FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Sept. 13, 2022) -- Class was in session for the first time Sept. 12 at the Department of Defense STARBASE Academy at Fort Drum, as more than 40 students from the Watertown School District were immersed in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education.
The students’ first assignment – as an icebreaker and a nod to the military – was to choose their own call signs for their STARBASE badges. Some went with career-oriented tags such as “Astronomer” and “Biologist” while others, like “Sour Cream,” were somewhat inexplicable.
Joanne Witt, Fort Drum STARBASE Academy director, said this three-minute task to start the day helped settle students and teachers into the new learning environment.
“Even the teachers came up with their own call signs,” she said. “This is a completely new experience for all of us, so doing something fun like this gets everyone comfortable.”
The focus of STARBASE is on fifth-grade education, with peer-reviewed curriculum designed to improve STEM knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
“All of our lessons are aligned with New York state science and math standards, and so we start with the fundamentals, then gradually expand on that knowledge,” Witt said. “Students will be learning things like elements of matter, measurements, energy exploration and introduction to engineering design and robotics.”
Aside from the various STEM-based learning equipment, such as 3-D printers, that can be found in the science laboratory, each classroom has a large interactive, touchscreen display that replaces the traditional chalkboard, and students have access to digital tablets.
Within the lab, Witt said students will have the capability to experience basic 3-D printing, chromatography, and fingerprint analysis, among other subjects.
“When the kids are in here, they are making connections with the learning because it’s literally in their hands,” she said. “They are understanding why they need to know geometry and what a right angle is if they are to build something. Then they are able to achieve at a higher level.”
Witt previously served as principal of the Bohlen Technical Center in Watertown, director of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) of the Jefferson-Lewis BOCES, and she also taught at Watertown High School.
“I think what we are going to find here, as I have previously found in CTE, is that the students become so excited and engrossed in the curriculum because they are learning at a higher level,” Witt said. “They are not bored or disengaged, and it gives them confidence in their abilities.”
The lesson plans and course structure are provided by DoD STARBASE, but the staff has the freedom to present the curriculum in whatever way they find most suitable for the students.
“We looked through all the presentations with a fine-tooth comb and practiced all the lessons so we could teach each other,” Witt said. “Since July, the teachers have been doing all the different labs and activities. We’re all teachers and we’re all professionals, but we weren’t STARBASE professionals before. But we are so fortunate to be part of an organization with such a high level of support.”
Witt said that more than 10 North Country school districts have committed to participating in the STARBASE Academy, and that 68 classes have been scheduled.
The two classrooms can hold approximately 30 students each, but a third classroom will be available once the academy becomes established at Fort Drum. Witt said that the DoD program is structured so that when they meet certain criteria and goals at Level I, then they can expand to middle school curriculum (Level II) and then high school (Level III). It’s a process that takes a few years, she said, but that is the hope for the Fort Drum STARBASE Academy.
“Once you get a long-term facility established then you can take these students all the way through high school so they are incredibly prepared going forward,” Witt said. “This is especially helpful for smaller schools that don’t have the diversity in STEM education that larger schools have. Some schools struggle with getting enough science and math teachers, so this will be a nice supplement for them.”
At the end of the week, each student leaves with a 60-page binder that summarizes everything covered in class, and a certificate of completion.
“But what we really want students to leave with is knowing that learning can be exciting, and that it can inspire them to continue to work hard and pursue whatever career field that they are interested in,” Witt said.
It’s been a little over a year since the DoD approved Fort Drum as the newest STARBASE installation – the first in New York state. More than $1 million went into establishing the former Visual Information facility on Lewis Avenue into a schoolhouse. Witt said that she has never experienced building a school from scratch before, and there was a lot of support to make this happen.
“People were genuinely excited and they have been talking about this, both on post and off post,” she said. “Every single person I have met here is as interested in helping us achieve our goals as they are their own. And the military community is so welcoming. They are an incredible extended family that I never knew about before.”
A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled at 3 p.m. Sept. 16 to officially mark the opening of the new facility located in Bldg. 1029 on Lewis Avenue.