LSU Alexandria has partnered with the Department of Defense to extend its premier youth outreach program, STARBASE, to Fort Polk Army base in western Louisiana. Their shared goal is to help build the state’s and nation’s STEM workforce by engaging elementary and middle school students in hands-on science and engineering projects.
The Department of Defense, or DoD, was early to recognize that its success and U.S. national security rely on innovation and expertise in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Through its STARBASE program, the DoD now works to secure the future of STEM by inspiring and developing talent among the nation’s fifth graders and middle schoolers. It does this in close collaboration with local communities, school districts, military units and other partners.
One of those partners is central Louisiana’s four-year university, LSUA.
“LSUA has a long history of recruiting students from western Louisiana parishes, so a program focused on fifth grade STEM education makes perfect sense and aligns with our strategic mission to advance interest in science, technology, engineering and math and the many related careers that are available right here in central Louisiana and within the military,” LSUA Chancellor Paul Coreil said. “There are great STEM-aligned jobs across our region that elementary students would never be aware of without programs like STARBASE, so we’re very thankful to the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk and the Department of Defense for this great opportunity and partnership.”
LSUA recently hired a new director, Rebecca Foltz, to run the program. She is now working closely with Fort Polk to prepare for their first STARBASE students arriving this spring. It will be Louisiana’s fifth STARBASE program and its location, on the Army base in Fort Polk in Vernon Parish in western Louisiana, is strategic. Part of the DoD’s and LSUA’s goal is to engage underserved students in rural locations.
“It’s critically important for the students in our region to see what STEM is like in the real world, working within these types of disciplines and seeing and hearing from the actual ones who make it happen day in and day out, like our friends at Fort Polk,” Foltz said. “We hope to reach somewhere between 600 and 1,050 students each year and quickly expand from one to two classrooms and then also offer afterschool mentoring for middle school students.”
STARBASE is a free program for students. Its core is a week-long immersive experience for fifth graders, where they build rockets and learn about robotics, energy fundamentals, propulsion and more. They work in teams to explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate both basic and advanced science and engineering concepts.
“I’m very supportive of LSUA’s new program at Fort Polk because it’s super-important that we inspire these kids so they understand the value of STEM subjects and STEM careers,” said Annette Phillips, director of the STARBASE Jackson Barracks program in New Orleans. “Looking at our state and national test scores, there is a huge need for science and math in Louisiana.”
This year’s ACT standardized test report for the graduating class of 2022 puts that need into sharp focus. Less than 1 in 5 high school students graduate prepared to take college classes in English, reading, math and science. There is also a stark racial disparity—while 1 in 2 Asian students met all benchmarks, the ratio is 1 in 20 among Black students.
Making sure all American students have an opportunity to join the nation’s STEM workforce is a matter of national security, according to the DoD.
“An over-reliance on the math and science talent of foreign students represents a major potential weakness in the future competitiveness and vitality of the U.S. economy and workforce,” states the DoD STARBASE website.
Anne Smith, elementary curriculum director for Vernon Parish Schools, is hopeful the LSUA-Fort Polk STARBASE program will provide new opportunities for all students in the region.
“We are excited to partner with LSUA,” Smith said. “The Fort Polk STARBASE program will help Vernon Parish students set academic and career goals and provide a spark for student learning. LSUA is a great partner because the university can help students explore these careers with guidance in possible college course majors. Students will have an opportunity to begin thinking about career choices, including military service, at a younger age.”
Almost 50 percent of the population in Vernon Parish has a direct connection to Fort Polk. This considers civilian employees and military veterans and retirees.
One of those civil employees is Tiffany Franklin-Koch, school liaison officer at Fort Polk. She works closely with LSUA and has already hosted summer camps and the LSUA robotics program—another LSUA outreach effort to engage young students in STEM—on the Army base.
“LSUA is the right partner for us because we wanted to work with a community partner and an institution that can give our kids a pathway to higher education,” Franklin-Koch said. “There are lots of logical links between our programs and it’s great to now gather all partners in one focused effort in one facility.”
STEM occupations are expected to grow twice as fast as non-STEM occupations over the next decade, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We want to give our students the passion and the confidence to go after STEM careers,” Foltz said. “We might only see the students for a week at a time, but they will hold on to their experiences with STARBASE forever. We’re not just a great program away from the traditional school setting; we provide a rigorous, hands-on curriculum aligned to state and national standards making us a true extension of the classroom.”