking that, in turn, could lead to a lot of scientific innovation,” she said.
Koch said the impetus for applying to the DoD STARBASE program came about through recent quality of life visits from education experts such as Edith K. Pickens, a Highly Qualified Expert to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and senior advisor for Workforce Development and Integration. On Pickens’ visit to Fort Polk in February 2020, she toured local schools and talked with Fort Polk leadership, local educators and military parents and children.
There were particular components Fort Polk had to have in place to be accepted into the STARBASE program.
“There had to be a qualified school district in the area with an underserviced demographic population in a rural location. Vernon Parish falls into those categories,” she said.
That’s why the Vernon Parish School Board was chosen as Fort Polk’s community public school partner (there must be a military DoD partner in any of the four service branches).
“We checked those blocks. The Vernon Parish School District also told us that one of the challenges they have is finding a robust STEM curriculum that meets their state standards that they can afford. With those facts in mind, we felt we were the perfect fit for this program.”
The initial STARBASE grant focuses on fifth graders to motivate them to explore STEM opportunities as they continue their education. Koch said fifth grade is an ideal time to spark a child’s interest in STEM fields. The program will be an extension of the student’s classroom curriculum. Classroom teachers will also have a role in the program.
“Fifth graders at Vernon Middle School and Pickering Elementary School will participate in this program in our rollout year (2022),” she said. In school year 2022-2023 we will look to expand to all of Vernon Parish fifth graders, as well as possibly adding an additional school district,” she said.
Koch said the program also has the potential to grow to include after-school and summer programs if successful.
“Once the momentum gets going with the STARBASE program, it can expand into sixth, seventh and eighth grade through an after-school program, while summer camps would concentrate on kindergarten through second, third and fourth grade students,” she said.
Koch said she believes another reason Fort Polk was chosen is because the installation is able to provide a choice building to house the program with the potential for expansion.
“The DoD team that visited Fort Polk to do a site selection toured the possible facilities we planned to house the program and took note of how much work had to go into each building. The garrison gave them three choices and they were impressed with all of them, but bldg 744 — a child development center in the footprint of the Education Center and Allen Memorial Library — was one of the reasons we were chosen. It’s an ideal space for kids,” she said.
Because of the increased demand and cost of building materials due to hurricanes impacting Fort Polk and the surrounding area, as well as COVID-19 slowing down the work crews making those repairs due to social distancing and safety issues, the building refurbishment won’t be completed in time for the August 2021-2022 school year, which was the original plan, said Koch.
“We want to get students in as quickly as we can. So, we have a soft target of January 2022 or as close to it as possible to get the DoD STARBASE program started,” she said. “That way we can show people that it’s working and have student feedback so we can go full throttle with the program in 2022-2023.”
When STARBASE does open, students will ride a bus from their school to the STARBASE location for their classes.
“This program is an extension of their learning and takes place one day a week. On a STARBASE day children will arrive at school, get on the bus and spend the day. Afterwards, they will ride back to their school just in time to get on the bus to go home,” said Koch.
Students will continue the curriculum already taking place at their school. But because of the resources available at STARBASE, more teachers will offer feedback as students collaborate in small group settings. They’ll use technology such as individual iPads with engineering software to develop and build things in relation to what they are already studying, said Koch.
“For example, they may be building rockets, which is something their regular classroom teacher may not be able to offer due to factors such as space or cost,” she said. “Teachers are striving, as we switch the paradigm, toward hands-on creative thinking and problem-solving opportunities within their classroom. The resources that DoD STARBASE will bring to the table allows for that as the students participate in project-based learning.”
DoD STARBASE is also in the process of choosing a civilian partner to run DoD STARBASE. Koch said there are several organizations under consideration to implement the program.
“It could be any of a number of universities or not-for-profit foundations. We are still at the very beginning of this process and are deciding what steps to take and who we think will be a good partner for Fort Polk and an ideal facilitator,” she said.
Koch said because there is nothing else like this in the area, the DoD feels the STARBASE program will be a success.
For more information about the DoD STARBASE program visit