Beaufort County schools hope air station's Starbase program remains

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 24, 2014 

A science and math program for Beaufort County fifth-graders survived the federal chopping block once -- and school and Marine officials hope it will be so lucky again this year.

Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort is home to Starbase, a federal program that provides laboratory lessons and projects in science, technology, engineering and math to elementary school students at military bases around the country.

The program has been available to Beaufort County School District students for more than 13 years, but it almost ended last year until the U.S. Senate discarded a proposal in March that would have cut its funding. Of nine similar Department of Defense educational programs that emphasize science and math, Starbase was the only survivor.

But just barely.

The program once was offered on 76 military bases, but it has been eliminated at about of third because of funding, according to retired Marine Col. Robert Semmler, the Beaufort County program's director.

"We are funded this year so right now we are good to go," Semmler said. "But for this coming Sept. 30, we don't know, so the fiscal year 2015 budget is the one we need to be worried about now."

The local program has served about 600 students so far this school year and costs about $350,000 a year to run, according to Semmler. It has cut some of its own costs recently to make the program more affordable and efficient. For example, trailers on the base the program used to house computers were removed, and janitorial staff was cut.

"If for some reason they don't fund us, then we will have to go back to the starting blocks and do what we did last year, which is to elicit support from our congressional leaders and ask them to do what they can for us," Semmler said.

The program has taught science, technology, engineering and math to more than 13,000 Beaufort County students. Chief instructional service officer Dereck Rhoads said every elementary school is signed up to participate this school year.

Students attend the program from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a week. They conduct experiments and learn concepts by using equipment around the base.

"Where else can a fifth-grader design a space module and print it out on a 3-D printer and learn about lift and inertia?" parent Erik Ingram said in a comment on The Island Packet website. "I hope the program stays funded. It's very hands-on science lessons (that) the children really seem to enjoy."

Rhoads said the district would like to keep Starbase, as well.

"The difference of Starbase to what we do at the schools is in the field-trip experience," he said. "It is in the hands-on possibilities and the different equipment they have on base to look at these ideas through that different lens."

If Starbase is cut, Semmler said, obtaining outside funding could keep the program running, but Starbase Beaufort would need permission from the Department of Defense before that could happen.

School board member Mary Cordray said she hoped the board and school district would do what they could to help maintain the program -- whether that involves funding Starbase out of the district's own budget or working with businesses to sponsor the program.

"I would certainly want us to entertain the idea of maintaining the program if the government decided not to fund it," said Cordray, who co-chairs the Finance and Operations Committee. "With the kinds of things they teach in the program, I'm sure we also might be able to find some private sector folks that would be willing to put up the money to continue it. I just would hate to see it disappear."

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