Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland is home to a little-known Department of Defense program called Starbase Kelly. Its participants are kids between the ages of 10 and 12. They design rockets, build 3D models and conduct experiments in order to gain exposure to STEM concepts.
Every year Starbase Kelly welcomes around 800 students from independent school districts all over San Antonio.
The Starbase Kelly program teaches science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) with special emphasis on aviation. It’s funded by the Department of Defense, meaning that school districts only have to cover transportation costs. The 433rd Airlift Wing at Lackland donates space for a classroom and computer lab.
Kathy Martin has been an instructor with Starbase since 2005. She says the goal of the program is to get students hooked on STEM topics.
“Our goal is number one to make learning fun," Martin explained. "But really to get them engaged in STEM and hopefully continue as they go into middle school and get STEM opportunities, clubs and robotics and things like that, that they'll know what that is and that they'll take advantage of those opportunities.”
Martin teaches alongside Valerie Acosta. One of her favorite activities is designing a restraint system for a raw egg that she calls Eggbert. The kids work in teams to prevent Eggbert from breaking when he comes careening down on a track from the ceiling to the wall.
“I love Eggbert," she said. "It's so exciting. Talking about air and air science and engineering. I could go on and on."
Growing up on the north side of San Antonio, Acosta says she never heard about the Starbase program. She later learned why.
“The population that Starbase Kelly works with are more inner city students, Title 1 students. So we work with school districts that really need that push in STEM," Acosta explained.
Starbase Kelly has resources that most public schools don’t. It’s equipped with a 3-D printer, a flight simulator program and computer-aided design and drafting software, which allows students to create complex shapes. Just last week, the kids helped design the nose cone for a rocket.
When the kids step outside, they enter a whole different classroom: a C-5 aircraft, maintained by Lackland’s 433rd Airlift Wing. Each class tours the plane from nose to tail to learn about concepts like aerodynamics, weight and resistance.
“They get to climb all over the largest plane in the world," Martin said. "They're on the flight deck. They're sitting in the engineer's seat. They're in the cargo compartment with the loadmasters.”
That hands-on experience stays with them, according to Loretta Segura, a 5th grade teacher with Elm Creek Elementary. This isn’t her first time bringing a class to Starbase. She sees a change in her students in every time.
“I can give them any test I want. But if I don’t give them the hands-on they’re not gonna understand why things are working," Segura said. "That’s what this program has helped us with. That’s how this program has helped all the 5th graders that come through here.”
Sixty-one Starbases are currently in operation around the country, including four in Texas. The Lackland site hopes to expand in the coming years to include more classrooms and an after-school component.