Air station's Starbase program spared budget ax -- for now

Staff reportsMarch 25, 2013 

A program for Beaufort County fifth-graders has been taken off the federal chopping block -- at least for now.

The U.S. Senate voted last week to discard a proposal that would have cut the Pentagon's Starbase program, which includes a program at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Starbase provides laboratory lessons and projects in science, technology, engineering and math to elementary school students at 76 military bases.

The Senate excluded an amendment filed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would have ended funding for the program. The amendment was among more than 100 offered to a resolution extending federal government funding through Sept. 30. Current funding expires Wednesday.

McCain, in a floor speech, called Starbase a "nice-to-have but not-necessary-to-have program."

The program has taught science, technology, engineering and math to nearly 13,000 Beaufort County fifth-graders during the past 13 years, according to retired Marine Col. Bob Semmler, director of the Starbase program at the air station. All fifth-graders in northern Beaufort County schools and some from southern Beaufort County attend the program.

"Many of these students have moved on to study STEM programs in college or have enlisted in the military," Semmler said, adding it has been one of the most successful outreach programs for the Marine Corps in Beaufort.

"It was a close call," he said. "The doors could have closed. It's a valuable program, and I think people saw that."

But the program isn't out of the woods.

The Office of Management and Budget has proposed consolidating all federally funded STEM programs under the U.S. Department of Education.

The Department of Defense "has been directed to zero out the funding for Starbase in the fiscal year 2014 budget and into the future," Semmler said.

Beaufort County School District chief instructional officer Dereck Rhoads said Starbase has been a great help in pushing the district's focus on STEM curriculum.

"It has been a great opportunity for the district to take advantage of that base and local resources with the Marine Corps in our backyard to expose students to math, science and engineering concepts as it applies to aviation, as well as learn about the military," Rhoads said. "It's a good program many of our schools have taken advantage of for many years. ... It's a great benefit for our kids."

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